Bias is a natural phenomenon, and we all harbor it. In education, however, unconscious and unacknowledged biases can become obstacles to student success.
The traditional versus virtual classroom
Virtual education has the potential to reduce certain gender-based biases that are more prominent in traditional classrooms. In the digital space, women and girls who are not typically given “a seat at the table” have the equal opportunity to interact through audio, video, and the chat, which helps some shy students excel.
At the same time, the virtual classroom does not exist in a vacuum. Where there is real-world gender bias against women’s academic achievement, it is also present in the online classroom in the form of gendered language, interruption patterns, and barriers against participation.
What educators can do about bias
All educators, from administration to class teachers to substitutes, can work meaningfully towards awareness of our harmful biases for better student well-being. Since this is naturally a difficult process, here are a couple useful paradigms:
- Technology like robots and algorithms can learn bias based on the data they are fed. The inputs of the human brain are similar, and we must train our brains against bias.
- Approach the topic from a positive standpoint. Everyone has and can work on their biases, and over time, openly recognizing bias can help improve learning gains.
So why teach the teachers about bias? Multiple studies have found educator bias may play a role in student learning outcomes.
What’s more, students experience bias at all levels of education, including online.It’s important to note that this bias is often inextricable from and/or compounded by other dominant identity markers like race.
- Researchers at Brookings concluded, using two datasets collected ten years apart, that teachers rated boys as more mathematically able even when faced with a boy and a girl of the same race and socio-economic status who performed equally well on math tests and behavioral assessments.
- A Stanford study of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) found that instructors of all backgrounds are 94% more likely to respond to a comment made by a white male than other combinations of race (Black, Chinese, Indian) and gender (male/female) combinations combined, including white female.
- Another Stanford study explored how learning gains for women in math, science, and engineering (MSE) are impaired by stereotype threat, namely that their fear of confirming the stereotype that women are bad at math actually leads to poorer performance. Results show women in a virtual classroom learn less and perform worse with a sexist male instructor.
Here are our tips for educators:
Be aware of overt gender stereotyping
Avoid overt language about “what boys do” and “what girls do” or what is expected of them personally or professionally.
Whenever possible, use the gender-inclusive language that feels comfortable to you when addressing students; for example, ‘y’all,’ ‘folks,’ ‘students,’ and ‘class’ instead of ‘you guys.’
Language teachers can teach their students to avoid gender bias in writing.
Put equity into encouragement
Consider Brookings findings that “for a girl to be rated as mathematically capable as her male classmate, she not only needed to perform as well as him on a psychometrically rigorous external test, but also be seen as working harder than him. [Other] analyses suggested that teachers’ underrating of girls from kindergarten through third grade accounts for about half of the gender achievement gap growth in math. In other words, if teachers didn’t think their female students were less capable, the gender gap in math might be substantially smaller.”
Students should receive praise relative to their personal progress on the learning path. Be sure to praise young girls, minorities, and gender non-binary students as much as young boys, especially in traditional STEM subjects where implicit bias may perpetuate achievement imbalance.
Boys and girls are socialized with different communication styles and strengths. Encourage teachers to vary assessment type from multiple choice to long-form writing to verbal to get the full range of student knowledge and abilities.
Teachers can also grade traditional tests blind. The Stanford study of MOOCs shows that if educators cannot make associations about race or gender from student names, they have a lower chance of applying bias when assigning a grade.
Monitor for interruptions
Adult men interrupt women 33-50% more often than the other way around, and these dynamics are likely already at play in the Zoom classroom. Consider how your school might address and talk to female and non-binary students about interruption and gender bias. Let them know their opinions are as important as everyone else’s, and that there are calm ways they can address it; for example, by stating, “Excuse me, I need to finish.”
Teachers are the leaders in their classroom, and thus the role models for student behavior and creating an atmosphere where every voice is heard and treated equally. This might take the form of Zoom “roundtables” that give all students who want to speak air time or moderating classroom discussion to make sure the same students don’t automatically dominate. Be sure to enable non-verbal feedback mechanisms in Zoom like the ability for students to raise their hand or react with emojis, which can level the playing field.
Teachers can also reach out one-on-one to encourage students to share their thoughts. Educators of all genders should be aware that women who push back against interruption are often viewed negatively, so those who feel comfortable can let female students know it’s okay to cue them if they themselves have interrupted.
Keep harassment and cyberbullying prevention top of mind
Just because education has turned virtual doesn’t mean bullying and sexual harassment have left the building.
Teachers should set behavioral expectations in the virtual classroom and stick to them, while administrators should take every reported offense seriously. When a student violates the rules, encourage teachers to take appropriate immediate action - for example, by providing a polite warning, disabling the student’s video or audio, or removing the student from the classroom if the behavior continues.
Changing the culture around gender bias
Gender socialization is so deeply ingrained because it starts in early childhood, which is why educator Joseph Cimpian believes culture change, not policy, will bring about true change in favor of gender equity.
Acknowledging our biases isn’t easy, but practice makes progress! Since students spend thousands of hours at school over the course of their education, educators wield a lot of influence - those who support all children’s personal and professional ambitions can help create a more equitable future.