Gender bias in the classroom and gender-based violence – too far-fetched?

“An average of 137 women across the world are killed by a partner or family member every day, according to new data released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime” (BBC News, November 25, 2019). It is not surprising that we need a campaign such as the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence   one, running from November 25 through December 10. But what does this have to do with gender bias in the classroom?

Well, gender violence stems from men’s belief that women are inferior and that they belong to them. When women are reduced to mere possessions, they can be disposed of just as an old car can. If women decide to break a relationship or not marry whoever the parents want them to marry, they supposedly hurt the husband’s/boyfriend’s or father’s pride. These men feel that they were not capable of keeping their women on a leash. This is a mental model that has been ingrained in society for centuries and the only way to change it is changing how boys and girls are raised and how they are treated in schools. Since discussing how to change this scenario in society goes beyond the scope of this publication, I’m going to focus on gender bias in the classroom and how we can all be year-round activists against it.

A few months ago, I attended a talk by my colleagues Helena Galvão and Samara de Oliveira entitled Empowering Girls – Making a Positive Impact on Society. This is a topic that is very dear to my heart because I have two daughters and, while they were growing up, I always worried about empowering them and making them feel at least as capable of anything as men. Even so, when I look back, there are still things I would have done differently.

During my academic studies, I have also come across research reporting how teachers treat boys and girls differently, how girls start out academically stronger than boys but throughout the years the boys end up outdoing the girls, how there are many more men than women in certain fields of study, etc. This has to do not only with how boys and girls are raised and what they hear about men and women, but also with how they are treated differently in schools, most of the times in very subtle ways.

Seeing my colleagues’ perspective on the topic was a breath of fresh air because they adopted a positive approach and provided lots of useful suggestions on simple things teachers can do every day not only to empower girls in their classrooms, but also to make boys see girls as their equals. One of the things they mentioned was how we should make a daily effort to avoid gender bias. This is easier said than done. Gender bias is so ingrained in our culture that we can easily be influenced by it in our classes and our daily lives without noticing. Here are some tips they provided:


  • Ask boys and girls for the same things.
  • Don’t put boys against girls. Mix the people in your groups.
  • Be attentive and even-handed.
  • “Because you are a girl” (or a boy) should never be a reason
  • Praise girls for things other than their physical appearance.
  • If you do feel like commenting on looks, make sure boys and girls get the same amount of praising.
  • Refrain from giving gifts and prizes based on stereotypes.
  • When preparing your classes, make sure to use authentic material that represents the diversity in society. This includes gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social vulnerability, disabled children.
  • Make sure your class is a space for freedom. Students can be anything they want!
  • Display strong female role models and tell their stories.


Wonderful tips, right? And I’m sure we can think of many others to add to the list. However, reality strikes!

A few weeks later, I accompanied the global director of our high school program on his visit to two groups. During the visit, he chatted with the students and asked them many questions about the program. Guess what happened? Only the boys volunteered to speak! I know the two groups and have observed their classes many times. I know that the girls are smart and have great English and a lot to say, but they chose to be quiet and let the boys speak for them. The director was also puzzled by this and we concluded that we need to address this issue of empowering girls more explicitly in the program. We need a plan. Just thinking that it will naturally happen hasn’t worked. As Helena and Samara mentioned in their talk, and shown on this video, girls are raised to have ambition, but not too much. They are told to speak up, but not too much, either. This is what I saw in that classroom!

Then, the other day, I observed another class in which the teacher was going to present the topic of multiple intelligences. She came up with a wonderful activity to raise students’ awareness to the different types of intelligence: she provided a list of nine famous people in history, among which were artists, musicians, soccer players, scientists, philosophers, and writers. The students had to rank them according to how smart they thought these people had been. Of course, they ranked the scientists higher, and this resulted in the discussion that she had planned, namely, that we tend to value logical-mathematical intelligence more than the other ones, leading to the text on how this view of intelligence has changed with Howard Gardener’s theory. Wonderful activity, right?

There was one problem, though, that I don’t blame the teacher for because she had tried to select people whom she was sure students would know: there were only men on the list! I admit that I don’t know if I would have noticed this had I not recently attended Samara’s and Helena’s talk. I guess gender bias also came immediately to my mind because the group consisted of six students, three boys and three girls, and the boys were much more talkative and participatory than the girls. Thus, this was a perfect opportunity to change this pattern. There are two ways that immediately come to mind in which the teacher could have addressed the topic of gender bias. She could have made a list with the same number of men and women, or she could have kept her original list and asked the students why they thought only men had come up when she was thinking of very famous people in each field that they would certainly know. She could then propose that they develop another list, considering gender balance. Again, I know that I only noticed this because I have the gender bias issue on my mind now, something that I did not have so strongly on my mind six months ago. But then, what we need to do is to make sure all teachers have this issue on their mind, too!

Okay, so the readers might be thinking,” I’m sure you have fallen into the gender bias trap as a teacher as well.”  My answer is: “Absolutely.” I can think of many activities I have carried out, questions I have asked, and things I have said that constitute gender bias. I’m sure we all have. Addressing gender bias is a daily battle, something we can never forget when we are planning classes or interacting with students. Of course, we can’t make this an obsession and overdo it because it can backfire and students can think, “Oh, here comes our feminist teacher again.”

It is truly the little and subtle things that matter, as Samara and Helena pointed out. It’s about the examples we give, the pictures we choose, what and who we praise, who we look more at, the types of questions we ask and to whom. It’s also about how we teach students to read critically and identify not only gender bias, but also other types of biases in texts. It is a daily battle we need to face if we want to change society. Violence against women will only change when it becomes natural to men that women are their equals, that women don’t belong to them.

But wait? Aren’t we there to teach English? It can’t be political! My answer is – everything is political. The way we choose to live is political. The choice to address or not to address gender bias is political. Let’s not confuse political with politics. Every time an educator steps into a classroom and interacts with a group of students, whatever they say or do will have an impact on the students and on society. The choice to say or not to say, to do or not to do, is political and is based on our own biases.


P.S. The teacher mentioned here gave me permission to give this example publicly. If Samara and Helena had not raised my awareness of this issue, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the gender bias in the activity.

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

  • Eneida Coaracy
    Posted at 20:53h, 01 dezembro Responder

    Very pertinent reflection, Isabela. Thought-provoking!

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 17:52h, 06 dezembro Responder

      Thanks, Eneida. I’m glad you liked it. The merit goes to Samara and Helena, though.

  • Stephan Hughes
    Posted at 22:31h, 04 dezembro Responder

    Just yesterday, we were discussing characters in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo in particular. They all found him too melodramatic, to which I said he was a drama queen. One of the girls she preferred not to use the word queen to describe him, one of the boys chided me for being sexist. We live and learn.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 17:52h, 06 dezembro Responder

      Good for them! They are already aware of these sexist terms we use. They learn from us, and we also learn from them.

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