articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Gender and learning

(This information is drawn from "Gender, Culture, and Learning," by Eileen Kane.)

Some of the differences between men and women are biological, they arise from physical and other differences that are linked to the different genders.

In most societies, men and women behave quite differently from each other. They have different rights, roles, and statuses.

It's easy to draw connections between the behaviour of men and women, and the physical differences that we can all observe. We might then conclude that men and women behave differently because of the physical differences between them. And that the differences in their social roles and positions grow out of their different patterns of behaviour, their abilities and limitations.

But when we review research in biology, psychology, anthropology, and education, we find out that it's very difficult to prove which behaviours in men and women arise from physical differences.

Many differences, we find, could be produced by the different ways that men and women are brought up as children.

It's very difficult to separate the effects of culture from the effects of biology, but we can confidently state that:

In relation to thinking skills and learning processes, males and females are more alike than different.

There are, in fact, greater differences within the genders than between them.

When it comes to school and learning, the attitudes and actions of teachers and families can exert great influence. And these influences have clear ramifications for the cognitive development of girls and boys.

Families participate by defining the different roles that boys and girls should play. And this process starts early:

Cross-cultural research shows that children are aware of gender differences and stereotypes at around 2-3 years old. And by age 4-5, children want to show mastery of their gender roles, which are more rigid and stereotyped than they will be later.

Families, work, and gender

One of the chief ways that families influence the development of learning and thinking in boys and girls is in their attitudes toward work.

The work that children perform affects the amount of free time that they have, the behavioural characteristics they learn, and the energy that they have in school.

Early in their lives, girls are often engaged in work that benefits the family: They may make food for the family, and they make take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

Is it any surprise that girls often are seen as innately nurturing?

But it's not just that girls do different work than boys. Girls do more work.

In the Eritrean lowlands, for example, school-age girls averaged 4.5 hours of non-school work every day, while school-age boys averaged 2.5 hours.

Following is a daily timetable comparing the lives of children in Gambia: a girl who is not in school, a girls who attends school, and a boy who attends school.

Time Girl not in school Girl in school Boy in school
6 AM Rises, bathes, prays Same  
7 AM Sweeps compound, fetches water, washes dishes Same Rises, bathes, prays, revises lessons
9 AM Cooks lunch Goes to school Goes to school
9:30 AM Takes lunch to mother on farm, works on farm In school In school
2 PM Working on farm School day ends, lunch in school, extra studies until 6 PM Same, if studies end early, plays football
6 PM Working on farm Takes food to mother on farm, helps her Fetches water, bathes
7 PM Returns home, cooks dinner Cooks dinner, bathes Various (play, study)
8 PM Dinner, washes dishes Dinner, washes dishes Dinner
9 - 11 PM Various (rests, plays, talks to friends, does more housework) Goes to teacher for extra studies Goes to teacher for extra studies
12 AM Goes to sleep Goes to sleep Goes to sleep

(Kane, E. and M. O'Reilly deBrun. 1993. Bitter seeds. (Draft). Washington, DC: World Bank.)

You'll observe that the girl in school performs more work outside of school than the boy does. Note the kinds of work that she does.

In southern Malawi, girls spend 70 percent of their time on domestic work, on average, while boys average only 38 percent; boys spend 41 percent of their time playing and in other leisure activities, while girls spend only 13 percent.

(Davison, J. and M. Kanyuka. 1990. An ethnographic study of factors affecting the education of girls in southern Malawi. Lilongwe, Malawi: Ministry of Education. (In Kane, Eileen, Gender, culture and learning.)

What effects can you imagine these situations might have?

School and gender

Many teachers and schools reinforce gender stereotypes, often without being aware of it.

In some cultures, education is not even considered appropriate for girls at all.

In others, school textbooks present images of boys and girls that reinforce different kinds of behaviour. In a set of educational radio scripts, boys did certain actions, and girls did others:

Gender-based Stereotypes
Males Females
Solve problems analytically often used intuition
spoke for the group "helped" in activities
distributed tasks were on the receiving end of actions, rather than instigating them
were adventuresome were wary of technology
were usually fearless were often frightened
were mischievous  

Imagine, for a young girl trying to learn what is "right," and what is expected by the society around her, what the effect would be of listening to these radio plays?

Teachers reinforce gender roles also, in the different expectations that they have for the boys and girls in their classes.

Teachers may also create learning environments in which boys are encouraged to succeed while girls are allowed to fail.

In extreme cases, teachers may . . .

    - call on boys to answer questions more often than they call on girls

    - assign housekeeping tasks to girls, and tool-using tasks to boys

    - reward boys for right answers, and withhold praise from girls

    - criticise girls for wrong answers

    - make use of textbooks and other learning materials that reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

What's more, many teachers may be completely unaware that they treat girls and boys differently.

But none of these habits, when they occur, should be surprising. We all grow up among the influences of our family and cultures, and as teachers, we may see ourselves, rightly, in the role of instilling cultural values in the children in our classes.


All cultures have clear-cut ideas about appropriate behaviour for boys and girls.

It can be challenging, and even angering, to begin to encounter your own biases and actions. But as a teacher, you have a clear responsibility . . .

- to create opportunities for all children, boys and girls, to learn to the best of their abilities. It's not necessary to undermine ideas that are fundamental to your culture. But it is necessary to understand how those ideas influence your teaching practices, and the opportunities for learning that children have.

Journal activity: Thinking it through

Take a little time to write down your thoughts after reviewing this material.

Perhaps you'll identify the ideas and areas that have challenged your thinking and opinions. Perhaps you'll write about the points with which you absolutely disagree.

Then address the following questions:

What tasks are typically expected of boys in your community?

What tasks are typically expected of girls in your community?

Finally, assess your own classroom practices to get a picture of how you relate to boys and girls. If you find yourself observing your own behaviour over the course of the next week or so, be sure to note your observations in your journal.

If you wish, pass them along to the Teachers Talking community.

Teacher Talking Explore Ideas · Discuss Issues · Take Action
Last revised November 1, 2002
Copyright © UNICEF