For years, academicians and activist have held that ‘gender’ as an identity is, purely, a social construct. In more recent years the Indian youth have created spaces to discuss and unlearn baseless notions of gender and how they affect people. Nobody is born with a gender. Everyone’s gender is unique to them and how they perceive their gender and how they wish to express it is their personal choice. A person’s body, sex, appearance, or behaviour does not determine their gender; their choice does. In the 2014 judgement to National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India and others, the Indian Supreme Court recognised the right to self-identify one’s gender as an important part of the constitutional right to live with dignity.
Schools and homes are the basic sources of development of the understanding of gender and gender relations. Root cause of gender bias is the patriarchy, prevalent, rather dominantly, in Indian societies. Despite the seismic shift in how youth perceives gender, the culture propagated by our educators and families are still strongly binary in nature. The ways teachers interact with students, often based on assumed gender, stand to have a profound impact on their ability to participate in their education.
Gender Neutrality and Gender Sensitisation
‘Gender neutrality’ is the idea that policies, language, and other social should avoid distinguishing roles according to people’s sex or gender. And ‘gender sensitisation’ is all about changing behaviour and instilling empathy into the views that we hold about our own and other sex and genders. A teacher must constantly be aware that their actions, attitude, and mindset will shape students’ perception of gender norms and gender roles. By setting up a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom teachers are at the forefront of breaking down social norms that promote gender inequality and gender-based violence. They can use multiple strategies and interventions to provide students with equal opportunities to create and obtain their individual goals.
1. Gender-sensitive syllabi and curricula - It is necessary that the school curriculum and textbook content should be gender sensitive and free of gender inequality. In 2019, NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) developed syllabi and textbooks
across subjects to promote gender sensitisation in the school curriculum. CBSE has also provided guidelines for gender sensitivity in textbooks and textual material.
2. Gender sensitivity training programmes for teachers – Teachers must have pre-hand knowledge of issues revolving gender to be able to create safe and inclusive spaces within the classroom. Teachers also must reflect on their subjective experiences with gender and question the biases they see and hear.
3. Creating awareness among parents – School-parent partnership should be strengthened to address gender issues at homes. Parents must be educated on how gendered practices affect the long-term performance of their children and the opportunities they get.
4. Do not assign classroom tasks that traditionally relate to a specific gender, e.g. boys moving desks or taking out the bins, while girls are asked to tidy up the dress-up corner.
5. Use gender-neutral language – Unlearning the gender-biased language the society raised teachers in, takes time and patience. But it is very necessary. Use nongendered terms in the classrooms, addressing kids as “students,” “folks,” “everyone” or “you all” instead of “you guys.” Use the pronouns “they/them/their” when providing general examples during lessons instead of “he and/or she.” Also, in assignments you can challenge students’ expectations by including a female construction worker or soldier, a male secretary or nurse, and other professions typically associated with a particular gender.
6. Avoid stereotyping children – Do not use stereotypical ideas like ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘girls don’t fight.’ Such language limits students’ understanding of gender roles. The "aggressive male" and "passive female" stereotype has been proven to silence girls as they grow older. According to a report by the American Association of University Women, girls receive significantly less attention from teachers than boys do. Due to the softer approach teachers have towards them, girls are often seen to reserve their comments and questions for private conversations, making classroom discussion often male-focused.
7. Discuss students’ preconceived gender biases - Many children will come to school with preconceived ideas about gender. If you hear students using phrases like ‘you play like a girl’ or ‘man up,’ it is important to point out the social implications of these statements rather than simply admonishing the use of that kind of phrasing. Discuss transgender and non-binary gender identities. Depending on the age group, explain to students how individuals and groups become marginalised through cultural tools like language.
8. Stop gender-based grouping of students – Do not line students up or group them based on their sex/gender as part of the classroom management routine. Gendered categorisation reinforces that gender is a strict binary, which limits the roles students can access in school and outside. These practices can make some students feel "invisible,” unsupported and unsafe. It can also set up a sense of competition between genders, influencing them to notice their differences rather than similarities.
9. Be inclusive of gender-queer students – With the increasing awareness and knowledge about gender identities, a few young students are likely to identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth. If they open up in class about this, be respectful and be mindful of referring to the child with their preferred gender and pronouns. How you make them included will be a model for other children and their families.
End Goal – Equality and Respect for All
By making efforts to break down traditional gender roles in the classroom, teachers can better prepare students to seek knowledge and participate more fully in discussions and other learning
opportunities in many fields, regardless of their gender. For this, students must be educated on how the problems that women and queer-gender identities face are, essentially, issues of power in society.
Teachers must explore the wide collection of resources available online on how schools can become gender-inclusive and on how gender and the issues around the topic can be explained to children of different ages. They must also urge their school administration and colleagues to encourage gender inclusivity amongst themselves and among the students.