What’s Gender Got to Do with It? We Asked Teachers about Leadership

October 20, 2014

Ask a kid if boys are better at leading than girls are and you’ll likely get an emphatic answer: no way. A study by the Girl Scouts discovered that 82 percent of young people under 18 agree that girls and boys are equally good at being leaders.

But do teachers feel the same way? How can educators support their students’ leadership development without gender bias getting in the way? AAUW worked with the National Education Association and the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement to find out.

Overall the news is good. The middle school and high school teachers surveyed in the report understood the role of gender in the leadership of their students. For the most part, these educators described leadership in gender-neutral terms like “problem-solver” and “collaborative.”

But as in other research studies, remnants of implicit bias emerged. Part of the survey included a statement from a hypothetical candidate for student council president, randomly referred to as either Jacob or Emily. Results showed that the assumed gender of each candidate played a role in the ways teachers described the students: Jacob was “confident” while Emily was “bubbly.”

So how can teachers avoid gender bias and encourage students’ leadership abilities? Our report gives three key recommendations.

1. Seek out professional development.

Educators who had had professional development and training on gender and diversity issues were more likely to view leadership in a more gender-neutral way.

2. Expose all students to women role models and leaders.

The survey showed that implicit assumptions about roles for girls and boys still exist among educators despite their egalitarian views of student leadership. Every time an educator takes the opportunity to expose girls and boys to more women role models, they challenge gender-based assumptions and help repair any unintended promotion of traditional gender roles. If you want to do the same, look for tool kits, field trips, and other resources that showcase women’s effective leadership (we especially like Teach a Girl to Lead). Programs like Tech Trek and Tech Savvy offer out-of-school opportunities to expose middle school girls to women STEM professionals.

3. Encourage all students to take on nontraditional leadership roles.

Middle and high school educators reported that boys are more likely than girls to take on leadership roles in math and science classes, in athletic activities, and in science clubs. Girls are far more likely than boys to take on leadership roles in English and language arts classes, in student government as top and supporting officers, in arts and culture clubs, in community service projects, and on school publications. A teacher’s support plays a strong role in how students view themselves. Encouraging a student to try out a nontraditional role can help her challenge stereotypes about roles for girls and boys.


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