Gender identity

Power of emotions and gender in education and in the work of educational researchers

Emotions and gender identity play powerful roles in education. Every day, every child and every educator in every classroom will be affected in some way by their emotions as well as their gender identity. The times we remember so clearly from our own school days will likely be moments of high emotion and they will probably be connected, though often not in obvious ways, to gender identity.

Understanding the relationship between gender and emotions is especially important because it involves young people’s experiences with learning and can profoundly influence the outcomes of their schooling. It is a field of academic study that requires deep engagement by researchers. Gender and emotions remain complex areas to comprehend and research.

In this post we want to discuss emotions and gender identity in education and how emotions and gender identity shape the work of educational researchers like us.

While there is a strong and robust history of education research in the role emotions and gender play in education, there seem to be particular challenges for educational researchers who are working in this field today. For instance, educational researchers are negotiating issues such as the current pre-occupation with ‘toxic masculinity’, online social movements such as #metoo, and their backlash counter-movements #HimToo, the ‘click bait’ sensationalism around gender identity, and continuing broader struggles such as gender parity of political representation and equal pay, to name just a few. And all of this is within the ever-shifting economic, cultural and political landscape that is Australia today.

At the same time, we researchers see the need to acknowledge our own emotions and the link to our personal lives. Desire, envy, aspiration, fear, and so on, can affect our own understanding of our culture and our personal politics and thus the way we design and do our research. We believe it is important to recognise this and discuss it.

What is gender identity? 

Gender identity is how you personally experience your own gender, often aligned with societal norms, pressures and stereotypes, that is, what we know as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’  Most young people understand their core gender identity and may find it difficult to think about themselves in any other way. However, gender identity is best thought of as a continuumas gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation. We know some media have sensationalised the Genderbread person occasionally but it is the easiest way to describe the continuum.

Gender identity can overlap with gender expression, how an individual outwardly shows their gender identity, but this is not always the case and can differ from assigned sex at birth.  Examples of this include body (including appearance) and expression (including how you act, how you dress).  In terms of emotions, some would say that feeling able to express your ‘authentic’ gender identity is important to one’s emotional and mental health. However, the notion of authenticity is necessarily problematic given the powerful gender norms that speak us into existence as male or female even before we are born. 

Many scholars call for a need to think critically about how gender and emotion inform how we live and work and how our gendered position influences us as researchers.  

How do gender identities and emotions affect learning spaces?

In considering norms, pressures and stereotypes concerning gender, researchers continue to be concerned with how certain spaces are gendered and gendering. Such spaces are imbued with emotions, for example, dominant ideals of masculinity tend to be aligned with emotional stoicism (and rationality) rather than weakness (and irrationality) which tends to be aligned with traditional femininity. As there are certain spaces where some emotions are considered normal, there will always be other spaces where there may be emotions that are considered inappropriate. For example, it may be considered appropriate, maybe even expected, for men to cry on the sports field but not in the classroom.

In spaces of learning, emotions powerfully circulate in ways that can build positive connections and relations, on the one hand, or aversion and disconnection, on the other hand. The power of emotions is important for people working in education to keep in mind.  Furthermore, some educational spaces may be considered ‘safe’ while others, in contrast, more ‘risky’ depending on one’s gender identity. For example, students have spoken about how there are certain pressures to enact or perform a certain gender identity and failure to do so can result in bullying.

How does this influence the work of educational researchers?

When designing and conducting our research in schools and other spaces of learning, many educational researchers continue to grapple with our own questions of gender, identity and emotions. We ask what does this confusion mean for how we research the lives of young people?  

In considering the relationship between gender, identity and schooling, feminist scholarship has argued that we must value our past and present experiences. For example, scholars cite the importance of thinking historically and what this may mean for “making the personal political” or “the person is the political.”  In other words, our own personal past experiences influence how we think and act politically in the present, so we need to reflect on those experiences and think about how they are affecting us now. These experiences and their affect create and re-create the contexts and processes of our research. They shape our views of what constitutes social justice, they open up particular spaces and enable particular avenues for our research as well as closing down other spaces and avenues. 

Why is it important for researchers to reflect on their own gender identities and emotions?

Professor of Feminist Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Clare Hemmigs, argues that ‘in order to know differently we have to feel differently’. We need to reflect on how emotions powerfully impact on how we know our gender and thus how we might work towards knowing gender differently. Knowing gender differently is imperative if we are to change the destructive and harmful gender injustices that continue to permeate our world. 

As emotions and gender are powerful influencers in spaces of learning, it is important to consider how teachers teach and how children learn are constantly impacted in myriad of emotional and gendered ways.

We believe the more we interrogate our own assumptions, stereotypes and biases as educational researchers, and understand how we are influenced by the landscapes in which we work, the more we will be able to share our educational research into what is happening with emotions and gender in spaces of learning. 

For those who want more

A one-day symposium, Doing gender: relationships, emotions and spaces of learning was held at Deakin last August, involving scholars engaged in critical reflection on previous and current research in gender and emotions. It was a very challenging and productive day. Central to the symposium was reflecting on the role gender and emotions play in our current climate of toxic masculinity, equal pay, #he4she, the #metoo movement, etc.  Throughout the symposium, scholars discussed how our emotions arise out of how we understand our culture as well as our politics and what this may mean for research.

Find a detailed report of what was discussed that day HERE . The report includes some of the main themes of the day, a selection of significant theorists as well as recommended further reading

Garth Stahl, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Education at the University of South Australia and Research Fellow, Australian Research Council (DECRA). His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. Garth can be found on Twitter @GarthStahl

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie