Gender Is a Bad Shorthand

Many native English speakers struggle when learning languages such as French or Spanish with the idea of words having “gender”.  French has two definite articles, le (described as masculine) and la (described as feminine), and the right one must be used depending on a noun’s “gender”.  Car is voiture (“masculine”), chair is chaise (“feminine”). So not only do you need to remember the spelling, you need to remember the gender.

I was sat in a group once where someone was complaining about this seemingly bizarre system: “Why is chair female?  What’s the logic there?”  A Brazilian student spoke up and said: “I never saw the confusion in this system.  In the language, there are two modes of address.  Some words are arbitrarily in one, the rest are in the other.  It just so happens that one category gets labelled masculine, and the other gets labelled feminine.”  This, many years too late, was something of a “woah” moment.  The gender label is nonsense.  It all made sense!

I think a lot of problems are caused in other areas by lazy gender labels.  Consider some education-related statements like:

Boys like games, so systems such as Game Maker or Greenfoot will appeal to them.

Girls lack confidence, so you should take extra care to compliment their progress.

These statements are not weakened by swapping out boys/girls for “some students”.  The key thing in the first statement is that some students like games.  Sure — most of them might be boys, but saying boys is a bad, imprecise shorthand when what you really refer to is the games-liking-students.  Similarly, in the second statement, the key thing is that some students lack confidence.  Even if many of them are girls, this is again an imprecise shortcut: just make sure to support any students with low confidence.  Lazy use of gender as a shorthand just reinforces stereotypes.  You wouldn’t say something like “Tall students tend to be reluctant to ask for help”, or “Blonde haired students tend to be too ambitious in their choice of projects”, would you?

Girls' and Boys' Toys
Girls’ and Boys’ Toys

One good example of this is the “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign. The idea behind the campaign is that too often toys are falsely sorted by gender: for example, dance games are girls’ toys, science kits are boys’ toys. As they suggest in their petition: “Please sort toys by theme or function, rather than by gender”. In other words, stop using gender as a lazy shorthand, and instead classify the toys by their actual attributes.

The Science Fudge

The obvious objection here is that boys and girls are innately different.  It’s not stereotyping, it’s their brains. Different approaches are needed for each!  A recent Guardian article made suggestions like “Girls are more responsive to color than boys… Buy colored blocks”. This was torn apart by a second Guardian article (“Boys are less responsive to colour… spray paint all of their toys black or grey”) and a third which makes the sensible point:

Even in cases where gender differences in behaviour or brain function can be shown, where is the evidence that such distinctions can be applied usefully to tailor learning?

Some of the misinformation comes from the way that results of studies are reported and how people get over-excited by significant differences. Picking an example at random (from a brief google scholar search), there is a 1995 paper that found a significant difference in confidence between boys and girls when using a computer. I think from reading this sentence, most people envisage that there is a split like this:


In this case, it would make a lot of sense to treat girls and boys differently, and perhaps find ways to boost girls’ confidence. In reality, the difference between boys’ and girls’ confidence that the study found looks like this:


I don’t see that it’s worthwhile treating boys and girls any differently in this case. More generally, just because you hear there’s a (significant) difference between boys and girls in some aspect, it doesn’t mean it’s worth doing anything about it. (Side note: this is why effect sizes are important!)

The Societal Issue

The one case where it does definitely make sense to take gender into consideration is not when considering the student themselves, but rather how society reacts to them.  A recent much-mentioned study suggests that women are biased against while hiring.  This is an issue that does need a gender-specific approach — but because of other people’s different reactions to gender, not because of the innate differences between genders.


So, in summary: stop lazily ascribing qualities to genders as a bad shorthand. If you want to talk about students who like games, talk about students who like games, rather than assuming that’s the same as “boys”. If you want to talk about students who like social interaction, describe them thus, don’t just assume it’s all “girls”. See past the gender and drill down to the attribute you’re actually interested in.

2 thoughts on “Gender Is a Bad Shorthand

  1. The idea of gender in language makes a lot more sense when you realize that the root of the word is the same as ‘generic’—most languages classify their nouns in one way or another, and when a classification is two-fold, then it is convenient to call the kinds feminine and masculine, and when it’s three-fold, to add the term neuter (in many languages, it is the form of the word rather than what it denotes that determines gender). Originally, then, gender had nothing to do with sex, but people who speak only ungendered languages find the gender of nouns tricky, and tend to equate them with sex. This works pretty well in French, but in German, mädchen (girl) is a neuter noun, and in Welsh, cennad (messenger) is a feminine noun even when the messenger is male. That said, I agree with the rest of the post. The variation within males and females is far greater than the variation between males and females, and saying “girls are like this” or “boys are like this” is lazy and unhelpful.

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