For Families: 5 Tips for Preventing and Reducing Gender Bias
We all carry biases that are based on gender; throughout our lives we receive daily messages about what is expected of different genders. These biases become ingrained and it’s often impossible to completely get rid of them. But, if we can be more aware of our biases, we have a better chance of counteracting them.
Use these tips and suggestions for understanding and addressing bias with your kids.
1. Check Your Own Biases
We all carry biases that are based on gender; throughout our lives we receive daily messages about what is expected of males and females. These biases become ingrained and it’s often impossible to completely get rid of them. But, if we can be more aware of our biases, we have a better chance of counteracting them.
Take a hard look at how biases might be affecting your attitudes or actions. Be mindful that the relationships, language, and behaviors that come naturally to you may express bias. Think about what conclusions you jump to about what boys or girls should dress like, act like, think about and feel.
Practice counteracting stereotypes. Exposing our brains to images that contradict stereotypes can actually decrease our implicit, unconscious biases. Find images that do not fit traditional gender stereotypes—women doing construction work or men in care-taking roles—and post them in places you view often at home or at work, e.g., save them to your phone or use them as your screensaver.
Watch your language. Our language sends messages about our expectations based on gender. When we comment on how pretty girls look or how strong boys are, for example, we send messages about our expectations for kids based on their gender. Use gender-neutral words like “they” or say “she or he” when talking about people in the abstract. Say “firefighter” instead of “fireman” and “police officer” instead of “policeman.” Be on the look-out for statements that start with “all girls” or “all boys.”
Check in with a friend or family member. Because we all are blind to some of our biases, we need feedback. Talk to close friends and family members about your own gender biases and ask them whether you are expressing gender biases that you might be unaware of. Ask kids to hold you accountable, to give you feedback if you are modeling stereotypes or expressing bias. Modeling this openness and being willing to admit bias sends a powerful message to kids about the nature of biases and how they are counteracted. It can be, of course, very hard to receive this kind of feedback from our kids or other loved ones, but it’s a key part of responsible, moral parenting.
2. Engage Your Kids in Making Your Home a Bias-Free Zone
Beginning at a very young age, kids notice differences between girls and boys that can develop into narrow understandings of gender. Parents and caregivers can shape healthier understandings about gender by cultivating family practices that widen kids’ sense of gender roles and alert them to bias.
Develop routines and habits in your family, with input from your kids, that help to counteract and prevent biases and stereotypes. Build strong, trusting relationships with your children so it’s easier for them to ask you uncomfortable questions related to gender. When kids ask questions about differences, let them know that you appreciate the question, and answer with straightforward, honest language.
Mix it up. Proactively start conversations with your kids about how responsibilities get divvied up in your family. Talk about what is fair and balanced, rather than make assumptions about who does what based on gender. Create a chore wheel so that everyone gets a chance to participate in all the types of chores. Be willing to model behavior that doesn’t fit gender stereotypes and show kids that you can step outside your own comfort zone.
Hold each other accountable. Periodically ask kids whether they think your family practices are gender-biased in any way. Are there different expectations of females and males in the family? If so, why? When kids do identify biases or inequities at home, brainstorm solutions with them.
Tell your story. Share with your kids examples of times when you’ve experienced bias because of your gender. Talk to them about times you’ve felt you’ve been treated unfairly or times that you’ve taken a stand against gender bias and injustice. Sharing your stories opens the door for them to share theirs.
Expand their horizons. Provide your kids with books, games, TV shows, movies, art, etc. that show people from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds demonstrating non-traditional gender roles, images that they may not see in mainstream media. Expose both boys and girls to a variety of activities. Don’t just assume, for example, that boys will like sports and girls will like ballet. Ask girls to imagine themselves as senators, sports team managers and business leaders and ask boys to imagine themselves as child care directors and dance choreographers. Facilitate children interacting with mixed gender groups and developing cross-gender friendships.
3. Help Kids Kick Stereotypes to the Curb
Kids are often unaware of the gender biases and stereotypes they confront every day, biases and stereotypes that can powerfully shape their views of gender. Kids need to learn from the adults in their lives how to recognize bias in themselves and others, how to talk constructively to others about biases, and how to avoid being influenced by stereotypes
Be alert to and prepared to explain to kids why bias is harmful in ways that they can understand and appreciate and give kids strategies for responding to biases and stereotypes that are appropriate for their developmental stage.
Ask kids what they think. Kids are excellent at finding unfair images of themselves and others, whether at school, in the neighborhood or in the media. Create a list together of gender stereotypes you both see or hear. Spot them when you’re watching television, listening to a song, or shopping for clothes together. Talk to them about how these stereotypes make them feel. If you see a bias or stereotype that your kids don’t see, point it out to them. Make the connection clear: “That commercial shows girls not caring about school as much as about how they look. That doesn’t seem fair.”
Help kids be a first responder. Brainstorm with kids strategies for responding to stereotypes they encounter in their daily interactions. Talk together about the words they can use to speak up, and how those words might be different when talking to a friend or a stranger or a teacher, for example. Practice different responses and conduct role plays that help children find the right words. Help kids identify who their allies could be when they need more help in a difficult interaction.
Question their lingo. When you hear kids use terms to describe boys or girls that reflect biases, ask them to consider what the words mean and what messages these words might send.
4. Don’t Just Let “Boys Be Boys”
Too often boys’ demeaning stereotypes and remarks about girls go unchecked. Often both adults’ and kids’ peers don’t know how to intervene when boys make demeaning remarks about girls and often they fear being written off or ridiculed. Yet excusing these behaviors as “boys being boys” sends them the message that those behaviors are okay.
Take time to consider how to intervene when boys are demeaning to girls, and step in immediately if you observe or hear these behaviors.
Talk about real honor and strength. Point out to boys the false bravado in demeaning girls and the real courage and strength in defying one’s peers when they devalue girls in general or divide girls into “good girls” and “bad girls.” Talk about commonly used, denigrating words to describe girls and why they’re offensive, even when they’re used “just as a joke” or sarcastically. Brainstorm strategies with boys for talking to their peers about this denigration that won’t cause them to be ridiculed or spurned.
Allow boys to express their full selves. Encourage them to talk about vulnerabilities and worries, and appreciate them when they do. Encourage and recognize their expressions of empathy and care, especially for girls and others who are different from them.
Teach boys to value and stand up for girls and women. Help boys understand their responsibility in counteracting gender bias and stereotypes. Reinforce that being an ally to girls and women means not just avoiding demeaning girls but also speaking up when others do. Show them that you support and appreciate the women in your life.
5. Build Girls’ Leadership Skills and Self-Confidence
Too many girls are dealing with biases about their leadership capacity specifically. Perhaps the best way for girls to counteract their negative images about their own and other girls’ leadership capacity is for them to experience themselves as effective leaders.
Expose girls to various, appealing examples of leadership and help them develop the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in a wide variety of fields. Too often girls avoid leadership because they don’t feel confident in skills such as public speaking or because they fear their peers will disapprove. Many girls fear appearing bossy
Connect girls to leadership opportunities that are meaningful to them. Discuss with girls many types of leadership and explore with them how their interests and passions align with these different types. Show them images of girls and women in a range of leadership positions, such as the lead scientist in the recent Pluto mission.
Help girls develop specific leadership skills. Give girls chances to practice public speaking, to participate in decision-making processes, to work in teams, and to give and receive feedback. Invite them to practice these skills in decisions your family makes, for example, or encourage them to take action on problems they’re concerned about in their schools and communities.
Talk to girls about their fears. Start conversations with girls about the things they feel hold them back from leadership. Model for them that it’s okay to feel nervous or worried about how they’ll be perceived or the reactions they may get when in leadership roles. Explore with girls various strategies for dealing with disapproval and criticism. Consider with girls how they might engage peers as supporters and allies when they face disapproval.
Encourage girls to lead in collaboration with diverse groups of girls. Collaboration and teamwork are essential skills for leadership in today’s workplace, helping to develop social awareness, problem-solving abilities, perspective-taking and other key skills. And working in racial and economically diverse groups can enrich girls’ understandings of different cultures, expose girls to a wide range of leadership styles and abilities, and enable girls to draw on various kinds of cultural wisdom about leadership.
Last reviewed October 2018.