8 Ways to Educate and Engage Boys in the Movement for Girls Empowerment

The mission of GENaustin is to support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood; however, we realize the valuable role that all people can play in supporting girls issues and advocating for a more equitable and just society. Below are 8 tips that provide insight on how to educate young men on issues girls face and how they can serve as allies for girl empowerment.


1. Treat all kids as equals, with no special restrictions or expectations for girls and boys.
Although society disseminates ideas about what sorts of hobbies and interests boys and girls should have, it’s beneficial to help kids understand that gender interests and expression is varied. Just as much as boys may enjoy learning about mechanics and handy work, girls may too. Girls might be interested in sports and boys might be interested in fashion.


There is real value in allowing children to play with whatever toys interest them. Divvy out household chores evenly and ensure that you don’t have separate standards and expectations for girls and boys.


2. Help boys challenge media depictions and messages that are damaging to girls and women.
Open up a dialogue with boys about media representations of women which are hypersexualized and one-dimensional, as seen in video games, magazines, music videos, television, movies, and on the internet.


This excellent TED Talk by Caroline Heldman can give you some conversation points for talking to boys about the objectification of women. Heldman explains what objectification is, how to determine if a woman is being objectified, why it is problematic, and what we can do to address it.


For more information about problematic media representations of women, see:
• Media Smarts provides an overview of the issues surrounding the representation of girls and women in the media.
• Internationally recognized author, speaker, and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne has worked diligently to bring attention to harmful depictions of women in advertising.
• The Representation Project commits itself to the mission of bringing awareness to troublesome gender representations in the media.


Talk to boys about the limited and harmful representations of women in the media and potential negative outcomes.


3. Share positive role models of all genders.
Research has shown that in children’s books as well as in family films and TV, men far outnumber women. This sends the message that women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men and boys.


Proud Dad of Two Geek Girls Talks… of Boys and Princesses” discusses the harm of boys not seeing dynamic female protagonists. “Boys need to learn that watching a movie about princesses does not necessarily mean you want to be a princess. Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes does not make you less of a man. It makes you more of a person.”


• The Achilles Effect has compiled a list of books that include positive portrayals of male and female characters and are entertaining for boys and girls to read.
• The Center for Media Literacy has included some guiding questions to help boys work through common tropes and stereotypes of male characters that reinforce limiting ideals of masculinity.
• A Call to Coaches and Bro Models both seek to connect with men and boys to discuss and model positive masculinity and healthy relationships with women and girls.


4. Help boys develop their communication skills — particularly how to express their emotions.
Tony Porter, founder of A Call to Men, says it well: “As a society, the only emotion we allow boys to have is anger. We need a critical, purposeful conversation with our sons about their experiences. Doing this early on is very important. Once they turn 16 or 17, they become accustomed to not talking to us.”


Check in with boys and allow them a safe space to express their emotions. Understand that phrases such as “man up” and telling boys to stop crying causes boys to hide or ignore their emotional experiences, instead of learning to move through and manage them.


How We’re Hurting Our Boys (and How to Stop)” describes some common personality types of boys, potential negative outcomes of the pressure to conform to traditional ideas of masculinity, and ways to encourage them to be themselves.


Share and model these communication tips from Loveisrespect.org.


When boys have more freedom to experience vulnerability and closeness, they can more easily become strong, authentic, and balanced men. This better enables them to thoughtfully and carefully listen to others, understand other perspectives, and respond in appropriate and respectful ways.


5. Teach boys empathy.
The Greater Good Science Center defines empathy as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Empathy is a skill that must be learned. Characteristics of emphatic understanding (listening, sensitivity, quiet consideration and gentleness) are typically considered to be held by girls and women and thus aren’t as strongly encouraged for boys. This can be a great disservice to boys, girls, and society at large.


The Real Boy Crisis: 5 Ways America Tells Boys not to be ‘Girly’” states, “People who are empathetic are less aggressive and prone to denigrate others; they are predisposed to act with care and compassion; they have increased egalitarian beliefs and act with less prejudice and stereotype-based hatred.” Furthermore, it’s highly valuable for school, work, and innovation.


Ensuring that we take time to help boys learn empathy will better enable them to understand what it feels like to be a girl in today’s world and thus enable them to be allies to girls.


• Bright Hub Education shares some tips of how to teach empathy to children.
• Common Sense Media has created a list of children’s books which teach empathy.


6. Encourage boys to cultivate diverse friendships.
Education.com explains the phenomenon of gender segregation (the tendency of children to associate with others of their same gender). The article continues, “one of its consequences is that boys and girls grow up in different gender cultures—different spheres of social influence that are based on the differences between male and female groups and affiliations… Because they don’t share the same gender culture, girls and boys may have difficulty understanding each others’ perspectives.”


Tony Porter asserts, “Societally, ‘we teach men to distance themselves from the experiences of women and girls.’ Boys aren’t encouraged to befriend girls, he said. When they do, they are teased about romantic or homosexual implications. To encourage mutual respect, however, boys and girls must be allowed the space to form meaningful bonds” (Aljazeera).


The Sanford Harmony Program is an approach designed to enhance peer relationships in Pre-K through 5th grade classrooms, explaining that “forming friendships with a diverse group of peers, including children of the other gender, can broaden children’s social experiences and allow them to learn from others who may be different from themselves.”


Encouraging children to have diverse friends gives them the opportunity to recognize similarities and understand other perspectives and respect diversity amongst their peers.


7. Model and teach about consent and boundaries.
Sexual assault and violence against women are awful real world realities that must be proactively addressed. It’s not that boys are predisposed to be perpetrators, but it’s vital that we look at the ways in which our society perpetuates violence against women and rape culture. For this reason, it is crucial to start modeling and teaching children about consent and boundaries from an early age.


The Good Men Project has created an excellent resource outlining how adults can teach consent to children of various ages. Some key points include:


1. Ask permission before touching or embracing a playmate.
2. Teach kids that “no” and “stop” need to be honored (for example, in cases of rough housing and tickling).
3. Never force a child to hug, touch, or kiss anybody for any reason.
4. Give children the opportunity to say yes or no.
5. Encourage kids to watch each other’s facial expressions during play to be sure everyone’s happy and on the same page.


Loveisrespect.org discusses consent more in depth and is important to share with youth who are involved in dating relationships or are interested in dating.


It’s also important to discuss catcalling/street harassment. Help boys understand how street harassment can make women feel threatened, unwelcome, objectified, belittled, and unsafe. Although some who engage in catcalling see it as complimentary to women, boys should be encouraged to focus on the effect of one’s actions rather than the intent. For more information about street harassment, take a look at Stop Street Harassment and their advice for what men can do as allies.


8. Teach boys how to push back against gender stereotyping and sexism; model your respect for girls and women.
We should focus on raising children who are critical thinkers, culturally aware, and sensitive to injustice. We must give them the tools to be advocates for themselves and allies to others. One of the best ways to teach is through modeling the behavior you want repeated. Authority figures of all genders should be mindful of their influence on boys, but examples from male role models and fathers are particularly vital.


• Push back against the objectification of women — in daily life and in the media. Boycott objectifying media, contact media producers, and advocate for better representations of women.
• Take a stand for respectful language and don’t condone, laugh at, or tell sexist jokes or stories.
• Be mindful to not interrupt women when they speak or refer to grown women as girls.
• Support women’s leadership in all sectors: education, sports, politics, the workplace, etc.
• Hold other men accountable for negative comments and actions against women.
• A Call to Men suggests that men express their “broad range of emotions – including fear, sadness and hurt – and support other men and boys in expressing their emotions in a safe way.”
• Remember that phrases like “man up” are limiting and “you throw like a girl” are disparaging to girls.


Encourage boys to learn as much as they can about multicultural masculinities, gender inequality, and the root causes of gender violence. Brown University suggests listening to survivors’ stories, attending programs, taking courses, watching films, and reading articles and books about those subjects. They can also get involved with groups for boys and men against sexism including National Organization for Men Against SexismA Call to Men, and A Call to Coaches.

Vanessa Wright