Using Photographs to Teach Social Justice | Exposing Gender Bias

Each lesson in this series builds background knowledge about a particular social justice issue and addresses at least one English language arts skill. The lessons also help students “read” photographs by having pupils describe what they see, identify the mood and point of view, analyze color, light, and shadow, and determine how the photographs fit into the context in which they were taken.Before the women’s movement started in the 1970s, common stereotypes about women suggested that they were more emotional than intelligent, that they were better suited to mothering than to other types of work, and that beauty was perhaps their most important virtue. Thanks to the women’s movement, many of those stereotypes no longer have much weight. Increasingly, women join men in high-powered professional jobs, hold important political positions, and fulfill many roles besides—or in addition to—motherhood. Nonetheless, stereotypes of women persist. Some photos express those stereotypes; others challenge them.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • analyze photographs that show gender stereotypes and those that counter them.
  • recognize that photographs are socially constructed representations of reality.
  • describe a photograph’s denotative meanings (those that are literal) and connotative meanings (those that are constructed through individual and collective associations).
  • identify the mood of a photograph and determine how elements of the photograph contribute to creating that mood.
Essential Questions
  • How can photographs reinforce or challenge stereotypes?
  • Enduring Understandings: Photographs can either reinforce or challenge stereotypes because photos convey meaning and communicate ideas. Photographers shape meaning by choosing what images to capture and how to capture them. Viewers then interpret those photographs based on what they see, including the mood and elements of the photo that contribute to creating that mood.
  • photos of female construction workers (see below)
  • computers (optional, for students to find photos)
  • magazines (optional, for students to find photos)
  • journals or paper



bias [ bahy-uhs ] (noun) prejudice for or against a person, group of people, or idea

competence [ kom-pi-tuhns ] (noun) the ability to do a job well

perpetuate [ per-pech-oo-yet ] (verb) to keep something going

stereotype [ ster-ee-uh-tahyp ] (noun) a widely held unfair view about a group of people with similar characteristics


Suggested Procedure

Step One

Have students work with a partner. Ask them to study photo A and describe the woman in the photograph. Tell them to focus on how old she looks, what she’s wearing, what she’s holding, what she’s doing and what her expression is. To help students focus on the mood, or feeling, conveyed by the photograph, have them work with a partner to answer these questions:

Photo A: Toronto Minilypse/June 2007.

1. Do you think the woman is a construction worker? Why or why not?

2. What features in the photograph emphasize the woman’s competence?

3. What features in the photograph emphasize the woman’s beauty?

4. What is missing from the photo that you might expect to see?

5. Overall, what do you think of the woman in the photo? Why?


Step Two

Have students do the same activity for Photo B, answering the same questions listed above.

Photo B: ©iStock.com/shotbydave.

Step Three

Have students go back to their answers about Photo A and make any additions or changes they would like to make, since they now have a photo (Photo B) to compare and contrast with Photo A. Ask students to discuss with their partner which photo they like better and why they prefer it.


Step Four

Explain that photographs can either reinforce stereotypes or dispel them, and recognizing how stereotypes are perpetuated is a useful skill since stereotypical images continue to appear in the popular media. Elaborate further by telling students the following: “Finding images that counter those stereotypes is also important, so that you (and others) can be clear that stereotypes are not accurate reflections of individuals or groups of people.”

Have students practice these skills by working with the same partner to find or make their own pair of photos of women, similar to this pair. (They can use magazines or the Internet to find images.) Remind all that that one photograph should show a woman in a stereotypical fashion, and the other photo should counter that stereotype. Ask students to display their photos side by side and write a caption for each photo. In the caption, ask them to analyze the photo in the same way they analyzed the two photos in this activity. For the stereotypical image, have them explain what the stereotype is and how the photograph works to maintain that stereotype. For the second photo, ask them to explain how it counters the stereotype, including the techniques that the photo uses.


Step Five

Invite students to relate this analysis of gender stereotyping to their own experiences. Ask the following questions:

  • In your school, household or community, do you see examples of stereotypes of women and girls? For example, do most people assume that teachers are women or that a particular sports program is for boys? List examples.
  • Had you thought about these assumptions as stereotypes before you did these activities? How did this activity influence your thinking?
  • Do you see examples where it’s clear that people are not accepting the stereotypes—or maybe they’re not even aware of them? For example, when your grandparents were your age, it was unusual to go to a woman doctor. Now so many doctors are women that many people no longer assume that doctors are men. List additional examples.

Ask students to write a journal entry that addresses some or all of these questions, relating what they have learned about gender stereotypes to their own experiences.


Do Something

Ask student to brainstorm ways to change gender stereotypes if they see areas where these assumptions are accepted at school. Have students choose one or more of these ideas to work on changing gender stereotypes.

Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS SL.1, SL.2, SL.5, W.2 

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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