“But Girls Can Do that Too”: Discussing Gender Equality with Children in a Progressive Jewish Context


Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:3, 298-320 

This study is a qualitative project which took place with six elementary-aged children in a progressive Jewish education program.

Research Questions

(1) What are children’s views on gender in/equality in the k-2nd grade group at a progressive Jewish education program?

(2) How does the PhotoVoice methodology help or hinder the process of exploring the concept of gender in/equality with children?

(3) In what ways can space be made for conversation about gender-nonconforming individuals?


Research Approach. Action research is the research paradigm guiding this work (Lewin, 1946). . In the context of this study, I aim to learn the way children in the synagogue talk about gender. An action research approach challenging unfair social practices may be especially relevant for work within a Jewish context because of the social justice orientation discussed previously.

Research Site and Participants. This research took place within the educational program at Congregation Beth Adam, a 40-year-old humanist synagogue near a midwestern US city. The present study included six children from a pre-existing kindergarten through second grade educational class. The average age of the children was seven.

PhotoVoice. PhotoVoice is a qualitative and participatory methodology which aligns with an action research approach. The methodology is often attributed to the work of Wang and Burris (1994) who used “photo novella” to gain a better understanding of women’s health in Rural China. A summary of the process includes (1) providing cameras and prompts to clarify what the participants or co-researchers should take photos of, (2) giving the participants time to take photos based on the research prompts, (3) allowing them to select photos for inclusion in the discussion, and (4) discussing the photos as a group (Wang, 1999).

Findings and discussion

In summary, six children in the kindergarten through second grade education group took photos of items related to gender around their progressive synagogue. Most of the children chose to speak individually about the photos they took, and all children discussed the photos in the group format. I transcribed and analyzed their conversations, which revealed the following themes: (1) things we can see (e.g., clothes or demonstrations of physical strength); (2) things we learn (e.g., gender norms or cultural context); (3) things we want (e.g., equal rights or gender equality); (4) things we do (e.g., kindness or learning); and (5) other social justice things we think about (e.g., environmentalism or racial issues). When the children discussed these issues, their comments and questions towards each other were encouraging, which promoted a sense of solidarity among the group. This study adds to the academic literature about children and gender, especially literature which places the voices of children at the forefront. Progressive synagogues may be uniquely suited as safe and encouraging environments for work like this, in large part due to the historical-cultural context of Judaism.

Children create the environments of our future, and the platform to speak about social justice-related issues enables an empowered solidarity to make gender-equal discussion more of a norm than an anomaly. Discussing clothing is not the same as discussing glass ceilings or the systemic oppression of women. However, if adults are willing to listen and provide a comfortable space for talking about topics like gender equality, they may be surprised by the level of understanding that children have. By allowing children to lead the discussion on gender equality, we provide them the opportunity to voice concerns and beliefs about inequality at a level that makes sense to them and prepares them for bigger conversations as their understanding of gender and equality becomes more nuanced. From a social cognitive perspective, by encouraging the children to lead the discussion without extensive instruction, we show that people will listen when they speak, perhaps motivating them to speak in the future. Discussions like this can prepare us to model and support commentary that rejects harmful gender norms or question commentary that does not. Perhaps opportunities now will empower the children to speak when they are no longer children, but rather active citizens who come together for positive changes in our communities.

A board with photos taken by the children alongside their explanations, as well as a summary of the group discussion, is currently on display at Beth Adam alongside other posters and wall art that share a similar goal – promoting gender equality.


Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34–46. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1946.tb02295.x

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1994). Empowerment through photo novella: Portraits of participation. Health Education Quarterly, 21(2), 171–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 109019819402100204

Wang, C. C. (1999). Photovoice: A participatory action research strategy applied to women’s health. Journal of Women’s Health, 8(2), 185–192. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.1999.8.185


Updated: Dec. 15, 2020