Talking to students about stereotypes

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Stereotypes are limiting. They lead us to make assumptions about other people, based on their gender, age or race and they can limit what we think is acceptable for ourselves.

For young people, who are still making sense of the world and who are making decisions about their future, stereotypes can restrict their choices. From an early age, certain professions are seen as for boys or for girls – nursing, engineering, the armed forces. By having discussions with students about stereotypes, we can open their minds to other opportunities and paths.

Young people are largely aware of gender stereotypes, but aren’t always given a space to talk about or challenge them.

At the Institute of Physics, we’ve been working with schools to break down stereotypes and have published a range of lesson plans to help teachers to talk to students about gender stereotypes. We know from first-hand experience that students feel very passionately about being judged and being expected to behave in a certain way.

There are a number of other useful resources out there:

  • Let Toys Be Toys is an excellent campaign to stop the gender stereotyping of children by toy manufacturers. They provide a lesson plan with resources for Year 9 students to think critically about the messages that they receive and a handy reference guide for how to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom.
  • The Line offers comprehensive guidance on talking to students aged 9-11 years old which can be easily applied to students of any age. It takes you through the basics from what is a stereotype, the impact that they can have and links to resources and websites that can be used to further discussion . Their pre-teen resource provides a brief introduction for students too.
  • FindingAda.com links stereotypes with STEM careers through lesson plans that are designed to increase the confidence in girls and to think about the positive difference that STEM subjects make to our lives.
  • People like me is a resources pack provided by the WISE Campaign, which provides teaching tips, a quiz, a flyer for parents, an explanation behind the facts and more

There are a number of video clips that are useful in stimulating debate, too:

  • Redrawing the balance has primary-school children asked to draw a firefighter, a pilot and a surgeon – and then given a surprise when they are brought face-to-face with these professionals
  • Like a girl (Ultra) discusses some of the gender based insults that students use
  • This girl can (Sport England) challenges the pretty-and-weak female stereotype

Join the discussions on TalkPhysics and share your experience.

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Rebecca Peacock

Rebecca Peacock

Rebecca is a gender balance officer supporting the Whole School Equality Programme in schools across the country as part of the Stimulating Physics Network. She continues to teach physics alongside her role at the IOP.
Rebecca Peacock

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2 thoughts on “Talking to students about stereotypes

  1. Stereotypes are stereotypes and there are exceptions to general trends – there is also an enormous amount of empirical evidence that boys and girls differ in much more than their genitalia, across cultures, and that (as is obvious to almost any parent) the reason we have toys that tend to be “boys toys” and “girls toys” is because of the completely natural different proclivities of boys and girls: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0029265 . Pretending those differences don’t exist causes at least as much harm as pretending they are everything.

  2. Your link highlights the difficulty in producing adequate data to support or refute your claim. I could provide much empirical data which you could again counter with other data. One piece that I think highlights the difficulty in finding reliable data is that we are influenced at a very young age by the stereotypes that are imposed on us due to our gender. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cc8d/82ab90f0da565dd9d97cfeb3b00defd4074d.pdf

    Therefore, if we do research to find a difference in gender, it is probable that we have already been influenced by the stereotypes that we are trying to research.

    Differences do exist but there are more differences within genders than across genders. Gender is not the deciding factor for many of the differences. What is not refutable is that there are girls that like cars and there are boys that like pink. By making liking pink a choice which is mocked if you are a boy but welcomed if you are a girl, then we are limiting the choices that people can make. Colour choice should not be criticised based on gender. The knock on effect of many small messages can have a large impact on the choices that someone makes.

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