Helping youth process and move beyond gender constructs

Gender constructs, shifting our actions to support inclusivity and debunking social stereotypes.

Michigan State University Extension youth development programs cater to a variety of youth demographics, such as age, interest, geographic community and more. While program titles and themes might be the same, content is adapted to suit the distinctive demographic, characteristics, and learning styles of the specific participating youth audience. We are all individuals with unique experiences that have shaped our perspectives, and under that assumption, each program done by Michigan 4-H educators should be a little bit different from the last.

One program that is frequently facilitated by the Leadership and Civic Engagement educators at MSU Extension is conflict modes and resolution. Again, to be effective in our position, we have to be flexible and adapt our programs to best meet the needs of our youth audiences, and we do so with intention. It seems that when engaging youth in conversations about conflict and the different ways people approach and solve conflict, a common observation is brought forward by youth. “It seems like boys do things really differently than girls. Boys don’t cry. Why don’t boys cry?”

Admittedly, this question is a challenging one to answer; especially during the average 1.5-hour time span we have for completing the program. A conversation about socially supported gender constructs could take that entire time and then some, but taking some time to have that potentially uncomfortable conversation is better than moving past the question and leaving it unanswered. The key, in my opinion, is that gender constructs have to be addressed with a conversation. There are many assumptions we make as individuals (based on those unique experiences that shape our perspective), many of which we don’t make consciously. Often times, gender roles fall into that subconscious category.

From the time they’re exposed to any kind of media, youth are being bombarded with stereotypes of gender roles. These are often unintentionally reinforced by what they see in their homes, because as adults we’ve also been enculturated to conform to such gender roles. There are small things we can do to reinforce ideas of equity and opportunity across genders for the young people in our lives.

When youth ask questions, don’t pretend to be an expert. Admit that we’re all trying to be the best person we can be, and sometimes don’t know the answers or make mistakes. Engage them in conversation about gender by asking simple questions back. “What do you think about that, and why?” is a general question that engages youth in thinking more critically about topics while formulating a more comprehensive understanding of their own identity. It is here that we [adults] often gain understanding of our own assumptions and behaviors as well.

Be aware of the language you use when addressing young people. In the Midwest slang it is common to refer to a mixed gender group of people as “guys”, or a group of all females as “ladies”. Think about what messages these words might be sending to the people in the group. In acknowledging an entire group as guys, when there are also girls/women present, we may be sending the message that the females aren’t important or worth identifying. Contrarily, by referring to girls/women as ladies, we might be reinforcing the standard behaviors expected of a woman in the middle ages such as demure politeness, and being seen not heard. These engendered terms also alienate transgender youth, so instead try addressing your groups with gender neutral terms like “everyone”, “friends”, “team”, “you all” or “folks”.

Studies show that as early as pre-school, youth are drawn to gender extremes. Girls gravitate towards pink, frilly things trying to be sweet and pretty, while boys spend time emulating their superhero action figures who are depicted as powerful, tough and active. As adult roles models we need to encourage youth when they exhibit behavior that shatters gender stereotypes, and provide opportunities for them to explore a range of activities in mixed-gender groups. We’ve been more aware of, and working towards defying, socially constructed gender roles recently, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

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