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Gender Roles at Your School: Are Accommodating Girls and Disruptive Boys Setting Their Future Course

As I have written before, I am a big fan of teaching negotiation and entrepreneurialism in schools.  While many independent middle and secondary schools do not touch on these areas, I think they should.  There are several key elements in these disciplines that are extraordinarily important for college and career readiness of our students.

I was reminded just how important it is to teach negotiation basics at an early age after reading the latest blog post from Harvard’s Program on Negotiation entitled “How to Narrow the Gap: Women and Negotiation.” The post written by Katie Shonk elaborated on three ways women could improve their negotiation skills, acknowledging that women average just 77.4% of the median men’s earnings in 2011.  Shonk wrote her article in order to educate seemingly well-educated women through this perceived weakness.

If one were to look at our schools, one would see several areas similar to the one’s Shonk uncovered that could be remedied with some subtle curricular and school rule shifts.  For instance, I looked at our Middle School disciplinary data for the first semester.  We had a minimum number of referrals which speaks to the good behavior of our middle school students and to the excellent classroom management skills of our teachers.  Looking closer, however, I saw a relative imbalance in the number of referrals of boys to girls.  In our case, boys were about twelve times more likely to be referred than girls.  These referrals were for things like talking perpetually out of turn, disrespect toward teachers, and repeated violations of classroom rules like walking around.  These results seem to validate Shonk’s evidence behind relative female weakness in negotiation.  Shonk writes: “Deeply ingrained societal gender roles lie at the root of the gender gap in negotiated outcomes…In many cultures, girls are encouraged and expected to be accommodating, concerned with the welfare of others, and relationship oriented from an early age. Notably, these goals clash with the more assertive behaviors considered to be essential for negotiation success, which are more in line with societal expectations that boys and men be competitive, assertive, and profit oriented.” 

For boys, it is worth it to possibly disrupt the classroom harmony and the mental comforts of  teachers to promote their opinions.  For girls, this is rarely, if ever an inviting proposition.  The rare girl in school who is competitive, assertive, and potentially disrespectful would likely be ostracized as the women with those perceived traits could be in the workplace.

For boys, the brief moments of conflict are inviting.  They offer an opportunity to earn a badge, so to speak.  In the long run, these opportunities when they stand up in conflict may, in fact, help them in  skill development in areas like negotiation.  My Upper School Dean and I witness this routinely at the end of the semester when demerit counts build and consequences mount.  Brazen boys come in to “negotiate” new terms rather than settle their accounts in full.  While these encounters are equal parts draining and entertaining, they offer a glimmer into what the boys will be like in “the real world.”  It is also interesting to see how the tactics of these boys develop from freshman year, to sophomore and so on.  By the time they are seniors, many of these boys have developed board room- worthy negotiation skills.

Again, we rarely if ever see this from girls and I think it is a shame.  I wonder if my counterparts in all-girls schools witness a different dynamic.  I also try to think if there are other areas where girls have opportunity to negotiate with figures in elevated roles.   Our Academic Dean is female and she also does not regularly encounter negotiations from female students as frequently as males as far as I can tell.  Likewise for our Counselor and Registrar, both females who handle all scheduling conflicts.  I’m thinking these may be great areas for our female students to safely assert themselves with the “power brokers” at their school.

In summary, there are two questions that need to be looked at by school leaders:

1.  How are we preparing our girls to speak truth to power and to stand up for themselves in matters academic, financial, political, etc?

2.  How are we training our teachers on the habits and modes of boys to make it safer for boys to demonstrate their perspectives and learning styles since it is ostensibly beneficial to them in the real world, but reasonably taboo in the school situations they face on a daily basis?

Taken from the

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I’d love to hear your perspective on these questions @MikeZavada on Twitter

Until next time… if you are a girl, drive a hard bargain.  If you are a boy, behave 🙂

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