Preventing gender bias
How parents and caregivers can work to counter stereotyping and discrimination — starting in early childhood
Despite gains in gender equality, ingrained biases about males and females still exist — and can have grave consequences. Stubborn beliefs cultivated from an early age such as “girls are bad at math,” “girls are better at cooking,” or “boys don’t cry” pave the way to sobering statistics about the number of female leaders in business and politics, and disturbing truths about the frequency of sexual harassment.
By talking about gender biases early, parents can blaze a trail toward equity long before girls and boys are engaging in relationships with others, choosing college majors or entering the workforce. Here, we provide tips for parents to deconstruct gender stereotypes and prevent bias. These strategies come from developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd and Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, a report from Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Creating a bias-free home
- Check your own biases. Be mindful of the language you use, the way you treat people of different genders and even the perspectives you hold on your own abilities and traits.
- Have open discussions at home about the way chores are divided up. Set expectations that both kids and adults are expected to have a turn at everything: cooking, cleaning, yard work and taking out the trash.
- Ask children for their feedback about these family practices. Do they think boys and girls are being held to the same expectations? Are parents dividing work up equally — and if not, do kids understand why?
- Provide children of both genders with books and movies that feature nontraditional gender roles. Talk about female politicians, athletes and scientists, and male teachers, dancers and homemakers.
- Encourage kids to try all types of extracurricular activities and talk about why they might feel more comfortable in some pastimes than in others. Help them distinguish whether they enjoy an activity because they’re surrounded by people like them or because of the activity itself.
Teaching kids about gender bias
- Show children how biases and gender expectations have changed over time. When it’s age-appropriate, share times when you felt you were treated unfairly. Have them talk with a grandparent or older person of a different generation.
- Talk to kids about the stereotypes they encounter at school, on television, or while shopping. When you both see or hear something degrading, ask kids to interpret it. Do they find it harmful? Unsurprising? Explain to kids how stereotypes can be so ingrained in our society that we don’t always notice them.
- Explain the importance of listening to and appreciating both genders as matter of basic decency. Ask kids to think about what might be challenging about being a person of another gender or a person who is transgender. Work on developing empathy. “Perhaps nothing more commonly erodes children’s capacity to care and to lead efforts to promote equality and justice than the biases they hold and confront in others,” write the authors of Leaning Out.
Tips for boys, specifically
- Intervene immediately when you hear boys making demeaning comments about girls. Explain why some common words and phrases used to describe girls are offensive.
- Help boys understand that it is their responsibility to stand up for girls and counteract stereotypes, and brainstorm strategies for them to use when they hear a friend make a degrading comment.
- Encourage boys to talk about their feelings and worries, and praise them for expressing empathy and care.
Tips for girls, specifically
- Make it clear to girls that they can and should be leaders — in the classroom, in clubs and sports, and in their careers. Offer opportunities for them to practice public speaking, give and receive feedback, make decisions for themselves and collaborate with diverse groups.
- Talk to girls about what worries or scares them about being a leader, and discuss strategies for dealing with disapproval or criticism.
- Familiarize girls with female leaders in politics, business and STEM fields.
- Support girls’ involvement in activities that can build their confidence. Ensure that they have multiple sources of self-worth that don’t involve their physical appearance. Remind them that they deserve respect from those around them.
Part of a special series about preventing sexual harassment at school. Adapted from research by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and from resources developed by Filming Interactions to Nurture Development. Used with courtesy of Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—making education research accessible to practitioners and families.