Sexism: From Identification to Activism

Students will identify ways in which sexism manifests in personal and institutional beliefs, behaviors, use of language and policies. Use this lesson to develop plans of action against bias.
Grade Level

  • Students will identify sexism in behaviors, beliefs and policies.
  • Students will weigh pros and cons of taking action against sexism.
  • Students will construct a plan of action. 
Essential Questions
  • What does sexism look like?
  • How can an individual or group take a stand against sexism?

Note: Teachers can easily adapt this lesson to address other forms of bias.


Diagramming Sexism

Begin the lesson by writing the following definition of sexism on the board:

Sexism: prejudicial attitudes and discrimination against women on the basis of their sex. Sexism ranges from the individual to the institutional level and includes (a) beliefs, (b) behaviors, (c) use of language and (d) policies reflecting and conveying a pervasive view that women are inferior.
-- Linguist Phil Herbst

Distribute the Diagramming Sexism handout. Ask students for examples of sexism in individual beliefs, behaviors and use of language. Also ask for an institutional policy that advances sexism. What are some sexist beliefs that students have heard peers, parents, teachers or others express? How do these attitudes sometimes manifest in someone’s behavior? How do these sexist attitudes come alive in language? What types of policies do institutions (schools, health insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, the government, corporations) have that advance sexism?

(Note: If time allows, students also can identify individual policies and institutional beliefs, behaviors and use of language that manifest or advance sexism.)

In case students need some help getting started, prepare your own list of sexism illustrations. To follow are some suggestions.

Individual Beliefs

Men are smarter than women.

It’s O.K. if male students act up in class, because, as the saying goes, "boys will be boys."

Individual Behaviors

A teacher calls on male students more often than he or she calls on female students.

Domestic violence: e.g., "A husband justifies his use of physical force to settle a domestic dispute by asserting that he is 'the head of the family.'"

Individual Use of Language

Sexist slurs, jokes or verbal expressions: e.g., "A male supervisor comments consistently about the appearance of female staff."

A teacher phrases historical information in a way that suggests women are property or are otherwise not equal to men: e.g., "A slave could not claim his wife or children as his own, because the laws did not recognize slave marriages."

Institutional Policy

A school uses textbooks that ignore or minimize the contributions of women.

Police departments sometimes treat instances of domestic violence as "family disputes" and not as crimes.


Diagramming Activism

Ask students to pick one of the examples of sexism identified in the above exercise. Perhaps they want to talk about how women’s contributions traditionally are excluded from textbooks.

Begin by asking students to describe reasons why they may choose not to speak out against sexism in this situation. ("It won’t make a difference," or "I don’t want to cause trouble.") Then ask students to list some reasons why they should speak out against the exclusion of women in textbooks. ("It’s the right thing to do," or "I want a full education.") Write student responses on the board to provide a visual demonstration that there are far more reasons to stand up against sexism than to ignore it.

Once students have reached consensus that action is more favorable than inaction, distribute the A Plan of Action handout.

Activism in general requires four things: alliances/allies, research, tactics and words. As you ask students the following questions, they can write down the collective answers on the A Plan of Action handout. To assist students in note taking, you might also write responses on the board.

  • Alliances/Allies: With whom do we need to be working on this issue?
  • Research: What types of things do we need to know about this issue? What statistics, if any, might prove helpful? How can we acquire the necessary information?
  • Tactics: What are some things we might do to raise awareness about this issue or to effect change?
  • Words: What are some words or phrases we might use to challenge this form of sexism?

If, for example, students want to challenge the lack of female representation in textbooks, they will need to build alliances with fellow students, teachers, administrators, school board members, parents and community leaders. They will probably have to do some research to uncover the ways in which current textbooks minimize or ignore women and also to find out what types of other, more inclusive, textbooks are available. Students may want to raise awareness about the issue by placing an ad in the school newspaper or by making a public appeal at a school board meeting. And they may choose to craft logos or catch phrases to articulate their position on the issue.

To conclude the lesson, review what the class has covered. Students have broken sexism down into some bite-size pieces. They have weighed the pros and cons of acting out against one of those bite-size pieces, and then students identified a plan of action to challenge this manifestation of sexism. This is the bedrock of activism.

Of course, this lesson is not truly complete until students implement their plan. Although educators can’t really assign activism as homework, we can encourage students to volunteer their time to anti-sexist work.

You might offer to help start a women’s group on campus or to serve as a faculty liaison for students who want to volunteer their time to the cause. You also can highlight students’ efforts for change by asking the volunteers to provide progress reports to the class. Student activists might share what steps they have taken, the setbacks they have encountered and the success they have had.

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