There’s an urgent need to teach empathy but not everyone will connect or care

Sometimes our frames of reference are too narrow and limited for us to comprehend alternative ways of knowing and being. Our frames of reference limit our capacity to empathise.

So, is it possible to teach empathy? Empathy training has featured in the news media recently as a way to begin remedying the abhorrent sexual misconduct of politicians. The presumption is that empathy can be taught through an intervention or course. There is extensive education research that highlights the complexities of teaching for empathy in relation to gender justice that is worth revisiting at this time.

The recent series of attempts by Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images here by Eesan1969 from Wikimedia Commons) to convince the women of Australia that he understands their plight (for example, only understanding the severity of rape when he considers it from a father’s perspective, getting defensive and weaponising women’s oppression when criticised about his poor leadership in a parliament where sexual misconduct is rife) are testimony to his and many other men’s seeming lack of capacity to empathise with women. 

This makes sense to some extent. They have likely not experienced any form of sexual trivialisation, sexual activity without their consent or other forms of sexual harassment and abuse.

The question of whether or not we can empathise, forces us to accept the limitations in how we understand others and to re-examine who we are ourselves. 

As feminists have been arguing for decades, we can never fully know ‘the other’, our knowledge of others will always be interested, partial and potentially oppressive (Ellsworth, 1992).

Teaching for empathy is about opening the window for connecting with and caring for others. In relation to gender justice, teaching for empathy is important because it invites boys and men to imagine standing in the shoes of girls and women; to be moved to better understand their feelings, thoughts and experiences. Ways of teaching for empathy are many and varied. In education programs, they tend to be embedded in a broader focus on promoting positive and respectful relations. In programs explicitly designed for gender justice or transformation, they will support students to develop a critical understanding of the gender stereotypes that shape and limit their identities and behaviours. 

Such programs might present stories and scenarios that bring to life gender inequalities especially for girls and women. They might also involve boys and men sharing their own experiences of gender, including their feelings of disempowerment. There are mixed reports as to the success of such teaching to develop boys’ and men’s greater empathy for girls and women (see Flood, 2019). 

Teaching for empathy is a complex process requiring ongoing critical reflection on how we understand ourselves and others. And it is  particularly difficult given the ways our society and institutions work – most of our institutions including our schools are managed by systems of hierarchy, competition and individualism – they depend on inequality to function. 

Our political institutions are particularly brutal in this respect – they are deliberately adversarial in their focus on attack, blame and point-scoring. How can we genuinely teach for and expect empathy within these institutions? Cultivating empathy requires inclusive, respectful and collaborative relations and conditions.

The power of the empathiser

Teaching for empathy depends on how the ‘other’ and their suffering are represented. While some suffering is presented as worthy and legitimate, other suffering is not (Butler, 2010). In general, it is those with privilege who are positioned with the power to be the empathisers – to determine what suffering is worthy and legitimate. In one study I conducted in a state high school, I reported ongoing sexual harassment relayed to me by a group of Year 8 girls (perpetrated by a group of boys in their class). The harassment was in the form of skirt lifting, inappropriate touching and wrestling and highly disparaging sexist comments. My report was trivialised by one male staff member with the comment ‘Some of those girls can be real drama queens’ (Keddie 2009). Such trivialising of sexual harassment is far from new. In this case, this teacher was positioned with the power to trivialise and dismiss these girls’ suffering. 

There is also a danger that teaching for empathy can lead to a passive empathy or even pity (when, for example, girls and women are infantilised by boys and men and positioned as in need of protection or sentimentalised as naturally more emotionally intelligent than boys and men). In another study I conducted with a community organisation (Keddie, 2020), the facilitator of a men’s program spoke of women as more emotionally mature and advanced than men with a better grip on expressing themselves – he told me that ‘most men struggle with … ‘alexithymia’ (which is a personality dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating). While well intended, such views about women and men – as essentially different in relation to their emotional capacity – are neither accurate nor helpful. They reproduce a gender binary that places the responsibility for emotional labour and care on women and girls. 

These approaches to teaching for empathy do little to unsettle the status hierarchies that lead to inequities. 

Discomforts and emotions

Teaching for empathy in gender transformative ways is discomforting because it is focused on unsettling taken-for-granted and deeply embedded views, emotions and actions (Zembylas, 2014). It involves inviting boys and men to critically reflect on their gender privilege and their complicity in reproducing gender inequality. It involves difficult and confronting conversations. In one of my research projects (Keddie, 2020), a facilitator noted one such conversation he had with a group of young men relating to the topic of sexual consent. One of the young men expressed the view that a woman removing her clothes meant that she has automatically consented to having sex. This facilitator explained his response:

“Okay, interesting. So why do you think that?  Just because you took off your clothes, and she took off her clothes, that … [that] automatically means that she wants to have sex. Did she say she wants to have it?” He said, “No, but I just assumed that because she took off her clothes and I took off my clothes.” I was like, “Well, you know  and did you perform the intercourse?” He’s like, “Yeah.” [I asked] “How did she feel after?” [he replied] “Well, she was very quiet and felt sad about the whole thing, but I was like,

I didn’t really think too much about it.”  And then we looked at that, “Mmm, interesting.”  So we asked some questions, “Why did you think your partner wasn’t really communicating with you?  Why do you feel your partner was shy about expressing how she felt about that interaction?” And he was like, “Well, I don’t really know. I never really thought about it in that way.” … [and I said] maybe she wasn’t willing to having sex with you, you know.” 

Inviting boys and men to consider their own sexually coercive behaviours is necessarily discomforting. We can begin to sense this discomfort in this example. This discomfort may lead to boys and men feeling strong emotions such as indignation, embarrassment, anger or shame. These emotions do things – they tend to create barriers to boys’ and men’s engagement with the experience of girls and women. 

A renewed focus on ethical self-reflection

Such questions and limitations call for a renewed focus on ethical self-reflection – on the very terms by which we give an account of ourselves and others. Such self-reflection does not mean doing away with attempts to empathise but is about acknowledging that such attempts are shaped by partial and potentially oppressive knowledge and the reality that some aspects of ourselves and others may be unknowable (Kukar, 2016). 

For men and boys engaging in the work of gender transformation, it requires acknowledging that they can never fully know the suffering of girls and women in circumstances of sexual harassment and violence, and they can never presume to know what this suffering might feel like. It requires an ongoing critical examination of their investments in the gender norms that contribute to this suffering and sitting with the discomfort they encounter when they are confronted with their complicity in gender inequality. 

Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie


Butler, J. (2010). Frames of war: When is life grievable? London, UK: Verso.

Flood, M. (2019). Engaging men and boys in violence prevention. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keddie, A. (2009) ‘Some of those girls can be real drama queens’: issues of gender, sexual

harassment and schooling, Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 9(1), 1-16.

Keddie, A. (2020) Engaging boys and young men in gender transformation: The possibilities and limits of a pedagogy of empathy, NORMA: Nordic Journal for Masculinity Studies 15(2), 97-110.

Kukar, P. (2016). “’The Very Unrecognizability of the Other’. Edith Stein, Judith Butler, and the Pedagogical Challenge of Empathy.” Philosophical Inquiry in Education 24(1):1-14.Zembylas, M. (2014). “Theorizing ‘Difficult Knowledge’ in the Aftermath of the ‘Affective Turn’: Implications for Curriculum and Pedagogy in Handling Traumatic Representations.” Curriculum Inquiry 44(3): 390-412.