Young people desperate for gender education in schools

While culture may suggest that Gen Z are clued up when it comes to sex and gender, new research shows that young people are desperate for further education, and they want schools to take the lead. 

A graffiti background with 'Living gender in diverse times' overlaid

Living Gender in Diverse Times is a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESCR), led by the University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds since 2018. 

Professor Sally Hines researches gender diversity and identity at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Sociological Studies, and is leading on the project which explores young people’s understandings, experiences and practices of gender in the contemporary UK.

Set in the context of recent social and cultural shifts around gender, Living Gender in Diverse Times is the first research project of its kind to look more broadly at how gender is understood by young people as a whole, including non-binary, trans and cis young people, aged 16-24.   

Working with a large network of youth organisations, educational institutions and social groups across the UK, Professor Hines and the team have spoken with a diverse range of young people through interviews, focus groups and multimedia diaries to understand how gender, and understandings of gender, intersect with other social elements of life. 

“We were interested to find out how gender intersects with things like sexuality, class, race and age, and how these are experienced in families, intimate relationships and amongst peers, but also in online spaces and more formal settings like schools and employment,” said Professor Hines. 

“It’s very much tied up with structural factors. A person’s understanding of gender depends on whether they have access to information and feel secure enough and safe enough within their circles to explore gender diversity.

In this way, the project team was keen to adopt an intersectional approach in order to examine the socially and culturally specific experiences of gender. 

“If a young person does not have access to high quality internet or mobile data – and we know from recent research on digital exclusion that many do not – their ability to find information in their own time and private space may be limited,” she added. “Having access to sufficiently-funded local youth groups as supported spaces to discuss all this new information was also something many young people identified as important.”

The research has uncovered critical findings that the team hope can help educate more young people moving forward, including the need for schools to facilitate more meaningful discussions and exploration around gender, as part of Relationship and Sexual Health Education and beyond. 

“We’re living in a time where gender, what it means and how it is practised has undergone huge shifts in recent years,” said Professor Hines. “We started to see a lot of media and cultural commentary about young people thought to be the trailblazers of a new gender revolution, but it’s clear those people need guidance.

The project found that for many young people gender was no longer understood or experienced in terms of a binary of male and/or female. Through media and culture, and their friendship networks, young people were very aware of gender as diverse and familiar with a range of non-binary gender identities and expressions, including trans, non-binary and others.  

But the research has illustrated that awareness does not always equal understanding or acceptance. Confusion was present and – at times – disdain and hostility towards gender diverse peers. 

Dr Karen Cuthbert, Research Associate in the Department of Sociological Studies, works alongside Hines on the Living Gender project. She said: “From what we’ve seen, young people are generally very accepting of gender diversity. But many young people feel lost and confused due to new terms that have sprung up very quickly, so there’s some anxiety around hurting others by getting it wrong.” 

Dr Joe Hall, Research Associate on the Living Gender project, added: “We are not always as open or accepting as we think we are, and we’d suggest that work needs to be done to improve knowledge and change perceptions around gender diversity. Change cannot happen by itself” 

The team is hoping to use the research to create resources and guidance for educators and youth service providers to facilitate meaningful conversations about gender. They’re also working with an artist and illustrator to create a comic to present the data in an accessible and engaging way for young people themselves. 

“I’m not saying our project will be the single thing that changes all of this,” Professor Hines added, “but if we can be part of a bigger movement towards building gender diversity issues into the sexual and relationship education curriculum, that would be fantastic.

“What’s clear is that young people are desperate for further education, and whether that is delivered in schools or across a broader range of youth settings, having face to face lessons to coincide with the online content young people are absorbing can only improve their understanding and acceptance of gender diversity.” 

Professor Hines’ team includes University of Sheffield colleagues Dr Karen Cuthbert and Dr Joe Hall, and colleagues from the University of Leeds, Dr Sharon Elley and Dr  Kim Allen. 

Find out more about the Living Gender in Diverse Times project on the website, or follow @LivingGender on Twitter

Professor Hines’ team includes University of Sheffield colleagues Dr Karen Cuthbert and Dr Joe Hall, and colleagues from the University of Leeds, Dr Sharon Elley and Dr  Kim Allen. 

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