Voices in Education

Reculturing Schools for Gender Equity
The COVID-19 crisis has created an unexpected window of opportunity in education. Out of necessity, families and educators are increasingly willing to reimagine schooling: where learning can take place, what content to include, and how to deliver instruction. Convention is being replaced with improvisation and innovation. One convention that merits examination is how gender shapes and is shaped by our school structures and educational practices. Our K–12 schools lag behind new knowledge about gender identity and expression. Moving forward, schools need to challenge binary notions of gender, affirm transgender and gender-expansive youth, and reculture K–12 schools for gender equity.

Beliefs about gender have changed significantly in the United States over the past twenty years. There is growing recognition that gender identity is not dependent upon legal sex categorization and that gender is more aptly characterized as a multi-faceted spectrum than a mutually exclusive, boy-girl binary. We understand that anyone can like any color, toy, clothing, activity, etc. and that some people have gender identities that defy the dualistic categories of girl/woman and boy/man. Our new knowledge has led to new vocabulary that better describes the range of gender experiences. Transgender is an adjective for individuals whose gender identity differs from the legal sex category assigned to them at birth. Many transgender individuals use even more precise terms to describe their gender, including agender, bigender, gender expansive, gender fluid, gender queer, nonbinary, transfeminine, transmasculine, among others. In contrast, cisgender is an adjective used to describe someone whose gender identity aligns with the legal sex category assigned to them at birth. New terms and understandings signal the need for new educational practices in our K–12 schools.

Unfortunately, K–12 schools are common sites for gender policing—the surveillance and enforcement of binary gender norms. Gender policing involves subtle and not-so-subtle messaging about the “right” way to be a boy or girl. Gender policing also reinforces the idea that more expansive forms of gender expression are deviant or bad. While binary gender norms constrain everyone’s expression, they are especially harmful to students whose gender expression does not conform to perceived societal norms. Transgender and gender-expansive students are often met with extreme levels of mistreatment, including harassment, bullying, and even violence. For students with additional marginalized identities based on race, ethnicity, language, religion, class, citizenship, ability, etc., the adverse effects of intolerance are even greater (see James et. al., The Report of the 2015 US Transgender Survey). Unsupportive school environments create the conditions that limit all children’s gender expression and place transgender and gender-expansive children at risk for mistreatment.

Gendered activities are so pervasive in schools that the casual observer may not notice how extensively schools plan and categorize around the binary notion of “boy” and “girl.” Adults may even assert that children are too young to learn about gender, when, in fact, even elementary-aged children are immersed in gendered spaces and practices at school. Teachers use gendered language, referring to students as “girls and boys” to get their attention or give instructions. Binary gender is used to categorize and organize students when lining up, making seating arrangements, or selecting partners. When teachers critically reflect on gender in the classroom, they tend to focus on gender biases, such as the overrepresentation of boys in disciplinary infractions or the underrepresentation of girls in mathematics. While important, attending to inequities between girls and boys doesn’t provide a mechanism for critiquing how schools center and reproduce cisnormative beliefs—the assumption that all people are cisgender.

In order for schools to be sites of gender equity for all students, we need to reculture schools, beginning at the earliest grades. To learn how educators are creating gender-inclusive school cultures, I interviewed more than seventy-five elementary-level educators across six states and twenty schools. In each of the schools, individual transgender and gender-expansive children prompted educators to think differently about gender and consider how they might develop more supportive and affirming educational spaces. Principals served as lead learners and created learning opportunities for other educators and the larger school community. Teachers decreased gendered classroom management strategies, increased critical discussions about gender, and affirmed all children’s gender identities. Schools assimilated and accommodated transgender students and modified educational spaces to be more gender-neutral and accessible for everyone, regardless of gender expression or identity.

These schools also demonstrate that altering gender norms in schools is a formidable task. Change requires more than the good will of individual educators, but rather, meaningful change takes place when educators collaboratively shift the status quo of what is acceptable and advocate for policies and practices that dismantle gender inequity in our schools. Schools are designed to maintain and reinforce gender inequity through structures and practices that constrain all children’s identities to traditional gender norms that situate boys and girls as mutually exclusive. As we take up the challenge of gender equity in schools, we need to think beyond equality for girls and boys. Gender equity requires that we trouble binary notions of gender and affirm transgender and gender-expansive identities. The goal, then, should be to reculture schools so that every child’s gender identity is nurtured and affirmed.


James, S. E., J. L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. The Report of the 2015 US Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016.

Mangin, M. M. Transgender Students in Elementary School: Creating an Affirming and Inclusive School Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2020.

About the Author: Melinda M. Mangin is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She is the author of Transgender Students in Elementary School: Creating an Affirming and Inclusive School Culture (Harvard Education Press, 2020).