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July 23, 2020

How Gender Disparities Affect Classroom Learning

Instructional Strategies
July 2020 Express Nduagbo Image
Schools are influential agents of socialization. They play vital roles in how we make meaning of the world around us, significantly affecting how we perceive ourselves and others, as well as differences across race, languages, disabilities, and gender. Because of this, schools have the responsibility to model, teach, and create conditions in which each child's gender diversity is accepted and nourished.

Gender and Development

Gender development is a natural process for all children. One of the vital ways educators can support and encourage healthy gender development in young children is by understanding gender identity and how it forms. Gender identity is an inherent sense that people have about who they are based on the interaction of their biological traits, developmental effects, and environmental conditions. This might be masculine, feminine, a combination of the two, in between, or neither (Rafferty, (2018). When children are born, they are assigned a biological sex (male or female) based on their physical characteristics. For many children, their gender identity matches the gender-sex they were assigned at birth.
But similar to the development of our physical bodies, cognizance of gender identity evolves with time, and some children find it very difficult to reconcile their given gender and their gender identity (Rafferty, 2018). It's also important for teachers to understand gender expression (how people externally communicate their gender identity through physical expressions, such as clothing and hairstyle, and social expressions, like their names and pronoun choice).
Students also navigate gender roles—the behaviors, attitudes, and expectations associated with being either male or female. These differences have to do with physical behaviors, styles of social interaction, academic motivations, behaviors, and choices. Teachers sometime unconsciously influence gender role differences through the responses and choices they make for and on behalf of their students. For example, teachers might assign roles to students in role plays based on their biological gender or influence student dress codes.

Gender and Learning

Thinking back to your own school days, you might remember specific differences in the way teachers treated boys and girls, such as being reprimanded more severely or being required to perform more. Though many teachers do not deliberately decide to treat boys and girls differently, these actions affect learning (Erden & Wolfgang, 2004). In the early elementary grades, this might look like gender splitting by addressing students as girls and boys or asking them to line up or put jackets on in gendered groups. This behavior supports the notion that there are only two discrete types of people and that they should behave and be treated differently.
This pattern of differential treatments based on gender begins in the early elementary grades and continues into college (Goldberg, 2016). Teachers tend to discipline boys more severely and provide them with more praise and feedback than girls. They praise girls' works mostly for physical appearance, such as neatness, cleanliness, or artistic quality, instead of content. In subjects like language arts and art, girls receive more teacher interaction than boys because these subjects are considered "feminine." In high schools and colleges, male students are still more likely to enroll in courses like advanced mathematics, science, and engineering than female students, which affects the percentage of women entering these professions (Lynch, 2016).
Textbooks and educational materials also contribute significantly to the differences in treatment. Although there has been some significant improvement in this area over the past 30 years, many educational materials still characterize girls as being more helpless and dependent than boys, or perpetuate gender stereotypes, tokenism, and omission of people outside the gender binary (Lynch, 2016; Goldberg, 2016).

How Can Schools Respond to Gender Differences and Expressions?

Schools should be a welcoming place for students of all genders, including students who identify as nonbinary or transgender. So, what can we do to alleviate these issues related to gender in schools?
Learn about gender biases: Administrators can begin by encouraging teachers to take on reflective practices through professional development and trainings to become conscious of their own gender biases and learn to treat students in ways that are consistent with students' identities. The Sum's Online Equity Institute is one organization for educators that deals with different issues about gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, disabilities, and culture.
Put support in writing: Ensure that gender acceptance is present in written and visual signs and other symbols, such as registration forms, student information systems, and administrative regulations. Educators and school principals should write supportive gender policies that address privacy and disclosure, student records and information systems, use of names and pronouns, dress codes, sex-separated facilities and activities, and harassment and bullying (Orr and Baum, 2015).
Change classroom culture: Teachers can create gender-inclusive classroom cultures by using gendered language such as friends, scholars, or students, and using literature to introduce and discuss gender. One resource I like is No Difference Between Us: Teaching children gender equality, respect, choice, self-esteem, empathy, tolerance, and acceptance by Jayneen Sanders. Engage in conversation about biases, discriminations, and prejudices and encourage students to discover who they are. For example, teachers can support boys playing characters from the movie Frozen if that's what they like and girls playing cowboys if that's what they like.
Fight gender stereotypes: The UN Human Rights Office defines a gender stereotype as a generalization about characteristics and roles men or women "should" have or perform (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2020). These can limit children's opportunities to learn and develop. Fight gender stereotypes with the following actions:
  • Raise awareness of the tendency to rate boys higher than girls in subjects such as mathematics, science, engineering, and technology. This helps close the gender achievement gaps in these subject areas and promote gender equity among young mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and technologists (Robinson-Cimpain, Lubienski, Ganley, & Copur-Gencturk, 2014).
  • When teaching a text or film, require students to identify and analyze gender stereotypes and expectations within the context of the story and use texts or stories that demonstrate that worth and happiness do not stem from physical appearances.
  • Require students to critically think about how power structures benefit from gender stereotypes and what people can do to resist them. Familiarize students with real individuals or characters who have non-gender-stereotypical professions or positively challenge gender stereotypes, such as male nurses and female scientists or men as caretakers. Use books and content that include LGBTQ characters or those who do not fit typical gender stereotypes, such as 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert and Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg.

The Road Ahead

We are often unconscious of biased teaching behaviors because it's easy to teach the way one was taught. Consequently, we can ignore subtle gender disparities that exist in educational materials. Until schools and teachers become aware of gender-role socialization, the biased and stereotypical messages that teachers unconsciously communicate to students, and do something about it, students will continue to receive an education that isn't responsive to their needs.

Erden, F. & Wolfgang, C. (2004, January). An exploration of the differences in teachers' beliefs related to discipline when dealing with male and female students. Early Child Development and Care, 174(1), 3–11.

Goldberg, S. (2016, August 24). Gender in the classroom. Retrieved from

Lynch, M. (2016, March 20). Boys, girls and k-12 classroom gender bias. Retrieved from

Orr, A., & Baum, J. (2015). Schools in transition: A guide for supporting transgender students in K-12 schools. Retrieved from

Rafferty, J. (2018). Ensuring comprehensive care and support for transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 142(4), 2018–2162. DOI:

Robinson-Cimpian, J. P, Lubienski S. T., Ganley, C. M., & Copur-Gencturk, Y. (2014, April). Teachers' perceptions of students' mathematics proficiency may exacerbate early gender gaps in achievement. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1262–81. DOI: 10.1037/a0035073.

Kieran Chidi Nduagbo is an assistant professor of education at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. She has taught elementary, special, and secondary education and served as a K–8 school principal for seven years in New Jersey and New York.

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