Typecasting in the Classroom

Unconscious bias could discourage girls from seeking leadership positions later in life, new study shows

women in Congress in January 2013

Even educators who believe that girls and boys have equal leadership capabilities often reinforce gender stereotypes—albeit unconsciously—in their classrooms, according to a new Tisch College study.

If teachers change their approaches, though, they could play an important role in closing the gender gap that finds far fewer women in leadership positions, according to the study by researchers at Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the National Education Association and the American Association of University Women.

The report, Closing the Leadership Gap: How Educators Can Help Girls Lead, presents the findings from a 2014 online survey that asked 986 middle and high school teachers about their views on leadership. The report is a wake-up call to raise awareness among educators so they can modify their behaviors in the classroom in a way that builds girls’ confidence in their leadership abilities.

This confidence is a foundation that can prepare more women to aspire to political leadership positions, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, deputy director of Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and lead author of the report.

“Research from many sources shows us that girls do well academically, they vote, they volunteer and are generally civically active,” says Kawashima-Ginsberg. “But then you look at political structures like Congress or mayoralties or governorships, and at most, women hold only 20 percent of these offices, even though they comprise half of the population. Part of the reason for this may lie in their early educational experiences that make them feel inadequate to take on leadership roles,” she says.

“One of the goals of higher education is to equalize our leadership structure and improve our democracy,” she says. “The reason we conducted this study was to research the roots of the gender gap in our political system, which may be partly attributed to implicit, subtle biases in middle school and high school classrooms, and to recommend ways that teachers can help girls choose to lead.”

Most educators who responded to the survey defined a good leader in gender-neutral terms, with their top descriptors including problem-solver (64 percent), collaborative (58 percent), intelligent (40 percent) and compassionate (40 percent). But following these most popular choices, the study found that respondents were slightly more likely to ascribe attributes that are typically associated with males to leadership, such as determined, assertive and charismatic, than they were female attributes, such as caring, selfless, sensitive and sympathetic.

Educators share an egalitarian definition of leadership, the study says, and with more training and awareness they “ultimately could promote more widespread acceptance among their students of girls and women in leadership roles.”

That’s not happening now, says Kawashima-Ginsberg.

“Teachers may routinely assign a girl a role like note taker or coordinator and a boy to be a discussant or group leader because that’s what they think these students are good at. And yet [they] still think they have a very gender neutral classroom,” she says. “If male and female students are growing up and seeing these stereotypes over and over with nobody challenging the gender-structured roles of leadership, then we have little hope of changing the status quo.”

Confident vs. Compassionate

One goal of the study, Kawashima-Ginsberg says, was to show that stereotypical views still linger and can affect what messages are being sent to girls in the classroom.

For example, the report points to an experiment within the survey that revealed unconscious biases. The teachers taking the survey, 76 percent of whom were female, were asked to analyze a statement by a student running for student council president. The statement remained unchanged, except half were told it had been written by “Jacob” and the other half thought it was by “Emily.”

When asked to choose adjectives that described the attributes they saw in each candidate, many chose some of the same words to describe both Jacob and Emily: collaborative, competent, ambitious and determined.

But the differences in teachers’ assessments of Emily and Jacob were significant, according to the study. Jacob was “confident,” “aggressive,” “arrogant” and “charismatic.” Emily was “bubbly,” “hard-working,” “compassionate” and “feminine.” Among Jacob’s challenges: being “overly confident.” Among Emily’s: she “showed no authority.”

“One big takeaway for us is that even enlightened, experienced teachers with progressive views about leadership can have stereotypes and biases creep up,” says Kawashima-Ginsberg. “And this is really what affects behavior the most. It is really hard to control, but if you are aware, you can actively combat those behaviors by making sure girls are given roles as leaders and are exposed to positive role models—women leaders—within the curriculum.”

It’s not just the teachers, either. Study respondents said that girls and boys take on leadership roles in gender stereotypical areas during middle and high school. For example, more than 70 percent of the educators surveyed observed that girls tended to lead in English and language arts classes and clubs. But in science clubs and classes, boys took the lead, with only 20 percent of middle school and 30 percent of high school educators observing girls taking influential positions.

The study said this consistent pattern “fits with common gender stereotypes and suggests a role for educators to encourage students to run for offices and take on leadership roles in settings that are non-traditional for their gender.”

The study underlines the need for more teacher training in gender inequality and stereotypes about girls and women, says Kawashima-Ginsberg. Responses to the survey suggest that current teacher training does not provide enough exposure to these issues, the report states. Bringing this research to practice, Tisch College is working with the National Education Association to disseminate these findings, raise awareness and provide more professional training to teachers.

And teachers should be emphasizing the contributions of women across the academic spectrum. “Exposure to successful role models not only inspires but is critical in reducing the negative effects of stereotypes,” the report says.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

Back to Top