Everyday Implicit Gender Bias – How To Help Girls Identify It And Respond Appropriately

by Trish Allison
Originally Published: 
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

Every girl needs to know that unconscious bias about her abilities is completely unfounded. She also needs to know exactly what to say and do to defend herself in situations where she feels like her potential is being compromised.

While there’s no perfect script for conversations about gender bias, hopefully the sample conversations and suggested responses below will give you a good starting point.

Step 1. Define gender bias together.

This first step will help your daughter understand what gender bias is (if she doesn’t know already). You can start by telling her what you think it is. So that she can understand it at her level, you could define it as:

‘Sometimes in the classroom, teachers unintentionally show gender bias by allowing more boisterous behaviors from boys than girls, or expecting girls to turn in homework more consistently, or calling on boys more often to answer math questions.’

Gauge her reaction here. Hopefully she’ll be nodding her head in agreement. Then, without putting her on the spot, ask her what she thinks “gender bias” is.

Really listen to her answer.

Her opinion about gender equality might be completely different from what you’re planning to communicate. Consider her words carefully before you continue.

If her understanding of gender equality is completely different from what you want her to know, reconsider your approach. Maybe talk to her teacher at school to get ideas about helping your daughter understand the advantages of gender parity.

On the flip side, if her thoughts are basically aligned with yours and just need a deeper understanding with a few tweaks here and there, you’re on the right track. Continue by working out a definition of gender bias together that combines both of your input.

Here are some phrases you could potentially use during your conversation.

– “It’s always OK to tell me something even if you think it’s bad.”

– “This is a tricky topic. I’m glad we’re talking about it.” – “Why do you think that?” – “How did it make you feel to hear that?” – “If you think of any questions that you want to ask me, you can ask me anytime. You don’t have to wait for the right moment. If it’s important to you, it’s important to me too. Even if it feels silly to you, we can talk about it together. Anytime.”

It’s crucial that your daughter feels like she has a knowledgeable, safe person she can go to if she has a question or concern.

Step 2. Help her ‘discover’ how entrenched gender bias is in our culture.

Sometimes people aren’t even aware they’re being biased. Assuming women’s inferiority has become so routine, it’s “baked” into our culture.

Here are some examples of common phrases that we often don’t even recognize as sexist:

– drama queen

– man up – grow a pair – throw like a girl – don’t you worry your pretty little head – honey, dear, missy – boys will be boys – you guys

The list is endless. Girls need to know that this kind of unconscious gender bias blindly dictates everyday decisions. They also need to know what the hidden meaning is and how it affects them.


Try to keep in mind though that your message about unconscious bias will be more effective if your girl feels like she’s discovered it on her own. Here are some ideas for helping her “discover” unconscious bias:

– Explain why terms like “drama queen” are so insulting. But leave it at that. Let her come up with more examples.

– Suggest that she start listening for gender-biased words and phrases in everyday conversations. You can get her started by watching a TV show together and calling attention to examples.

– Make it a game. Challenge her to come up with a list of sexist phrases and gender-neutral alternatives. Tell her you’ll do the same, and see whose list is longer. No Google! Let her come up with examples that support the definition that you have crafted together.

The goal here is to get her to think of gender-bias examples that are “baked” into our culture. Just talking about entrenched gender bias with you will hopefully guide her toward clarifying it in her own mind.

Step 3. Give her options for specific words she can use to respond to gender bias in her own life.

Once you feel like your daughter understands what gender bias is and why it’s so demeaning, it’s time to help her respond to it.

If she tells you there’s a boy in her class who says she’s not good at math because she’s a girl, you could give her specific words to use. If you give her enough options, she’ll hopefully select the words that feel right for her and assume ownership.

Here are some ideas for potential responses to suggest:

“Some girls are better than boys at some things, and some boys are better than girls at other things.”

Or use humor:

“You just wish you were as good at XYZ as I am.”

Or simply:

“What made you say that? Can you explain it to me?”

Just pointing the behavior out without being accusatory can sometimes make a difference. Ask her what words she would use. Give her as many options for responding as you can so she can pick the one she’s most comfortable with. Work on the wording together.

Step 4. Model confident behavior.

Finally, try to remember that the purpose of the suggestions in this article is to help your daughter understand that she is no less important than a boy, that gender bias is completely unfounded, that she has options for responding, and that you are always available to help her respond to gender bias situations in her own life.

The best way to make these concepts sink in is by modeling confident behavior yourself. If she sees you reacting to outdated sexist notions by standing up for yourself, she’ll mimic your behavior. Conversely, if she sees you succumbing to outdated sexist norms, she’ll assume that’s what she should do too.

Television is full of examples of gender bias. If you see something sexist on TV while you’re watching a show together (or if it’s just “on” in the background), make a comment about why it’s offensive and bothersome to you.

Ask her if she heard it and if she thought it was acceptable. If she responds with an explanation that coincides with what you’ve already talked about and how she would respond, great. If she doesn’t respond, take the opportunity to explain why you think it’s inaccurate, why it bothers you, and how you would respond.

Try not to be defensive. If she starts calling you out on your own behavior. Her awareness means that your conversation sunk in. That’s good news.

Thank her for pointing it out to you and tell her that you’re going to work on fixing it. Ask her if she could remind you if she sees you doing it again. Feeling like she’s teaching you will help her absorb the concept, increase her awareness of gender bias, and clarify appropriate ways to respond.

If it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, try again in a week or so. She needs to know that responding to gender bias is an important topic to you, that you want to share your feelings with her, and that it’s significant enough for you to bring up again.

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