Gender and Hidden Curriculum

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Page last edited: 02/04/2013

Gender and Hidden Curriculum


Sociologists would argue that although there are clear biological differences between the male and female sexes gender roles are heavily influenced by processes of socialisation operating in the family, the school, the mass media etc. With regard to the formal education system it is necessary to distinguish between the formal curriculum of the individual academic subjects and the Hidden Curriculum which is a set of values, attitudes and norms that is implicitly conveyed to pupils by teachers' actions and by the organisational processes operating inside schools. When the Hidden Curriculum operates in a gender specific fashion and is combined with other points mentioned toward the end of these notes, it is sometimes said that a school is operating according to a gendered regime.

You should note that the hidden curriculum may be analysed from competing sociological perspectives.

  •  Functionalist sociologists who approve of males and females adopting traditional "instrumental " and "expressive roles" respectively would approve if the hidden curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles since these gender roles are assumed to be "functional" society as a whole.
  • Marxists would argue that the hidden curriculum helps to reproduce an exploitative, unequal, unjust capitalist class structure in  a capitalist system which must be overthrown by revolutionary means .
  • Feminists would oppose the hidden curriculum insofar as it contributes to the perpetuation of gender inequality. However liberal feminists might tend to argue that educational reforms are gradually eroding some of the most discriminatory aspects of the hidden curriculum whereas radical and Marxist feminists would argue that despite some reform the hidden curriculum still contributes to the continuation of patriarchy and/or class inequality.
  • In social action perspectives it is argued that the overall structural power of the socialisation process to influence individual behaviour is rather less than is suggested in more structural theories which suggests that even if a hidden curriculum does exist its actual influence on human behaviour may be relatively limited.

In this document I concentrate on describing some elements of the hidden curriculum. Differing sociological perspectives on the hidden curriculum will be considered in more detail in a separate document.'

  • New Link April 2013 : Click here for BBC item on increasingly sexualised culture

The Hidden Curriculum may reinforce traditional gender roles in the following ways.

  • In First and Middle Schools the fact that the vast majority of teachers are women may help to reinforce the children's impression that it is women who are especially suited to looking after and teaching young teaching although this may also have had the effect of encouraging girls relative to boys with their reading skills.
  • In Mixed secondary schools men are over-represented and women under-represented on the higher teaching scales and women are more often employed in positions which are seen as subordinate seen in subordinate such as dinner ladies and school cleaners
  • It has been argued that in the past many teachers supported traditional gender roles and that they were likely to praise girls and boys for so-called "feminine" and " masculine" qualities respectively .
  • Girls and boys might be asked to help around the school in gender specific ways for example as when boys move furniture and girls serve coffee at parents'' evenings.
  • Differences in boys and girls school uniform rules could be seen as emphasising gender differences. For many years girls have not been allowed to wear trousers to school although they are perhaps more comfortable  than skirts/dresses in a school environment.
  • Although this point is perhaps on the margin between the Formal curriculum and the Hidden Curriculum boys and girls may have been encouraged to opt for gender specific subjects and may have been given gender specific career advice. Thus girls were encouraged towards Arts and Humanities and Domestic Science and away from sciences other than biology and away from woodwork and metalwork while boys were encouraged especially to opt for science, technology, metal work and woodwork..
  • There is evidence that some male teachers may flirt with older female pupils and also that they may sometimes identify with "laddish" behaviour thereby reinforcing gender stereotypes.

[Additionally these final points do not relate to the Hidden Curriculum but they do have a bearing on girls' experiences of school. Firstly there are arguments  that in the past girls did show some fear of academic success on the grounds that it might reduce there attractiveness to boys preferring in some cases to "play dumb". Also problems arise as a result of  double standards in relation to sexual activity whereby this is encouraged and admired in men but frowned upon in women. Thus sexually active men might be described as "studs" etc whereby sexually active women might be insulted in any number of ways.]

The position of female students in schools and in society generally  is changing and it may be necessary to  modify some of the above points.

  • Teachers are now more familiar with issues of equality of opportunity and are less likely to accept traditional gender roles without question.
  • Subject and career advice is less likely to reflect traditional gender roles.
  • In any case the National Curriculum in 1988 made sciences compulsory for all students at GCSE level..
  • As mentioned the fact that so many First and Middle School teachers are women may be to the advantage of girls.

Also in relation to the bracketed points it may   that double standards in relation to sexual activity are on the decline and that high female academic ability is not a barrier to relationships with boys many of whom would respect girls' achievements.