Bridging the Gender Gap

Guest Article by Alex Clavering
College of the Holy Cross

ETA Alex Clavering teaching at SMK Sultan Azlan Shah
“Gender roles,” “stereotypes,” and “preconceived notions” are not a common part of the lexicon of sixteen year old Malaysian students. In order to help my students fully grasp the meaning of the ideas behind these words and all the weight they carry, it was important to teach them in an easy and relatable way. Teaching the basic idea of stereotypes was simple enough. “All Malaysians love Durian! Students, is this true?” My students all shook their heads furiously in agreement that all Malaysians did indeed love the “King of Fruits.” This went on for a little while before I realized that they would agree that all Malaysians everywhere loved Malaysian dishes and the band One Direction. It would take a few attempts to get the idea to stick. “All Malaysians are crazy drivers! Students, is this true?” My students laughed and said “No!” It began slowly but the bridge to understanding preconceived notions and stereotypes could finally be crossed.
Once the concept of stereotypes was clear to my students, I asked them to construct some stereotypes about Americans while I did so about Malaysians. We shared many laughs going through our lists. “No, not all Americans are rich. No, we don’t all own guns.” They were especially surprised that I did not own a gun. While the activity was very entertaining for my students, it was also effective in getting across the idea of generalizations and how stereotypes work. I introduced the idea of placing different people into “boxes” based on our perceptions of them. “Where do we get these perceptions? Where do these ideas come from?” I asked my students. They were unsure as to how they had come to the conclusions about the people and groups around them.
I suggested that television shows and movies like “Running Man,” a Korean film and a personal favorite of my students, might make them believe certain stereotypes about different people. At that moment a light bulb went off in their heads. “Oh!” my students exclaimed together. When my students all share in a common “oh,” this is generally a good sign that they understand the point of the lesson. They caught on quickly and threw out different proposals of how their ideas on people were created. Family, friends, school, community, and a whole host of other suggestions including Robocop were made. Now they could piece together a basic conception of society’s imposition of values on individuals.
Now I wanted to show the students how stereotypes impacted them as young girls and boys. For this exercise I had the boys and girls split up into two separate groups and write ten things they thought were true of the opposite group. Afterwards I had my students come and write these things on the board and had the opposite group decide which things they felt were true, which things they felt were only sometimes true, and which things they felt were not at all true.
The results were perfect for teaching. The boys wrote of the girls things such as “Always playing with dolls,” “Hates action movies,” and “Crying all the time” while the girls wrote of the boys “Always fighting,” “Rides motorbike,” and “Always disturbing girls.” The boys and girls would both cry out when they disagreed with many of the ideas of the other group. I had to laugh when I asked the boys if they thought that “Always disturbing girls” was true and they all nodded their heads in agreement. Overall they captured the idea that stereotypes can color our perceptions of race, religion, and gender.
Using this as a jumping off point I began a discussion of gender roles in society. First I had to explain both “gender” and “role” and for both I used rudimentary explanations that could be understood quickly. I kept the idea of gender quite simple for my students: boys and girls. I asked the two separate groups of boys and girls to compile a list of jobs they thought the other group should do for a living and once again had them write their lists on the board.
Students comparing each other’s lists
For the girls the boys wrote professions like “teacher, babysitter, secretary, nurse” and for the boys the girls wrote professions like “engineer, architect, lawyer, and police.” The opportunity had come to make a salient point about gender roles and how stereotypes in society played into them. We went through the different professions and I asked why there were some that were different between the boys and girls. I was met with silence. I took the time to explain that both boys and girls can do those things, but often don’t because of ideas about what they should do because of stereotypes and views on gender roles in our communities. I wanted them to understand that often societal expectations carry a heavy sway over personal decisions.
I ended my class by telling my students to remember stereotypes and how they influence our ideas about people. I then asked different girls and boys if they could be a doctor, engineer, teacher, police officer, secretary, babysitter, or lawyer. “Can you be anything? Whatever you want?” I asked them. “Yes!” they replied. “Can boys and girls both be anything?” Both?” to which they happily replied “Both!” While it took some time to get some of the concepts across, my students became much more aware of the influence of stereotypes and how such notions impact them and their communities. Now if only I could get them to stop asking me to dance and sing One Direction songs…

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