The Persistence of Gender Norms

While reading and listening to the reflections of the high school seniors he teaches, one educator finds himself troubled by the persistence of outdated gender norms.

“I graduated from high school 23 years ago, and this is the same nonsense that made me try so hard to act like the ‘tough guy’ I was not,” I find myself thinking as I grade papers my seniors have written. Twenty-three years have passed and kids are still being taught the same things about behaviors dictated by binary gender norms: Boys and girls have their own lanes, and there is a concrete barrier between the two. Stay on your side.

In preparation for their senior English capstone project, a 10-minute-long speech delivered to their peers in the waning weeks of their high school experience, my seniors have been doing some reflecting about their educational experiences thus far.

Within their reflections, I notice an especially troubling trend regarding what the boys in my class have to say about becoming men. For so many of them, their reflections about what they have learned over the years bear lamentations about being forced into a box of stereotypical masculinity.

One student wrote about his performance in the school play when he was in sixth grade. He loved the process of rehearsals and the bond he formed with his cast-mates. He appreciated digging into a character, pretending to be someone else, telling a story and dressing the part. He liked using his imagination and the creative side of his personality. 

Then seventh grade came, and he learned some normative “lessons”: No girl is going to want to be with a guy who acts; only gay kids act; and boys play sports. He could not fully articulate where these messages came from, expressing that the lessons were taught largely by his male peers, but also by the girls in his class, male role models, family and the media. What he was sure of is that he did not try out for the play in junior high despite having the lead in sixth grade. He did what he was told and played sports instead, becoming a good high school athlete. Still, he explained, he always found himself looking at the kids in plays with respect, admiration and a lingering question: “How would my life have been different?” 

This has been a recurring theme in these senior reflections for years now. One boy keeps playing baseball despite hating it. Why? Because it is the only way his father tolerates his love for oil pastels. Another boy dumped his girlfriend because his friends had found a poem he wrote to her and ridiculed him for it. Another student who is an athlete bemoans the fact that he never told the guys in his locker room that he was uncomfortable with the way they objectified the girls they talked about. A member of the chamber choir talks about how difficult it was to connect with “more normal” boys.

As a male educator and father of two young boys, I am constantly trying to figure out ways to combat these normative ideals of masculine behavior. I have written before about my own experiences growing up in the Teaching Tolerance article “Pink.” I share stories about learning to tap dance, loving Beyoncé and arranging flowers to show students that activities are just activities. There is no reason they must be assigned to any gender. 

The current generation of high school students is still deeply rooted in these beliefs. My two sons are already feeling pressures to conform to outdated gender norms. We, as educators, must constantly challenge them. We must challenge students every time they say a boy does something “like a girl.” We must question media depictions of men as only barrel-chested athletes. We must keep working to show the boys and young men we teach that they should embrace the entirety of their personalities and identities.

Knoll is a writer and English teacher at public school in New Jersey.

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