Early Gender Bias

Attitudes and expectations about how girls and boys perform academically — and behave socially — push children toward certain pathways. It's time to open all roads to everyone, regardless of gender.

Photo courtesy of 2016-18 AAUW Community Action Grantee Girls STEAM Project.
Why It Matters

The Trouble with Tracking

From preschool through high school, most children encounter  some degree of “gender tracking”—stereotypes and expectations that can set them on a lifelong path.  Tracking in early education helps account for why so many professions are still highly gendered, with women disproportionately in lower-paying fields.

Generally, girl and boy students are treated differently and expected to behave in distinct ways. Subtle messages like “be a good girl” (which reinforces compliant behavior) and “boys will be boys” (which tolerates aggressive behavior) signal to children that there’s an appropriate way to for each gender to act.

In addition to inhibiting all students from being their authentic self, these stereotypes are even more challenging for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, as many schools are ill-equipped to accommodate students outside the gender binary.

The notion that girls are “good at” certain subjects and boys are “good at” others also takes hold early on. Consider: Though girls are on par with boys in math and science throughout most of their education, girls still tend to be steered away from these fields from as early as the elementary school years.

Role Models

Expectations about gender roles are also shaped by the people students encounter: More than 75 % of public school teachers are female (and 80% are white), and their life experiences and perspectives influence how they view and reinforce gender roles and activities selected in the classroom.

Families also play a pivotal role: Some research shows that higher-income families invest more in sons while lower-income families invest more in daughters, based on beliefs about their pathways for future earning and job opportunities. One study found that parents were more than twice as likely to Google search “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”

Though it is challenging to break through so many of the unconscious biases that underlie our expectations, an awareness of how gender roles are shaped is an important step toward a more equitable future.

The dome of Capitol Building, Washington DC, and the American flag against a blue sky.
Policy Center

Where We Stand: Education & Title IX

AAUW supports a strong system of public education that promotes gender fairness, equity, and diversity, including vigorous enforcement of Title IX. Learn more about the specific policy measures we advocate for and our 2020 Gender Agenda.

Take Action

There are lots of ways to get involved with AAUW’s work to advance gender equity. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of women and girls.