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Language used in the classroom helps challenge gender bias

Category: British Council, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, Language, Model inclusive language, Characterised, Constructed stereotype, Gender differences, Gender free, unconscious gender bias

gender focus

british council

English language teacher Elsa O’Brien tells teachers how to evaluate their communication style and model inclusive language.


We learn gendered language when we are young

Gender shapes children's speech and conversational turn-taking. 

Boys learn to be more outspoken and take longer turns in a conversation. Girls learn to be less outspoken and take fewer turns.

This continues into adulthood. In a conversation between women and men, women interrupt men four per cent of the time. Men interrupt women 96 per cent of the time. This is according to research by Don H Zimmerman and Candace West.

Joan Swann’s research describes girl's speech in the classroom as generally 'cooperative'. Boy's speech is characterised as 'competitive'. 

Modern research views gender as a social construct. This means that language is a way of performing a socially constructed stereotype. The less we identify with it, the less we will perform it.

Many teachers reinforce gender differences in the classroom

A study by Joan Swann showed that teachers:

  • ask more questions to boys than to girls
  • give boys more chances to take turns
  • allow boys to hold the conversational floor for longer and to interrupt their classmates.

But most teachers don’t do it intentionally. In a study on gender differences in teacher-pupil interactions, researcher Alison Kelly found that most teachers in the sample disagreed with the statement ‘Teachers allow boys to dominate in mixed classrooms’.

Notice your hidden gender bias

Accept that we may have biases that affect our teaching style. 

Before giving a learner feedback, consider the conversation and your language choices. What are your expectations of the learner? Could your expectations be influenced by gender? 

Talk about unconscious gender bias with other teachers

You can share your experiences with peers at your school or in a professional network. 

Talk to teachers who are actively working on gender bias. These teachers might have an equality, diversity and inclusion role in your workplace. Or, they might have written about gender bias or presented workshops on the topic. 

Peer-observation is a good way to learn best practice. Ask to observe teachers with knowledge of the subject. Notice how they interact with learners, and how they manage issues like turn-taking.

Use a gender bias checklist 

Try this gender-free teaching checklist  from Washburn University. 

Use it to reflect on your everyday teaching. For example, do male learners dominate a group discussion? 

You can tailor your checklist to your learners and classroom.

Model inclusive language and communication

Work with the class to develop turn-taking active listening  and non-verbal communication  skills. 

Show empathy by using tag questions .

Use the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or she’ where appropriate.

Phase out gendered vocabulary or phrases where gender is irrelevant. For example, use the term ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’. Use ‘employees’ or ‘personnel’ instead of ‘manpower’.

Elsa O'Brien is an British Council English language teacher based in Spain. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Teachers of English language can download resources for learners to practise these skills from the Teaching English website

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