Dean’s Assembly – Gender and Language

At Newlands we value diversity and difference and the right that everyone has to be who they are. I’ve talked about this at various times in our Dean’s Assemblies over the years – but like you found out yesterday at health day the world is still filled with injustice – so why not one more time!

Yesterday you heard about New Zealand’s shocking statistics when to comes to sexual violence and abuse. You also heard about how most of this violence is directed towards women. This is an important thing to recognise as the difference between men and women
is often exaggerated by our society which is very set itable-2h5nml0n binary ways of thinking.

A binary is something that has two parts – a case of one or the other – this could be something like light and dark, black or white. Our society likes to think that we are male or female – a girl or a boy, a man or a woman.

There are lots of signs around Newlands College that we think in this way as well. There is a girls’ uniform for girls and a boys’ uniform for boys. To go to the bathroom you need to go to the male bathroom or the female bathroom. When you go to PE you go to the male changing rooms or the female changing rooms. When you play sport you play for a girls team, or a boys team (although we do have a small number of mixed team sports like dragon boating). Furthermore you might find that teachers divide you by gender too, our mentoring groups used this structure and sometimes class activities require you to split up.

Outside of Newlands College there are an enormous number of examples where our binary thinking is also evident. From clothes stores, to forms that you have to fill out for all sorts of reasons which require you to tick either male or female.

However, what we know about gender actually doesn’t quite match with this system. As you might know from Science or Health that while most of us are born male or female – up to one percent of our population are actually what is called intersex. This is where someone’s genitalia does not fit exclusively male or exclusively female and might be a combination of both sexes. Or the chromosomes inside us might be a combination of XY and XX meaning our bodies might express our gender in a unique way that we aren’t necessarily used to.

Sex Bodies

Statistically speaking there is probably students at this school who are intersex – so if that was you… think about how difficult it must be to live in our society that expects you to constantly chose between male and female. 

While our bodies sometimes don’t always express our sex in a clear way – our genders are also more fluid than our binary society would like to think. While we often think of people as being male or female, but actually gender and how we express our gender is more complicated than that. According a national survey of youth in 2012, 3.6% or people between 13-18 considered themselves transgender or not sure of their gender.


Transgender is a word used for people that don’t express their gender or identify their gender as the same as their assigned sex. For example, I was assigned the sex of male on my birth certificate, but if I was to see myself as and identify as a woman, this would make me transgender. Due to a more accepting society transgender people and others that don’t conform to the male and female binary are becoming more and more visible. There has recently been a significant transgender character introduced to Shortland Street for instance.


I wanted to introduce this idea of sex and gender and explain how it exists on a spectrum in order to talk about how we might be doing a disservice to diversity by thinking in these binary ways. I think we saw the disservice in other statistics yesterday. Having firm expectations around the roles of gender is one of the reasons why NZ has such poor statistics around sexual violence and abuse. I am going to be presenting these ideas at an education conference later in the year, and I’ll be arguing that we need to change the way we think about gender in NZ schools for the good of all our young New Zealanders.

If our sex and genders exist on a spectrum, I think we need to reflect this in the way we treat people. If we were to embrace the idea of gender spectrums and be more accepting of people regardless of how they express themselves, this would be a wonderfully diverse society! But in order to do that we have to change our language.

We are so used to using gendered language that contains expectations. To begin with, I want to make the argument that For young girls this can be extremely harmful. But as 16 and 17 year old girls, you are actually still hearing subtle underlying attitudes that are reinforced by harmful language. And unless things change, you’ll continue to hear them in our everyday language. This video captures 48 things women hear through their life which shows the danger of gendered language and the danger of gendered expectations.


This site unpacks some of those statements in more detail including: “He Picks On You Because He Likes You”. This is something that is often said, but it’s not OK. Why should we teach our young girls to equate unwelcome behavior, meanness, cruelty, or abuse with love?

Gendered language is not exclusive to girls though. While language to women is often condescending and reinforcing of traditional stereotypical roles, language to men can do similar things. For every girl who’s told she should be more interested in makeup and romance novels instead of monster trucks and water guns, there’s a boy forced to stop playing with dolls because his parents worry that it’s “weird.” For every woman who’s expected to start a family early, there’s a man who’s ridiculed for being a stay-at-home dad.

I have played both these videos together with reluctance, as putting them side by side almost encourages a battle of the sexes. I don’t want you to think about which is worse or who has more hurtful comments to contend with. My point today through bringing this discussion is to make you think about how thinking about the world in a binary gendered way is one where we limit the potential to truly express ourselves, and to truly embrace the diversity of our world.

I can’t tell you a detailed plan as to how to change things around this issue, but I bring it to you today because I think it’s important to think about. You are the next generation that what you do about this issue will change the world. Are we going to go on with a binary view of gender with only two boxes to choose from? Will we be able to wear clothes that suit our style rather than our sex? Will we be able to use bathrooms that we all feel safe using?

The World Economic Forum just released the 10 most desired skills for the future workplace. Number two on the list was critical thinking. Yesterday you were asked to think critically about issues that are faced by all young people. Today I’ve tried to challenge you more with further thoughts that relate to these issues. If you’ve taken the ideas, if you are asking more questions about them, challenging the arguments, coming up with suggestions and action-plans, making connections with other ideas – then it might well mean you are critical thinking.

The world is full of rules. When we start to critically examine them and question what we assume is normal – then we can really start to construct a better future for our society. This is what many of you are doing with your active learning time – challenging the established rules and reconstructing ideas around it. You are the youth of today but the leaders of tomorrow. Yesterday the health day challenged you to think about some assumed rules and critically examine some parts of our world so that we can make a better future for our society. I sincerely hope you have taken a lot away from today and continue to critically think about those issues.

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