The curriculum is gendered in two main ways:

1. Different subjects are associated with masculinity and femininity.

2. Teachers teach different material, or treat it differently, according to whether they are teaching girls or boys.

Different subjects are associated with masculinity and femininity

Most curriculum areas are associated with one gender or the other. For example, in most Western countries, mathematics and science are seen as masculine subject areas, as is technology. Humanities and languages (the national language and modern foreign languages) tend to be associated with femininity, though this is less strong as the link between mathematics, science and technology with masculinity. This gendering of particular curriculum subjects is not related to attainment. For example, in England and Wales attainment in mathematics is approximately equal for girls and boys, yet it is strongly marked as masculine. Vocational curricula are particularly strongly gendered. The result of this is that where students opt for vocational subjects they end up being educated in more-or-less single sex classrooms.

It’s important to understand that this gender marking is not hard and fast, and is mediated by society. It tends to be high status areas that are seen as masculine, lower status ones as feminine. So, for example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the masculine-labelled subjects were the then high status classical languages. In some Eastern European countries before the fall of the Communist bloc, some science and technology areas were associated much more with women than they were elsewhere (or are today).

The result of this gendering is that young people can feel uncomfortable if they enjoy or are successful at subjects that are labelled for the other gender. This can inhibit their performance and also lead to them opting out of those subjects as soon as they are allowed to. The big problem with this is that girls and young women are less likely to study mathematics, science and technology, closing the door on high-status and better paid careers later on. Similarly, boys are more likely to opt out of the humanities and modern foreign languages, closing down other options.

Teachers teach different material, or treat it differently, according to whether they are teaching girls or boys

Teachers tend to use commonsense views about what girls and boys are likely to enjoy or relate to when they plan their teaching, especially of single-sex groups. This can cause problems because they may then teach boys and girls differently, leading to an impoverished curriculum for one gender. Gabrielle Ivinson and Patricia Murphy, for example, found that British teachers taught the same material very differently according to whether they had a class of girls or a class of boys, and that both sexes could lose out, depending on the subject area. Wayne Martino and Bob Meyenn, researching in Australia, found similar effects: teachers teaching English to boy-only groups focused on ‘war, guns and cool, tough things’.

Gender is infrequently addressed in National Curriculum provision, although both Sweden and South Africa have an explicit commitment to addressing gender inequality through education. Evidence suggests, however, that such requirements do not always make much of a difference in practice to the content or outcomes of the curriculum. Most national curricula are based, at least until lower secondary level, on what was originally education provision for elite males in the West. Consequently, there is a tendency to give emphasis to curriculum areas based on reason and rationality, both traditionally associated with masculinity and favoured by males when choosing non-compulsory subjects. National curricula thus have a tendency to mandate a masculine form of and approach to schooling. It is nevertheless the case that, in part because of their association with the masculine, the subjects that are compulsory in most countries are those which are most important for success in employment and for civic life. One measure of the success or otherwise of a national curriculum in combating gender inequalities is, thus, the degree to which equal access to, and performance in, such high-status, masculine, subject areas, is achieved.

Useful Links

Globalising the School Curriculum: Gender, EFA and Global Citizenship Education by Harriet Marshall and Madeleine Arnot

Gender Equality and Curriculum by Linda Chisholm: A discussion of gender equity in the 2005 South African Curriculum

Pedagogic Strategies for Gender Equality: This paper sets out some parameters for thinking about pedagogy and gender equality then considers a range of challenges for governments and agencies, teachers and NGOs in developing good practice to achieve gender equitable pedagogy.

Developing Curricula for Gender Equality and Quality Basic Education: This paper brings together sets of ideas and recommendations for achieving approaches to curriculum and pedagogy for good quality, and gender equitable, basic education.

Mainstreaming the Gender Curriculum: This guide explores how to embed gender equity into the curriculum in an African context.

Further Reading

Genderwatch is an important and useful resource for addressing gender issues within the curriculum and elsewhere.

Gender in education 3-19: a fresh approach is a book for teachers published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Clark, A. and Millard,  E. (eds) (1998) Gender in the secondary curriculum: Balancing the books. London, Routledge: In this book, a team of authors address the gender issues in the different subjects in the UK science curriculum.

Mjelde, L. (2004) Changing work, changing households: new challenges to masculinity and femininity in Norwegian vocational education, in: R. D. Lakes & P. A. Carter (Eds) Globalizing Education for Work: comparative perspectives on gender and the new economy. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Ass.

National Women’s Law Center (2002) Title IX and Equal Opportunity in Vocational and Technical Education: a promise still owed to the nation’s young women. Washington D.C., National Women’s Law Centre.

Paechter, C. (2000) Changing school subjects: Power, gender and curriculum. Buckingham, Open University Press: A discussion of the gendering of the curriculum focused on issues of power and looks particularly at some of the marginal subjects like Design and Technology.

Paechter, C. (2006) Gender, power and curriculum: an inevitable interconnection, in: A. Moore (Ed) Schooling, Society and Curriculum. London, Routledge.

Shaw, J. (1995) Education, gender and anxiety. London, Taylor & Francis: A psychoanlytic take on gender differences in education including the curriculum.

Thomas, K. (1990) Gender and subject in higher education. Buckingham, Open University Press: A comparison of English and Physics in universities looking in detail at the views of lecturers and students.


Page author: Carrie Paechter

Updated: 15th January 2013

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