Girls in the Image of God: how is gender bias hurting our youth?

In a previous career, I was a sign language interpreter. One summer, I interpreted for a 7th grade girl in her summer school classes, a very small group with three girls and three boys, with a woman teacher.

I vividly remember the day they played a Jeopardy-type quiz game, with the boys on one team and the girls on the other. Every time the girls got ready to answer a question, the teacher said, “Boys, get ready to steal!” (She never said this when the boys answered.) And when at the very last second, the girls pulled out a win, and boys said, “It’s not fair!”, the teacher said, “We’ll just call it a draw.” The boys cheered. The girls sat mutely. I had to leave the room to fume for a minute.

I don’t think it was intentional, but the classroom disparity between the boys and the girls was shocking to me.

I bring this up in light of two articles I recently read. 

The first, on Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick?, spoke of how our praise can backfire particularly when it comes to math (“You’re really good at math” can become the very thing that keeps girls from continuing when math becomes difficult). It made me wonder about how we might be discouraging our girls in church in various ways, through some of the things we think are positive.

The second, This is what brave means, notes that so often what we mean by telling girls to “be brave” is to do something they don’t want to do – and that this sets them up for risky behavior in the future.

Neither of these was specifically about the church, but they all made me think of the ways that we in the church may set girls up to conform to our expectations rather than allow them to show how each one is made in the image of God, in her own way.

I don’t think this is intentional any more than the teacher I worked with was intentional, but I realize upon reflection that there are some subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we in the church tell the boys “Get ready to steal!” And let me be clear – it’s not the boys’ fault! They are learning these things from us just as much as the girls are. And these same biases keep boys from being who they are created to be as well, as they too need to conform to these gender biases.

With that in mind, here are some questions I have for myself to check for my own blind spots. I confess these in hopes these may help in your own reflection. May we encourage the girls and the boys in our congregations to embrace the full humanity they have been given and shine their light in the world.

  • If there are more girls than boys in a group, do I work to involve the boys more? If there are more boys than girls in a group, do I work to involve the girls more?
  • If a girl is rambunctious, do I try to get her to tone it down more than I would a boy in the same circumstances?
  • Do I look at quiet girls as well-behaved and quiet boys as needing to be drawn out?
  • Do I praise girls for their looks/what they wear when they come to church? Do I do the same for boys?
  • Do I tell youth “You are such a good person” rather than thank them for particular things they did? Do I define “good” differently for boys and girls?
  • How often do I praise girls for helping, serving, or supporting others, as opposed to praising them for leading, speaking up, or challenging others?

What other questions do you have that can help us reveal our own gender biases towards our youth?