Gender equity: Stereotypes in assessment questions

When writing assessment questions, do you think you are achieving equitable gender representation? Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) UK, Theodora Ntoka, says assessment questions often promote gender stereotyping, and has five strategies educators can use to avoid this.

‘Typical assessments often use questions that associate characteristics with gender, especially when data are used in tables. From male and female baby weight tables to comparisons of Science grades between girls and boys, questions and items using gender often feature in exams and promote gender stereotyping,’ Ntoka writes in ACER’s Discover.

Moving away from gender stereotypes in assessment questions can be challenging, she says, but it is important to ensure that all learners are represented in assessment questions, and that all learners feel included.

Five tips for gender inclusive assessment questions

Ntoka has five tips for bringing gender inclusivity to your assessment questions.

  1. Avoid using male and female as nouns. This can be dehumanising to all genders, Ntoka explains, and in fields like science, use of ‘females’ has historically been used to make women appear inferior to men.
  2. Introduce characters of ambiguous gender. Choosing names with an ambiguous gender – like Alex or Charlie – is a simple change to make. Ntoka says you can also think about phrasing questions in a way that doesn’t require pronouns.
  3. Remove gender binary from questions. This can be done by including all genders in the assessment question, or removing reference to gender overall. For example, instead of creating a table of data where you compare women and men, you can compare adults and children.
  4. Normalise the use of characteristics other than gender. Ntoka says that, most of the time, gender is an arbitrary characteristic in assessment questions that can promote stereotyping – for example, girls being worse at sports or STEM subjects, and women eating salad and men eating pizza. She suggests changing your approach: ‘For example, instead of comparing men‘s and women’s performances in a sport, compare performance in the sport between those who play at least one other sport and those who don’t.’
  5. Last resort: Reverse the stereotype. Ntoka acknowledges that reworking an existing assessment item bank can be a daunting and difficult task. If there are some questions that are stereotypical in nature, but need to be retained, she recommends trying to reverse the stereotype in a way that isn’t contrived. “… think of the question ‘One-third of the children in a football club are girls. There are 60 children in the club. How many girls are there in the club?’ If you changed ‘girls’ to ‘boys’, you would mitigate the stereotype of fewer girls playing football than boys. This example is effective because it does not disclose the gender of the remaining children, allowing space for inclusion of genders outside the binary.”

To find out more about the five strategies for bringing gender inclusivity into your assessments, read: The assessment community has promoted gender stereotyping for decades. How can we stop? published in ACER’s Discover.

Review a recent assessment that you created for your students. Are there any examples of gender stereotyping in the assessment items? Consider how you could update these questions using one of the tips shared by Theodora Ntoka.