Challenging gender bias in schools

Stephanie Burnett HeyesDr Stephanie Burnett Heyes spoke at a London conference on 20 October about what gender differences in the brain can and cannot tell us about gender disparities in education. 

The conference took place to mark the publication of a good practice report for countering gender stereotyping in schools, and aimed to find out what social science, psychology and neuroscience can teach us about how best to overcome barriers to removing gender bias. 

Dr Burnett Heyes said “Large-scale human neuroimaging studies shed light on gender differences (as well as similarities) in grey and white matter volumes, white matter integrity and organisation, and functional connectivity. We do not yet know whether these differences have implications for understanding gender imbalances in education. We need to find out whether they do.” 

Gender differences in the brain could be caused by the influence of sex hormones on brain tissue, sex differences in X-linked gene expression, the impact of the environment, and interactions between these factors. Dr Burnett Heyes noted that these differences could reflect “different brain designs carrying out the same job, or different brain designs specialised to do different jobs”. In order to understand these differences, studies are needed that combine brain imaging techniques with psychological measures of performance. 

The report, co-funded by the Government Equalities Office and the Institute of Physics, followed from a project in which gender experts and teachers undertook in-depth site visits at ten UK schools to uncover barriers faced by schools working towards gender equity for their students, as well as showcasing examples of good practice. 

Recommendations in the report include ensuring that sexist language is as unacceptable as racist and homophobic language, and placing emphasis on working hard to make the best of one’s ability rather than seeking to find the subjects where one has an innate talent. 

The conference had a significant impact on social media, reaching over 650,000 accounts on Twitter and with 1,500 tweets, using the hashtag: #Opening Doors15

It also gained media coverage across the UK including a Telegraph article, a Schools Week article, and a piece on youngminds.org.uk.