Inclusive Schooling and Gender

Janice Wallace, PhD, University of Alberta

Inclusive Schooling and Gender

The following was prepared as a backgrounder for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation conference “Education for Social Justice: From the Margin to the Mainstream,” to be held May 4–6, 2007, in Ottawa.

Gender has been commonly understood to mean “the cultural difference of women from men, based on the biological division between male and female” (Connell 2002, 8). Also, gender is “not a fixed dichotomy in human life or character. It is a pattern in our social arrangements and in the everyday activities or practices which those arrangements govern” (p 9). The influence of gender is unmistakable in almost every aspect of schooling: the organization of work is gendered; the organization and privileging of curriculum are gendered; interactions between students and staff are gendered; and results, whether measured by standardized or nonstandardized tests, are gendered. More specific to the theme of this conference, gender is a key element in any discussion of social justice in education (Coleman 2005) because it is an important organizer of social activity and the status and privilege attached to that activity.

In 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada recognized the importance of schooling as a location for addressing gender inequity and made several specific recommendations for improving educational opportunities for girls and women. The report pointed out the lack of women in universities—particularly in science, mathematics and technology—and noted the stereotypical portrayals of women and girls in textbooks, as well as the underrepresentation of women in school administration. Funds were put in place to support activities addressing these inequities, and specific policies were implemented to set equitable targets for women in administration (for a fuller discussion, see Gaskell and Taylor 2003). Teachers’ unions, in partnership with both formal and grassroots women’s groups, were actively engaged in promoting gender equity throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but gender was put under the same umbrella as other equity issues during the economic restructuring of the 1990s, and funding and policies specifically related to gender largely disappeared.

Although the loss of gender as a particular form of inequity was arguably an unfortunate homogenization of social justice issues, the reframing of gender issues in ways that recognized the intersection of gender with race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so on (Ng, Staton and Scane 1995; Wallace, forthcoming) was fortunate in many ways. First, a more nuanced analysis of how gender works, in conjunction with other social justice issues in education, has emerged. Second, the voices of men have become part of the conversation around gender equity through a growing literature that explores the meaning of masculinities (for example, Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli 2003; Frank and Davison 2007).1 Therefore, though some ground has been lost in the pursuit of social justice around gender issues in education, the work of gender equity continues in complex and dynamic ways.

Though there are many issues related to gender in education, I will organize this backgrounder around a brief discussion of those that most directly impact educational practices in schools. First, I will address the effects of gender on the organization of the work of schooling; second, I will explore some of the ways gender affects the delivery of equitable learning opportunities.

Men, Women and Educational Work2

A colleague shared a story with me that illustrates some of the conundrums around the gendered organization of work in schools. He was facilitating the practicum experience of a group of education students at an elementary school in one of Canada’s western provinces. During a preliminary school visit, he and the students were walking down the hall behind two young boys who my colleague estimated were in Grade 2. One of the boys took a surreptitious look over his shoulder at the large group of strangers following them down the hall and, in a loud whisper, nervously asked his friend, “Who are they?” The other boy whispered back, “The girls are here to learn how to be teachers, and the boys are here to learn how to be principals.” His response prompted a knowing nod from his friend, and they proceeded down the hall with their understanding of the way gender works in schools confirmed. After all, they were simply reflecting their own experience, multiplied time after time in schools across Canada.

Women and School Administration

Historical evidence suggests that the participation of men and women in education in most Canadian provinces has tended to hover around 70 per cent women and 30 per cent men, with shifts in these percentages coinciding with economic shifts and the reorganization of work (Wotherspoon 2004). Women were often both teacher and principal of small one- and two-room schoolhouses in the early 20th century, but with the amalgamation and bureaucratization of public schooling, the number of women in administrative positions was in almost exact inverse relation to the number of women in education overall. That is, while over 70 per cent of teachers were women, less than 30 per cent of administrators were women. However, during the mid-1970s, female teachers began to question this distribution of educational work by working strategically through formal and grassroots teacher organizations.

Although not all provinces adopted gender-equity policy to address gender imbalances in administrative positions, by the 1980s most provinces were actively engaged in promoting greater equity. Ontario, for example, set a specific target of 50 per cent women in administrative positions in Policy/Program Memorandum 111, followed by Bill 79, the Employment Equity Act, in 1994, which expanded targets to other employment sectors and included all four identified equity groups—Aboriginal, disabled, visible minority and women. In 1995, however, all equity provisions were struck down as one of the first acts of the Harris Conservative government. Ontario’s policy history of opening up opportunities for women and other identified groups and then closing those policy doors is reflected in the formal and informal policies of educational organizations across Canada.

Paradoxically, women’s participation in administrative positions has increased, despite the lack of specific gender-equity policy. However, that does not mean that the issues for women in administration have disappeared. Women continue to be underrepresented in secondary school administration, although this varies from province to province (Reynolds et al, forthcoming), and they are even less likely to hold system superintendent positions.

Thus, while there is much to celebrate, there is still work to be done. However, much of the attention with regard to the gendered distribution of work has turned to the underrepresentation of men in teaching and the increased “feminization” of schools. It is unfortunate in many ways that these two issues are seen as separate from and in competition with one another. I argue, instead, that they both spring from the ways in which gender is enacted through gender norms in workplaces that often have little to do with the ways in which contemporary men and women live their lives. In what follows, I will explore the issue of men in teaching with reference to the ways in which normative assumptions about maleness and femaleness are embedded in the organization of educational work and the power relations that keep these norms in place. As my colleague’s story suggests, gender has traditionally mattered in terms of who does what in schooling.

Men and Teaching

During my doctoral research, which focused on gender-equity policy, the comment was frequently made that if there was going to be policy to encourage more equitable access to administrative positions for women, there should also be equity policy to ensure higher numbers of men in elementary teaching. The implication was that the same power relationships existed in both instances.

However, Martino and Berrill (2003, 101) point out that masculinity and femininity are intertwined differently “into the daily management and organization of … schools.” While much of the research on women seeking administrative positions demonstrates that dominant male norms discourage many women, Skelton’s (2003) work in the UK demonstrates that men are reluctant to seek teaching positions in the elementary grades because doing so places their enactment of masculinity under scrutiny. In other words, dominant male norms act as an inhibitor for both men and women seeking nontraditional organizational roles.

Several rationales are offered for recruiting more men into the elementary grades. One is a response to the perceived feminization of schools and the presumption that this has a negative effect on boys’ learning. For example, a National Post (2003) article notes the opinion of American educational psychologist Leonard Sax that “schools, especially elementary schools, have become feminized” and that boys are not succeeding because schools, in Sax’s words, “are run largely by women and according to women’s rules.” Media accounts of disadvantaged and failing boys have increased the public’s attention to these issues and the political pressures brought to bear on educational systems. The result is a call to re-masculinize schools so that they are more boy-friendly, and one of the primary strategies suggested is to attract more men to teaching, especially in the elementary grades.

Coulter and McNay (1995), however, argue that “studies designed to support these ideas provide little support.” In fact, “boys who have male teachers do not have fewer problems in school and are not better adjusted than other boys” (p 13). Their conclusion is supported by Ashley’s (2003) work in the UK, which reveals that peers rather than teachers—male or female—are the dominant role models for boys.

Furthermore, merely suggesting that we need more male teachers presumes a normative category of maleness that does not recognize the many performances of masculinity that a male teacher may bring with him to the classroom. The subtext of such messages is, unfortunately, particularly unwelcoming of nontraditional males—gay, transgendered or “wimpish” (Connell 1989). As a result, men contemplating the teaching positions most stereotypically attached to femaleness—that is, positions in the early primary grades—perceive themselves to be caught between feminized expectations for working with young children, traditional masculine ideals and the unchallenged homophobia that fuels fears about men working with young children. Some researchers have observed that male elementary teachers often compensate by assuming a hyper-masculinized persona (Connell 1989; Francis and Skelton 2001), find jobs in grades more traditional for male teachers or simply leave teaching (Ferguson 2000). All those alternatives have implications for attracting and retaining male teachers and for the schooling of both boys and girls that raise concerns for school systems and faculties of education.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion that informs policy responses to the dwindling number of men in education generally and the elementary grades particularly has been premised on rather simplistic solutions that do not consider constructions of masculinity and femininity and the interlocking effects of gender in particular economic, political and social locations. For example, solutions proposed by the Ontario College of Teachers (2004) report Narrowing the Gender Gap: Attracting Men to Teaching include a provincewide marketing plan and incentives to encourage men to enter faculties of education—well-intentioned solutions that have been attempted before and that have largely failed.

A literature review I participated in (along with other members of the Gender Equity Subcommittee of the Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Committee of the Alberta Teachers’ Association) revealed that a complex set of interrelated economic, social and political factors is at play in the choices men and women make when considering a career in education. We concluded that many of the policy initiatives that are proposed to encourage more men to consider teaching are doomed to fail unless policy-makers consider ways to challenge gender norms and the ways in which they are attached to who does what in schools. Doing so is also intertwined with gender relations in schools more generally. As Greig (2003, 48) argues, we must do more than merely address superficial concerns about the way gender shapes opportunities for men and women, as well as boys and girls, in schools and school systems:

Male and female teachers working together need to foster more reflective dialogue and debates regarding the construction of gender. It means men and women, through conversations and dialogue with students to raise awareness and promote discussions about acceptable male behaviour, must raise critical questions about the performance of gender, challenge the privileged position of hegemonic masculinity, and create safe, equitable places for all students.

I will now turn to the gender issues that affect learning opportunities for those who are the focus of teachers’ and administrators’ practices—our students.

Boys and Girls and Equal Learning Opportunities

In the past two decades, significant attention has been paid first to girls and science, mathematics and technology, and more recently to concerns about boys and literacy. Watching the transition from one focus to the other has been interesting.

Where pedagogical innovations have been implemented, girls’ participation and success in K–12 science and mathematics have increased, as evidenced by results on standardized tests. However, their continued lack of equal participation in postsecondary science, math and technology suggests that the victory is only partial and that continued vigilance is required (Armour et al 2000; Armour 2001).

However, in the busy policy agendas of many educational jurisdictions, the success of girls on standardized tests in relation to boys has shifted efforts toward responding to the question, What about the boys?—particularly in literacy. Greig (2003) reports that many Canadian boards of education have developed specific policies and practices in response to this question and, although the swift response to the issue of boys and literacy speaks to the deep commitment of educators to equitable learning opportunities for all students, a deeper analysis of the issue reveals contextual influences driving the emergence of this question and further demonstrates that superficial responses to inequitable learning opportunities for boys and girls often do little to promote gender equity for either. I will frame the following discussion within the context of boys and literacy to demonstrate my point.

Why Now?

One reason for the increasing interest in boys and literacy is the growing dominance of standardized testing tied to new managerial forms of accountability in an increasingly competitive global economy. The clean simplicity of numbers is powerful evidence of competitive advantage. The evidence of quantifiable results seems indisputable, and these results feed other powerful discourses that shape our understanding of the “boy problem” in relation to the apparent superior success of girls. The media tells stories of disadvantaged and failing boys, increasing public attention to these issues and the political pressures brought to bear on educational systems.

However, that is not news at all—boys have not done quite as well in literacy relative to girls for several decades (Stanchfield 1973).3 What has changed, however, is the economic context, which in the past offered young men well-paid jobs that required physical strength more than strong literacy skills. As those kinds of jobs have become dependent on technology, literacy requirements have increased, and boys with inadequate literacy skills have become vulnerable to a more demanding workplace. Furthermore, workplaces have been challenged to offer opportunities more equitably to men, women, visible minorities and the disabled. The result is a more competitive job market in an already fiercely competitive global economy, and anxious parents and students whose futures seem increasingly vulnerable.

Thus, though girls still experience barriers in nontraditional work sectors, such as the industrial trades and information technology, they have been able to adapt to the changing demands of economic sectors traditionally open to them; boys, on the other hand, have often been less successful in doing so. The response to these shifts has been generalized to all boys, with the result that policies and practices may not achieve their desired ends because the “problem” is poorly defined.

Which Boys?

Many of the arguments supporting changes in policy and practice portray all boys as “an undifferentiated group of ‘underachievers,’ who are all victims of their own biology” (Greig 2003, 39). However, research suggests that it is particular boys who are not doing as well as girls in school. Unfortunately, we do not have data disaggregated by race, class, socio-economic status and so on readily available in Canada. However, we can learn much from data collected elsewhere about the intersecting effects of these variables on school success for boys. Weaver-Hightower (2005, 2) states confidently that “race and social class have a greater impact on achievement than gender” in the United States context. Gilbert and Gilbert (1998) write of Australia that

In high migrant density working-class suburbs in western Melbourne, for instance, one in three boys could expect to fail university-accredited English if he chose to take it, compared with an anticipated failure rate for girls of one in five. And yet boys from the wealthy inner east suburbs do better than groups of girls from working-class and rural areas, their results being exceeded only by girls from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

In other words, socio-economic class has a known effect on school success and must be considered carefully along with the effects of gender. These effects are further exacerbated by the ways in which work is being reorganized within the conditions of globalization.

In “We’re Leaving the Boys Behind,” London Free Press columnist Helen Connell (2005) considers social, economic and political effects as they intersect with gender. Drawing on an interview with Rebecca Coulter, an expert in the area of gender and education, Connell observes that succeeding in courses that destine students for university has become increasingly important in a highly competitive job marketplace, but success is organized around socio-economic status as strongly as it is around gender.4 She writes,

The sons of doctors, accountants and other professionals will continue to make it into university. But Coulter points out that in the past, people didn’t worry much about the boys of working class families because in so many cases, as soon as they were old enough and strong enough, they joined their fathers working in factories.

But as unskilled jobs dwindle, opportunities for boys to leave high school and land good jobs that provide a foundation for the future are becoming rare. More parents are pinning their children’s future on them getting a university education.

Weaver-Hightower (2005) argues further that other factors, such as sexual orientation, influence the success of boys in school. Citing Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli’s 2003 study So What’s a Boy?: Addressing Issues of Masculinity and Schooling, Weaver-Hightower observes that

Gay boys and boys with disabilities have profoundly different experiences of school than heterosexual and non-disabled students. … If researchers are not careful and nuanced in their examination of the issues, they may misrecognize disadvantages as affecting all boys, when really boys who are white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class, and traditionally masculine tend—on average—to do quite well. For boys of color (e.g., Ferguson, 2000; Sewell, 1997) and gay boys (e.g., Friend, 1993), however, the conditions are much more grim. (p 2)

As educators, then, we need to ask careful questions about which boys are failing and then carefully match strategies to the needs that particular groups of boys represent. Furthermore, with specific reference to literacy, we also need to ensure that we understand the questions that should be asked in an age in which definitions of literacy are being expanded by technology. As Blair and Sanford (2004) argue, traditional definitions of literacy do not factor in the forms of technological literacy in which many boys engage outside the classroom. It could be, they argue, that some boys have moved on to other forms of literacy that are not privileged in the classroom but in which they exhibit higher levels of competency than do girls. Their argument is an interesting one that challenges many taken-for-granted assumptions about failing boys who may, in fact, be highly successful with forms of literacy that will privilege them in an increasingly technology-driven marketplace.

When considering the effects of gender on the educational success of students, this brief exploration of some of the issues reveals that much more is at play than essentialized notions of maleness and femaleness (that is, a normative preference for gendered behaviour). Instead, current research suggests that gender is enacted within the social, cultural and economic conditions that shape everyday interactions in myriad ways and change over time. To organize our pedagogical practices as though being a girl or being a boy is an immutable category does a disservice to boys and girls in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The challenge for educators is to recognize that gender does have significant effects—both positive and negative—on the learning opportunities of our students. Responding appropriately requires that educators are well informed and that they recognize the ways in which gender interacts with the other social justice issues addressed at this conference: poverty, language, country of origin, sexual orientation, ableness and wider economic influences. Each boy and each girl in our schools embodies those complex social, cultural and economic intersections, and his or her success now and in the future is in large measure the result of our careful reflection on each student’s needs and our response to those needs.

Moving Forward

Given the complexity of gender-just practices in schools, some suggestions for practice may be helpful. These suggestions have come from practitioners as well as researchers; however, each suggestion should be considered in the particular context of one’s own educational practice.

The following set of suggestions comes from a group of graduate students in a course I taught on social justice:

  • Encourage in students a sense of competence, control and challenge.
  • Design literacy tasks that have a clear and immediate purpose.
  • Respond to students personally and with genuine interest.
  • Encourage students to develop self-efficacy through allowing them to have some control of the knowledge they acquire.
  • Allow for inquiry-based learning, individual choice and accommodation of students’ interests.
  • Make learning relevant to real-life contexts.

My students came up with these suggestions after they had carefully considered issues related to boys and literacy, but their ideas have relevance for all students. Excellent teaching strategies work not only for boys but also for other students in the classroom.

Other strategies suggested by various authors include the following:

  • Promote dialogue, model and act in ways that affirm genuine and multiple possibilities for young boys (Greig 2003, 52) and girls.
  • In English classes, add explicit attention to boys’ emotional vocabulary.
  • Use critical literacy strategies to raise awareness of multiple possibilities for “being a boy” or “being a girl.”
  • Develop action-research projects to develop a deeper understanding of how particular boys are taking up literacy strategies (Weaver-Hightower 2005, 4) and how girls are interacting with technology.

All of these strategies, and many more that could not be included in this brief paper, are most effective in a school environment where school practices open up rather than close down possibilities for enacting gender (that is, where nontraditional possibilities are demonstrated by school staff in their interactions and in the organization of work). I am suggesting not that nontraditional gender norms become the new traditional norms but, rather, that the boundaries around the expression of gender in school practices become more flexible and open to multiple possibilities.

I invite you to add your own suggestions in conversation with others in your school and school community. As Weaver-Hightower (2005, 4) asserts, “basing plans … on deep knowledge of the particular students and contexts, we can as a profession avoid entrenching harmful versions of masculinity [and femininity], wasting time on ideological gimmicks, and, perhaps most important, rolling back the gains of [women and] girls.” I hope this paper is helpful in encouraging a professional conversation in which teachers’ thoughtful responses promote exciting, rewarding and effective learning opportunities for all students.


1. Note the plural masculinities, denoting multiple expressions of maleness that challenge stereotypical norms.

2. I will be discussing gender using the normative categories of men/women and boys/girls because that is how policy responses to gender issues in educational organizations are categorized. However, I wish to acknowledge that gender is more usefully understood as a continuum of social and cultural practices.

3. The real news is that, though the gap remains between boys and girls, reading scores for both boys and girls have gone up overall (Weaver-Hightower 2005).

4. Socio-economic status is strongly linked to race and ethnicity, so these factors should be considered as well.


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