For Educators: Gender Bias Case Study
Despite the progress girls and women have made in school and the workplace in the past few decades, a gender gap still persists, and our research suggests that biases could be at the root of this gap.
Gender bias and discrimination is surprisingly common in many schools and sometimes happens beneath school staff’s radar. As adults, we can shed light on these important topics that often go undiscussed at school. These discussions can be challenging. For some youth, this is an immensely personal or even heated topic that brings up questions of equality and privilege. Others may question whether gender biases even exist. Finally, the idea that biases can be implicit—and discrimination unconscious—may itself be a novel concept to some teenagers.
Fortunately, the payoff in broaching these topics is huge. By allowing children to explore this topic, share ideas for improvement, and participate in community-building and empathy-promoting activities, you are taking steps towards ensuring that your classroom or school is a place where everyone is respected, supported, and empowered.
Case Study and Discussion
The following reading exercise includes three short stories of bias and discrimination that are common in many high schools. These stories are designed to facilitate discussion about the effects of gender bias and discrimination and promote empathy and perspective taking skills. Have students read the case study and then use the questions to facilitate a follow-up discussion.
Adams High School: A Case Study
Jessica had loved playing soccer since she was a little kid, and she was the star player on the co-ed soccer team at her school. When she transferred to Adams High School in the middle of her junior year, she was surprised to hear there was no co-ed team—instead she would play on the all girls’ team. While Jessica enjoyed playing on the girls’ team and met some really talented players there, she quickly realized that the boys’ team had much nicer uniforms, had the best practice spaces, and were the ones that were celebrated in school announcements and rallies. The girls were good too, but got way less attention. In gym class, Jessica had her chance to take on the boys on the field, though. She was better than almost everyone and pretty regularly scored tough goals against the varsity boys’ teams’ star player, Jeremy. After one particularly brutal game where Jessica scored several goals against the boys, Jeremy and his soccer friends decided that they didn’t want to play against Jessica any more. In front of the entire gym class, Jeremy called Jessica “the beast” and made cracks about her being too athletic for any guy at Adams to date. The other students in the class giggled nervously, but no one said anything.
Nate was a junior at Adams and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do after high school. He had decided not to go into his father’s restaurant business and was exploring career options. He had a bunch of younger cousins that he sometimes watched and he knew that he had always gotten along well with kids. He thought sometimes about joining the for-credit childcare program at Adams to see if professional childcare might be a good fit, but he always decided against it; those programs only had girls in them. If he joined the childcare program the other guys in school would never let it go. He signed up for shop class instead—it was less interesting to him, but at least he’d be with the guys and wouldn’t get teased.
Ms. Phillips was the guidance counselor at Adams. She had been trying to set up a visit from the CEO of the biggest tech firm in town for almost two months. Many Adams students wanted to work there after college and Ms. Phillips wanted the CEO to talk with the students about the company and the type of employees it hired. On the day of the event, Ms. Phillips was not surprised when over 30 students showed up. All but two were boys. As they waited for the CEO to arrive, the students chatted about what the CEO would say—what type of advice would he give? Where would he recommend they go to college and what would he say they should study? What kind of fancy car would he drive to the school? When the CEO arrived in the classroom, all of the students looked surprised and a few looked confused. A few even made snide comments under their breath. The person standing in front of them was a woman.
Once students have read the case study, use the following questions to facilitate a discussion that will help students understand how common and harmful gender-related biases and discrimination can be, and allow students to think about solutions. In your discussion, encourage students to think about each character’s perspective and to understand and appreciate their feelings (empathy).
Understanding others’ feelings is just the beginning, though—it is important to encourage students to act upon those feelings of empathy and to reach out to those who are victims of gender bias. As your students read the case and answer the questions, encourage them to think about what their best or “ideal” selves would do in this case, as opposed to what they would actually do. Ask them to think about why there is a gap between their “ideal” selves and their actual behavior. What gets in the way of them doing the right thing? Ask them to consider how they might close this gap.
Potential Obstacles and Tips
Students don’t take the cases seriously or don’t show empathy for the characters. Remind students that everyone has felt mistreated or discriminated against for some reason at one point or another. It may be helpful to have students engage in a reflective exercise where they think or write about a time when they have felt judged or mistreated by their peers. Ask students how they would have liked to have been treated in their own situation.
Students seem to care about the characters’ feelings, but they don’t know how to help. Try opening up a class brainstorm session about ways to help or support the characters in this story—for example, they could stick up for Jessica when she is harassed, or they could encourage Nate to join the childcare course.
Students’ responses suggest they care about the characters, but their everyday actions suggest that they don’t care about actual gender discrimination in real life. Try asking students to reflect silently on instances in their own lives where they have seen other students treated differently or badly based on gender. Ask students to reflect on what they could have done to improve the situation.
Students start sharing personal stories aloud. From the beginning of the discussion, encourage students to focus on the case and questions, rather than sharing many personal stories aloud. The sharing of personal stories can be emotionally triggering for some students and can be difficult to manage in a classroom setting. If students attempt to tell many personal stories or the conversation becomes too heated or emotional, re-direct the conversation to focus on the case. If very personal or emotional content is brought up and re-directed, make sure to follow up with individual students after the class period, as needed. It is important that students know that you care about their concerns and experiences.
What is going on at Adams? Is Adams an extreme example of gender discrimination or is it just a typical school? How is your school the same or different than Adams?
Why did no one stand up for Jessica when she was teased? What would you do? What would your best self-have done in this scenario?
Jessica felt that the girls’ team was treated differently than the boys’ team. Why would girls’ teams be treated differently? Why is this a problem? What would you do if you were running sports programs at your school? Would you have co-ed teams?
Nate assumed that the other guys at Adams would tease him about joining a childcare program. Is Nate’s decision harmful? To himself? To others? Why? What would you have done if you were Nate? Why? Have you ever not done an activity because you worried about what others would think?
We’re you surprised that the CEO of the tech company that visited Adams was a woman? Why or why not? Why is it problematic to make assumptions about a person’s gender based on their job or title?
Why is it problematic that so few women are CEOs and that so few are involved in technology development?
What are ways that boys and girls are treated differently in your school? Are any of these ways problematic? If so, why are they problems? What can be done to fix them?
If you were the principal of Adams, what would you do to challenge the gender biases in the school?
Last reviewed October 2018.