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Normalizing gender diversity in the classroom

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

February 14, 2019

Students walking on campusGender diversity refers to making space for all people’s expressions of identity. At this point in the semester, students and instructors are cultivating positive learning-working relationships. An integral process of this relationship-building is affirming our individual and collective identities. Literally: I acknowledge you. Everyone likes to be called by name. Some people choose their names. Some names are chosen for them. Some people change their names or change names within certain contexts. In higher education, instructors choose to be addressed by title, usually “Doctor” or “Professor,” by last name or by first name. The majority of students have been taught to call instructors by professional titles or by social prefixes “Miss,” “Mrs.,” “Ms.” or “Mister.”  As instructors, we may know a handful of students’ names, and everyone else is still “student.” If you haven’t yet, this is a good time to reintroduce students and yourself while normalizing gender diversity.  

Take a SIP of this: Normalizing gender diversity in the classroom 

In the classroom, gender diversity might sound like a buzz term or a call to arms. Having a gender discussion may seem initially to be off-topic or challenging for a variety of reasons. Students frequently reduce discussions to the binary women vs. men, or they clam up entirely.  During a stuffed curriculum, setting aside another day of lecture might seem inappropriate or even impossible. Normalizing gender diversity means accepting gender without exoticizing. Good news: Powerful change emerges from small actions that demonstrate respect for all. 

Because gender is based on an individual’s expression, not biological physical attributes, assuming that our classroom is diverse because the student body “looks” diverse is mistaken. Gender is not biology. Gender is not sexual attraction. Gender is frequently a marker of gendered roles – who does what and when – even in the classroom.  

In American society, we are continually made aware of the gender binary of women vs. men, or women and men; and yet this either/or fallacy ignores the reality that who we are in any given situation goes beyond our biological sex and our sexual attraction. In our classrooms, students and instructors are learners who should not to be reduced to biological at-birth markers. 

Adapt the following actions into your teaching routines to increase gender diversity in your classrooms:  

  • Ask students to rearrange the physical desks and tables out of rows into more collaborative learning spaces. Learning in rows reasserts a hierarchical and patriarchal structure by hiding students behind other students. Ask students to face one another. (If you can request a classroom with moveable desk-chairs instead of long tables and cemented chairs, then do so before term.)
  • Introduce yourself by encouraging students to call you by your preferred name, and gently correct students when they use a name or title you don’t prefer. For example, asking a student to call you “Doctor” instead of “Miss” or “Mister” subtly neutralizes a gender binary that the student may not be aware of. This doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation – simply make a gentle correction and move on. For instance, you might say, “Excuse me a second. I prefer Professor X,” and then pause to allow the student to address you again using “Professor X.”
  • When you introduce yourself, include which pronouns you prefer for your reference. You might briefly identify gender-neutral pronouns as alternatives to she/her/hers and he/him/his; however, since your objective is creating a more equitable learning community, you don’t need a pronoun lecture. Add your preferred use of pronouns to your syllabi, email signature and business cards to normalize this practice.
  • Reverse roll call. Ask students to introduce themselves instead of you calling out roll. Before students begin, encourage them to share their preferred names, including classroom-appropriate nicknames. This also circumvents any mispronunciations. Ask students to choose to share their pronouns, and affirm any student’s choice to opt out of sharing pronouns until they feel more comfortable doing so.
  • Learn students’ preferred names and pronoun choices, and be consistent in using them. When students share their preferred name and their legal name, be sure to clarify which name would help them feel more at ease in your classroom. This question tempers a power dynamic and establishes your classroom’s social norm. Remind students of one another’s preferred names, especially if the online learning software or email system doesn’t allow for preferred names. Gently correct students, in the moment, when they use the wrong name or the wrong pronoun for another student. This is a five-second correction that underlines a) the importance of each individual in the room and b) the necessity of building relationships among colleagues now and in their future careers.
  • Encourage students to swap biological references for gender words, such as using “feminine” instead of “female” and “masculine” instead of “male.” Be patient with students as they adapt to new language uses. Students with military backgrounds, in particular, have been acculturated to refer to women as female and men as male. For some students, feminine and masculine terminology prepares them for a cultural shift.
  • Because gender diversity can reach all levels of our teaching and learning environments, we also can examine our course materials for gender bias and gender-washing. 

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of normalizing gender diversity in the classroom 

Previous SIPS that offer tips for generating a welcoming classroom environment include: 1.3 Classroom Climate, 2.1 Icebreakers, 2.5 Classroom Discussions, 2.6 Equity and 3.26 Minimizing Anxiety for Better Learning.

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McCarthy, S. (2019). “She uses they/them pronouns: allyship to the gender-diverse community,” UWIRE Text, Academic OneFile (accessed Feb. 4, 2019) 

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Correction: The original photo for this story was replaced as it did not accurately reflect the spirit of the content.

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