Educator ResourcesWhy Focus on Gender?
Ideas about gender are evolving - from toys to clothing to online spaces, gender lines are being blurred as never before.

Ideas About Gender are Rapidly Shifting

Today many people are questioning the very nature of gender, a fundamental aspect of identity. In large measure this reevaluation is being led by youth who are far more compassionate and flexible than previous generations, The implications of this shift cut across every aspect of our society. If we are to prepare students adequately for the world they will encounter, young people must be given the tools and language to fully understand gender’s complexity, and the opportunity to explore their own gender journey.

Evidence of this evolving thinking about gender is everywhere. Millennials who consider gender to be strictly binary represent a shrinking minority among their peers. Their younger GenZ counterparts are more comfortable still with non-traditional gender identities and forms of expression. Whether shopping for clothes in sections other than those designated for them, using pronouns other than “he” or “she” or not caring about who goes to the bathroom where, today’s youth are blazing a trail of gender flexibility. 

Various aspects of society are similarly evolving. A growing number of states (and many countries) are formally recognizing non-binary identities on various legal documents such as drivers licenses and identification cards. Restrictions around court ordered name- and gender marker-changes are lifting (though in many places it still remains difficult if not impossible to be legally recognized in a manner consistent with one’s sense of self). Popular culture continues to present gender’s diversity in an array of ways. Transgender and non-binary characters are increasingly commonplace in movies and television. Internet stars regularly present non-traditional notions of gender as a matter of course. Businesses are recognizing that they must provide workplace climates that proactively convey a more nuanced view of gender.

We Can't Afford Not To

While it is true that many of today’s youth are adopting more flexible attitudes about gender norms, they are nonetheless doing so in a larger societal context that continues to limit and harm them based on traditionally held ideas about gender. For society, the costs of this dynamic are immense. Even as some of our institutions reflect a greater awareness of gender’s diversity, a great many forces grounded in a strictly binary understanding still exist.

We continue to see patterns that demonstrate how we limit students’ opportunities and experiences. While efforts to involve girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)+ are showing some impact, these fields remain weighted towards men. Pay equity remains stalled. But boys and men are also suffering. Whether it is the disproportionate levels of heart disease and other stress-induced maladies, the likelihood of being a victim of violence or higher and growing rates of death by suicide, messages of what constitute “being a man” are literally killing our men and boys.

Beyond supporting the health and wellness of our young people as individuals, we cannot afford to have any of our students cut off from interests, talents, or intellectual pursuits that may ultimately contribute to our society. School is the place where our children should be exploring ideas and discovering new skills. It is inexcusable that any child might be prevented from pursuing their passions simply based on others’ perceptions of their gender. 

By sending a message that certain pursuits are off limits simply because of a person’s gender, we lose access to an incredible source of human potential. How many great discoveries, new inventions, cures for disease, or works of art have we lost simply because people believed they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do something because of their gender?

It's About All Students

Regardless of a student’s age, gender impacts a child’s experience at school across the grades. The relationship between students’ sense of safety and their ability to succeed in school is unquestionable, and gender is one of the factors that greatly impacts perceptions of safety. Educational institutions and the professionals associated with them can significantly impact how gender diversity is viewed – either positively or negatively. By focusing on gender as it relates to all students, schools create better learning climates in which every child can more fully focus on learning. 

When schools work intentionally to create more gender inclusive conditions, they not only establish a greater sense of acceptance for transgender and other gender diverse students, they communicate to the entire community that whatever one’s gender experience look like, it will be accepted. Girls who don’t stereotypical feminine norms, boys who defy pressures to be more masculine and anyone who is stepping outside of conventional gender boxes can feel that their experience is also being accounted for.

Conversely, when schools explicitly avoid gender-related topics and issues, they communicate a very different message. Because strictly binary notions of gender are so ever-present, institutions that do not actively work to interrupt them, simply reinforce them. Not doing gender work means maintaining the status quo. In the process, a system that is causing significant harm and making increasingly less sense to young people is strengthened.

When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you’re not in it, there’s a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” Adrienne Rich

Deepening Critical Thinking

Beyond the school’s climate, embarking on a path to expand students’ understanding about gender diversity sets a tone in which the examination of differences across multiple domains is accepted and encouraged. Exploring gender becomes an onramp for students to consider complex issues in other aspects of their lives. Racial, cultural, religious, linguistic, socioeconomic and many other forms of difference can now be examined from the perspective of critical analysis grounded in this initial study and understanding of gender.

Coming to recognize gender in all of its complexity builds students’ critical thinking, allowing them to see concepts in more realistic terms. Helping them understand the idea of a spectrum—a range of possibilities and not simply the “opposite ends” of a binary—expands their capacity to critically examine concepts in other areas of learning. In building students’ perspectives about gender and gender diversity, schools are able to introduce notions of ambiguity and degree that will serve them as they explore other complex topics for the rest of their lives.

Life Affirming for all, Life Saving for Some

Students who are perceived to be transgressing society’s rigid gender norms are frequently targets of discrimination, harassment and violence. Without an intentional focus on respecting all forms of gender identity and expression, schools not only miss the opportunity to create better learning environments, they become unsafe. That gender-based bullying is commonplace across the globe is beyond question. Research in the United States indicates that 80% of students will face some kind of gender-based bullying during their K - 12 experience, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

A global UNESCO study found that only one third of students in Southern Africa described their schools as “a safe place for those who are perceived as different in terms of gender.” In Thailand, the study found that 24% of heterosexual students experienced violence because their gender expression was perceived as non-conforming. According to a GLSEN National School Climate Survey Report, when the specific experiences of transgender and non-binary students are examined the statistics become even more grim.

In the face of these daunting figures, there is also evidence that certain educational practices can mitigate the impact of this treatment. When employed, they are correlated with an improvement in every aspect of all students’ lives including school connectedness, academic achievement, attendance, discipline and plans for the future. These practices include: 

  • clearly stated policies that explicitly protect students based on gender identity and expression; 
  • curriculum and other programmatic aspects that include the experiences and contributions of gender-diverse individuals; 
  • professional development for all adults working on or with school campuses that includes an emphasis on gender literacy; 
  • access to other students with diverse gender backgrounds and experiences through student groups or clubs; and
  • explicit practices that recognize students’ unique experiences of gender, including the use of names and pronouns they commonly use

Legal Considerations

Even as the rights and very existence of transgender and nonbinary people are being challenged at the federal level, an abundance of state and local laws make the expectations for keeping gender diverse students safe cannot be more clear. Court findings from across the country further underscore schools’ responsibility to affirmatively ensure that students are free from mistreatment, harassment and violence regardless of their gender identity or expression.

Across the country a growing number of states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) have enumerated gender identity and expression protections in schools.

At least 160 (and counting) cities and counties have passed their own laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination including Atlanta, Boise, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Louisville, Madison, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Additionally, state and local educational institutions are issuing clear guidelines and expectations about best practices for ensuring that all gender-expansive youth are supported at school.

Schools As Safe Harbors

Many transgender and nonbinary youth are experiencing rejection, mistreatment and worse at home. In the face of these non-affirming environments, the tremendous dangers facing these students is clear. For many of them, school may be the only place where they can locate and connect with a caring adult.

As shown above, the impact of such connections cannot be underestimated. Data demonstrating the impacts that safe and supportive schools have on the lives of gender diverse youth is irrefutable. Coupled with the chilling research that shows how vulnerable transgender and nonbinary youth are without parental support, the mandate for schools to proactively demonstrate the acceptance of gender divesre youth could not be more clear.

Ultimately, as one of our most influential socializing forces, schools reflect the values and beliefs of the communities they serve. Virtually every educational institution has some form of mission statement that calls for the creation of a safe school environment for all students. As noted, schools have a legal obligation to protect all students regardless of their gender identity or expression. But beyond that, they have an ethical responsibility to ensure the health and wellness of every one of their students. “All" must truly mean ALL.