My colleagues and I spend a lot of time studying independent schools. We surf websites and collect view books the way we collected comic books when we were young. But with all our strides as a society, a theme persists around gender we might not expect to see in 2021. That is, many girls’ schools promise prospective students they’ll “find their voice” whereas boys’ schools often promise they’ll “become a man.” With the best of intentions, toxic gender stereotypes are being perpetuated by the very institutions that strive to break them.
Even co-ed schools perpetuate stereotypes when they describe the benefit of the mixed-gender experience as the “best of both worlds”—as though there are only two gender experiences and they offer them both. It’s time for all schools to be more inclusive when it comes to incorporating gender into their brands and messages.
Here are three actions your school can employ immediately to ensure you steer clear of non-inclusive, even toxic language.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, your mission as a girls’ (or boys,’ or gender inclusive) school is still very relevant and doesn’t change; yours is a learning environment in which faculty tailor the pedagogy to what is known about how girls (or boys, or all genders together) learn best, and where they are supported as they take developmentally-appropriate academic and co-curricular risks. So, imagine if you could say all of that without alienating or disenfranchising even one student?
Here are some new ways to talk about the kind of school you are:
What was once:
We are an all-boys school
We are a single-sex, girls’ school
We are a co-educational school
We are a boys’ school
We are a girls’ school
We are a gender inclusive school
There is no perfect solution but by removing the modifiers (all-, single-, and co-) and using the plural possessive form of the word girls or boys, you’ll be describing who the school best serves rather than defining the school, unequivocally, by its students.
This step also signals to your community that your school understands and respects gender identity. While it’s true the large majority of your students identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, statistically speaking, between one and three percent do not and that should be reflected in your messaging. And the swath of students who consider themselves allies with people who are gender nonconforming is also growing. With a stroke of a pen/keyboard, you can signal a more inclusive community for gender nonconforming youth by throwing out outmoded nomenclature.
Here are some new ways to talk about who you serve:
What was once:
We serve [only] boys
We serve both genders
The young men at our school….
Good morning, ladies!
Imagine your son at our school
We serve students
We serve all genders
The students at our school…
Good morning, students!
Imagine your child/student at our school
While most of your students identify as female or male, referring to students en masse as “girls/boys” or “young women/men” alienates a small yet growing percent of students. By referencing your “children/students” rather than “girls/boys” whenever possible and using “they/them” pronouns in communications, you will validate your current students, faculty, and staff while swinging your doors open wider to prospective students, faculty, and staff.
This is admittedly the most difficult step, so grant yourself and colleagues grace as you work together to break up with centuries-old turns-of-phrase. At Mission Minded we’ve dedicated an internal Slack channel to dead idioms — we think of it as a swear jar without the financial sting — and we recommend all schools do something similar to raise your collective consciousness about how deeply-ingrained stereotypes are in our psyches.
Here are a few phrases and practices you may be using that you should consider replacing:
Naturally, your school’s approach to making these changes should be based on your unique community and your values. It may be more authentic for you to go slower or faster, implement only some of these recommendations, or push further past them.
And if your school, like many, is working through your values and how to live them more inclusively it may be time for a brand refresh. This would allow you the time and space to evaluate the benefits of updating how your values might better reflect where you want to head as an institution.
We wish you well on your journey to inclusivity—we’re on our own journey at Mission Minded and are learning new things every day.
Reach out if you would like more information about how to optimize your school brand and messages or to discuss your next strategic plan. Good luck!
Director of Education Strategy Romayne Levee leads our education practice, working with independent schools and educational organizations to raise their profiles with strategies that benefit school leaders and their communities immeasurably. She has developed dynamic strategic plans and brand strategies for Mission Minded clients from coast to coast, including San Francisco Day School, Friends School of Baltimore, and Marlborough School (LA). Romayne is the founding Board Chair of Vistamar School, an independent high school in LA, and currently serves on the Board of Lewis & Clark College.
See all posts by Romayne Levee