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Gender diversity in university teaching

As a teacher, how can I create a teaching and learning space where everyone feels comfortable? There is certainly no universal solution to this problem. However, engaging with diverse identities and one's own stereotypes can dismantle discriminatory structures and unconscious preconceptions. In the following article, you will learn how to ensure gender-sensitive teaching.

In a nutshell: Gender diversity

The word “gender”, in particular, contains many images that do not necessarily reflect the identity of the person being referred to. Interactions between adults and babies are characterized early on by a presumed knowledge of gender. In an educational science experiment, Mias were renamed Manuels, and Leons were renamed Lisas. As a result, the adults chose exclusively cars as toys for the alleged Manuels and exclusively dolls for the alleged Lisas. Thus, it becomes apparent how the gender-specific classification of names, appearance, or clothing influences perceptions and patterns of action early on.

This classification is usually based on the categories male or female. But gender is diverse. The visibility of gender diversity has also been partially enshrined in law, most recently with the 2018 amendment to the Civil Status Act (Article 22 (3)). For a brief overview of gender diversity, see the list of definitions.

Introduction to terminology

Cisgender people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Inter* people differ in their anatomy or physiology from the conventional expectations of a male or female person.

Non-binary people are people who do not see themselves in the binary of two genders and do not identify exclusively or at all as male or female.

Trans* is an umbrella term for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (which also applies to non-binary people, which is why some non-binary people label themselves as trans*).

Gender norms at the university

Nevertheless, most public spheres, such as colleges and universities, are organized along two genders. Gender norms produce exclusion (Stern, 2019). Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for inter*, trans*, and non-binary people to experience discrimination at universities. Not being able to go to the toilet at university or being constantly misgendered in seminars makes studying more difficult.

Addressing people properly – just a question of politeness?

When people are assigned to the wrong gender and/or spoken about using the wrong pronoun, it is referred to as misgendering. Having to correct or justify the form of address and your pronoun is exhausting and denies inter*, trans*, and non-binary people their identity (ADS, 2017).

For inter*, trans*, and non-binary students, this can lead to stress, exhaustion, and withdrawal and can therefore also lead to study delays or dropouts. These barriers and experiences of discrimination are usually invisible to people who are not affected (Hornstein, 2019). In order to create a teaching and learning environment in which everyone feels comfortable, it is necessary to engage with gender-sensitive teaching.

Step by step: Addressing gender diversity in university teaching

  • Query names and pronouns. The names of people do not necessarily have to match the names on the registration lists. Before a course, you can give your students the opportunity to contact you by e-mail or similar to give you their names and pronouns. Some non-binary people use neopronouns. Neopronouns avoid binary pronouns such as “she” or “he”. The Equal Opportunities Office at TU Dortmund provides more information on neopronouns.
  • For smaller events such as seminars, it is a good idea to integrate the mention of pronouns into the introductory round.
  • Some trans*, inter*, and non-binary students may not know which pronouns they want to use in the teaching setting, so the pronoun introduction session should not be compulsory.
  • Introducing yourself with pronouns in a teaching context signals support. In particular, introducing yourself with pronouns can have a signaling effect on trans* and non-binary students, which enables better participation.
  • Address students in the seminar by their first and last name instead of Mr./Mrs. Instead of addressing students by their first and last names, they could be addressed by their first names only. It is recommended to negotiate this individually with the students in the teaching setting.
  • Gender-neutral wording in e-mails. Gender identity cannot necessarily be deduced from names.
  • For trans* and non-binary people, finding a safe public bathroom is often a daily stressor. Find out if and where the nearest allgender bathroom is at your university.
  • If you as a teacher have misgendered someone, you can correct yourself briefly or if you are unsure, you can ask people about their pronouns during the break.
  • Encourage students to use correct names and pronouns for each other; teachers should intervene in cases of misgendering and deadnaming.
  • Critically reflect on and address the representation of gender norms in teaching content and materials. Gender also plays a greater role in scientific or technical subjectsthan we might think. Discriminatory algorithms are not uncommon (Orwat, 2019). Even in medicine, the healthcare of intersex and trans* people has little to no place in the curriculum. Case studies in law sometimes contain stereotypical gender representations such as “the housewife”. One approach here could be to reflect on the curriculum with colleagues and/or to include students’ perspectives.
  • It is helpful to consider your own positioning when selecting materials and to think about the extent to which exclusion can arise from your own perspective.

Many information centers and texts by trans*, inter* and non-binary people offer informative literature:

In this video, Prof. Dr. Antje Langer (University of Paderborn) talks about gender-sensitive education (German).

Background: “University free of discrimination” project

As part of the “University free of discrimination” project, discrimination factors and risks, indicators to prevent unequal treatment, and good practices to ensure freedom from discrimination were surveyed in collaboration with eleven partner universities and various experts (ADS, 2012).

Legal basis

The aim of the law is to prevent or eliminate discrimination based on race or ethnicity, gender, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual identity.

Act on the Abolition of Discrimination based on Gender or Sexual Identity, AGG § 1 Aim of the Act

The foundation for gender-sensitive teaching is the German constitution (Article 3, Paragraph 3), the Personal Status Act (Article 22), the Treaty of Amsterdam (Article 6a) and the General Equal Treatment Act.

Links & Literature

Header-Image: © Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

  • Alessa Katharina Heimburger
  • Michéle Seidel

    Michéle Seidel (M.A.) is a research assistant at the Center for Academic Development at the TH Köln University of Applied Sciences with a focus on hybrid/digital teaching, social online learning environments, science communication and research.

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