‘What did he invent?’

This homework project, set for a 6 year old in a UK school, doesn’t even allow the possibility that an inventor might be a woman. Our supporters on Twitter were quick to respond with some useful ideas of women who’ve made great discoveries.

This homework assignment is a great example of how easy it is to pass on unconscious biases about what women and men can do.  Our lesson plan and resources for schools have some ideas for simple ways that teachers can challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom


  1. James

    The English language has a lot to answer for here. Basically gendered pronouns. They’re unnecessary, many languages don’t have them (such as Finnish). In Sweden they formally introduced a non-gendered third person pronoun last year although it’s still early days for “hen” rather than hon (“she”) or han (“he”) .

    In English we have a couple of options when we don’t know the gender:

    – use the “generic he”, as seen on the homework sheet. This has historically been recommended in style guides but the problems are obvious – it’s unclear, potentially misleading (as in this article) and has even caused legal problems in the past. And it’s very much the result of our patriarchal history, so it’s sexist.

    – alternate between he/she (or his/her). This is getting more common and the intention is admirable but it’s not always ideal. Which do you start with, and what if you only have one instance (on a poster for example).

    – Use both, either as “Where did he/she come from?” or “Where did she or he come from?”. Not very elegant.

    – the “singular they” as in “Are they still alive?” on the worksheet in the article. Some consider this grammatically incorrect, but language evolves and it has gained traction. The issue is that it can be possible to confuse individuals with groups. “Are they still alive?” looks a bit like there might have been several inventors, but it’s probably the best of the lot.

    More info here:

  2. LJ

    Bette Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper.

  3. Kerry

    how about using ‘this person’… Rather ‘he or she’… It’s not wrong and is better than the usual choice.

  4. Sue Thaw

    I have shared many examples of Women in Science with students and staff at my school. I have blogged about it here and shared the resources.

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