Teaching for Gender Difference

Teaching for Gender Difference


All teachers want to provide the best instruction and create the best learning environment for their students. Yet, the research indicates that females are getting a significantly poorer science education than males, even when they are in the same classroom. The consequences of this poorer education can be seen in gender differences in attitude toward science and differential course enrollment patterns. Females hold more negative attitudes toward science than males and are less likely to continue studying science in high school and beyond.

Of course, these male-female differences in attitude and enrollment are not solely the result of what happens in classrooms. However, many teacher behaviors and teaching strategies have been identified that contribute to these problems. These teacher behaviors and strategies are often employed without malicious intent. Nevertheless, the result is gender inequity in science instruction which contributes to negative attitudes toward science and science avoidance on the part of females.

Classroom Interactions

Teacher-student interactions are the clearest form of classroom inequities. Teachers call on boys more often than girls, ask boys more higher-order questions, give boys more extensive feedback, and use longer wait-time with boys than girls. Teachers fail to see girls' raised hands, and limit their interactions with girls to social, non-academic topics. Girls are rarely chosen to give a demonstration or help with an experiment. Boys are usually target students and overall they receive more teacher attention than girls. The proportion of teacher attention given to boys increases as the students move from elementary to junior and senior high school. Even nonverbal teacher behaviors, such as head nodding and encouraging smiles, favors boys over girls.

Grouping Students

Cooperative learning groups have been promoted as a good way to bring about positive attitudes toward instruction, mastery of content, and self-esteem. However, when group dynamics are examined carefully, some disturbing interactions are seen. Simply making mixed gender groups does not promote good cross-gender relationships or dispel stereotypes. Group dynamics often reinforce stereotypes. Boys will take leadership roles and girls will defer to their decisions. Girls have less opportunity to speak in groups. When they do speak, they have difficulty holding the boys' attention or their ideas are rejected. Girls are often found in stereotypical roles, such as secretary, and they take a passive rather than active role in hands-on science activities.

Other examples of frequently used but poor grouping strategies include assigning tasks, making seating arrangements, or arranging students according to gender when any other criterion would work just as well.

Classroom Climate

Boys and girls react differently to various aspects of the climate of the classroom. Girls react more negatively than boys to friction between students, strict rules, and teacher favoritism. The presence of these factors in a classroom are related to a general decline in attitude toward science. The more negative response of girls contributes to the poorer attitudes toward science held by girls.

A classroom that is highly structured, teacher controlled, and has clear directions and constant feedback is associated with achievement in science and is favored by girls. However, this climate inhibits interests and activities outside of class. This latter situation becomes a special problem where girls are concerned because they report fewer outside science activities and opportunities.

Teachers who emphasize the difficulty of science also create a negative learning climate for girls. Girls, unlike boys, avoid tasks labeled difficult and don't return to difficult tasks if they experience failure.

Materials, Topics, and Activities

Despite the efforts to change textbooks, females are still under represented. Pictures of women appear less frequently than men and more often show women in traditional roles. When men and women are shown in the same picture, the woman is in a subordinate role, such as the female nurse with the male doctor. Further examination of textbooks reveal that even when the pictures show equal numbers of men and women in traditional and non-traditional roles, the text may still use sex-biased language and contain no examples of women scientists.

Many of the traditional topics of science and examples favor boys' interests and experiences. Girls favor topics that emphasize health, food, and safety rather than the more common topics that relate science to industry and the military. Examples from contact sports may help the boys understand a concept or law, but for girls, they confuse more than clarify.

Girls also have fewer classroom experiences than boys actually doing science. They engage in fewer activities and have fewer experiences using a variety of scientific equipment.


Some testing formats and test materials are less effective with girls than boys. Girls dislike being tested individually, orally, or in small group situations. In addition, girls are more likely than boys to answer "I don't know" to questions that have a masculine theme, such as football.

Teaching Strategies

Changing behavior and creating a learning environment that promotes equity takes time and effort. Teaching that promotes equity must be active and intentional behavior. It also requires sensitivity, tact, and a willingness to examine one's own behavior and assumptions.

To be effective equity strategies must be continuous and integrated into daily instruction. They must pervade all aspects of classroom life. Token or intermittent exposure is not effective because people don't generalize from single examples and because boys and girls have been exposed to differential treatment and expectations from birth.

Given all of this, what can teachers do? To start, classroom interactions can be monitored. A colleague can observe your teaching using a simple interaction analysis sheet to record the number of times you call on boys and girls and the types of questions you asked. He or she can record the number of instances of positive and negative feedback, disciplinary and social interactions, as well as the name and sex of students who do not receive your attention. The observer could also look for examples of biased language, such as the use of predominantly male nouns and pronouns and male-biased examples from sports or the military. Wait-time, although a difficult behavior to change, could also be monitored. A conference between the observer and the observed should be held as soon as possible after the lesson has taken place so that the experience is still fresh. Alternatively, a teacher can be video taped and self or group analyses could take place.

When inequities are identified, the following strategies have been found useful. Work on one problem at a time. Don't try to change the level of questioning as well as the kind of feedback all at one. Use a list of students' names and check them off after you ask a question. Alternate questioning boys and girls. Ignore raised hands when selecting students, but allow students the option of saying "I'd like to pass on that question now." This makes students who are reluctant to raise their hand more comfortable and will in time increase the number of students who do raise their hand. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time which are categorized into higher and lower-level questions. Prepare a list of examples that reflect the interests or experiences of both males and females or that emphasize a female activity. Try teaching a class in which all names or pronouns are feminine. Talk with your students about how they felt when you used female names and pronouns and be candid with them about your own reactions. Monitor your progress periodically with additional observations and video taping.

A positive classroom climate can be created by reducing favoritism and friction. Classroom observations will help you identify instances of these two problems. Impose more structure by using clear directions, both verbal and written, and make expectations for assignments and grading criteria clear.

Present science as a subject that everyone can learn rather than an elite and difficult subject. Motivate your students to solve a problem for the fun of it or the satisfaction of getting a right answer, not because it is a really tough problem that will show you how smart the students are.

When using groups for activities, such as lab work, assign each student a specific role. Keep a record of these roles and rotate students through the different roles. This gives girls opportunities to be the team leader and boys to be the group recorder. Observe the group dynamics and praise positive cross gender interactions. Use the Student Team Achievement Division (STAD) approach in which students do their own work, but a single grade is given to the group which is the average of all individual grades of the group members. Discuss sex segregation and male domination of groups. Last of all, never assign any task by gender.

Examine texts and other materials for women in science. If women are not mentioned as contributing to science, discuss the omissions in the text with students and point out examples of stereotyping. Infuse the extant district curriculum and inservice programs with equity materials such as COMETS, EQUALS, or SPACES. If you are unaware of materials that promote equity or focus on the accomplishments of women, contact the affirmative action or equity director of your district or state board of education. Other good sources of information are the Women's Resource Center or Women's Studies Program at a university or college.

Look for, create, and use a test bank and set of examples that are gender neutral or emphasize female interests. Have the students participate in this process by writing short reports about female scientists and creating their own examples and test questions.

Bring role models into the classroom. Invite women scientists to talk about their careers and their academic preparation. National programs such as Women and Mathematics (WAM), Visiting Scientist Program, and community groups of professional women such as the Math/Science Network have speakers who want to come to your school. Use peer tutoring with older girls providing help in math and science for younger girls and boys.

Encourage participation and make girls aware of out-of-school activities in science, such as a junior science academy at your local museum, or Expanding Your Horizons, or other science conferences for girls. Provide extra credit or other incentives for participation. Start a science club for girls with activities that focus on their interests such as the physics of ballet or the chemistry of cooking.

At this point, a word of caution is needed. It is possible that the boys in your class may not be comfortable with all the suggested equity strategies. This is particularly true with materials that emphasize women's contributions to science or grouping strategies that reallocate roles. Some research suggests that boys feel neglected and will resist giving up their central role in the classroom. This is best handled in open discussions of fairness.

If things are not going as well as you would like, remember that change takes place slowly. Teaching for gender equity implies everyone in the classroom, boys, girls, and the teacher must critically examine their behavior and assumptions to create an environment that supports and encourage learning for all students.

by Dale R. Baker