Gender Roles in Education: Not Defined by the Biological Flip of a Coin

What, and how our children are taught in schools is always a popular topic, and so it should be. Our schooling invariably has a huge impact on who we grow up to be. We would like to think that in this modern era, it doesn’t matter whether you’re sending a boy or a girl to school, they should have the same chances, be treated the same and leave school with a considered and balanced view on gender. Without the stereotyping and sexism that might have occurred in the past. Whether this is actually the case, is unfortunately still very much up for debate.

In Sweden a school has banned the use of ‘him’ and ‘her’ when describing pupils and visitors, in an attempt to disrupt gender stereotyping; people are described with the non-gender specific ‘hen’. The school is going even further to remove gender from children’s play and activities; toys are gender neutral colours, and classically boy or girl toys such as play kitchens and construction kits are placed next to each other to remove distinctions or barriers. The head of the school claims the aim is to “give them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”   

This is a first of its kind school, and probably seems like an extreme option to people in the UK, but it does highlight how much gender affects children, and makes us ask whether there are lessons to be learnt here.

A photo of boys studyingWhen people talk about gender differences in schools these days, it’s nearly always about one thing; the widening gap in achievement between boys and girls. On the face of it, some of the statistics do show how girls are overtaking in achievements; looking at GCSE results for 2012, girls outperformed boys by a margin of 7.9%, the highest ever. Girls also did significantly better at the highest achievement level of A*, with 8.7% of girls achieving compared to 6.0% of boys. Going on to further education, university places in the UK are now becoming more and more dominated by women, with overall percentages of 55% to 45% in their favour. In over 20 higher education institutions, including Bath Spa and Cumbria University, the difference is startling, with double the amount of female to male undergraduates.

The reasons for this significant and widening gap in achievement isn’t really known, although there are a number of theories. In 2009 the government published information entitled ‘Gender and Education – Mythbusters’ in which they highlighted a number of these theories and how research has failed to back up the assumptions; ideas such as “school, and the current curriculum doesn’t interest boys”, “boys and girls have different learning styles” and “boys prefer reading non-fiction” were all shown to be either false, or under-researched.

So if these common assumptions aren’t true, then why does the gap exist? Well we don’t know, with some experts claiming that it’s simply down to girls maturing faster than boys, and understanding earlier, the importance of doing well.

It seems that in areas where girls aren’t doing as well, such as science, the suggestions for improving the situation just seem to highlight how gendered education still is, and how it supports existing gender roles. One such ‘helpful’ piece suggest highlighting the value of maths and science to girls through domestic activates;

A photo of tools with pink handles“Cooking – especially a recipe – uses both maths and science: Weighing, measuring and timing are all mathematical exercises. Baking in particular, where the action of X on Y causes Z, is a scientific activity. If you encourage your daughter to experiment in the kitchen, she will be more comfortable experimenting at school.” 

Similarly, to encourage girls to get involved with ‘boy’ activates such as woodwork and design, companies have begun producing tools with pink handles…because it was only the ugly colour that was stopping girls getting involved before…

With so much misinformation and misunderstanding on why the gender gap exists, and why negative gender stereotypes continue to pervade children’s education and expectations, it’s difficult to understand the real problems. And where the solutions might come from. Some of this may be attributed to the gendering of the teachers themselves – in the UK only 12% of primary school teachers are men, with 4,500 primary schools have no male teachers at all. Some believe this could be an attribute in boys underachievement; part of a lack of male role models at a younger age. On the reverse, it also embeds in children that teaching is a ‘girls’ job, creating a self-serving cycle. Even taking secondary schools into account, less than 1 in 4 teachers are men.

 A photo of a male teacherA further issue seems to be that despite increasing achievement levels for girls, schools are not helping to change expectations for what roles that these girls and boys will grow into when they leave school. Work experience placements, a compulsory part of secondary education during Year 10, currently reflect and enforce gender segregation in the labour market. Children and young adults are learning that men and women do certain things, with schools currently doing little to change the situation. EOC research shows that these placements have a real impact on what a child’s career will end up being. Beyond this, rather than a gendered curriculum or teaching style, it seems to be the behavior of children in schools that does a lot to define gender roles. Sexism and sexist bullying continue to be pervasive in schools, and can be extremely harmful to individuals, as well as creating negative perceptions of boys and girls.

A photo of a workman and an officewomanIn 2009 the Equal Opportunities Commission set out what it sees as possible solutions to the current gender gap, and the negative gender perceptions children are learning. At the core of their many suggestions are a much stronger, and early starting education in the health and social aspects of gender in order to tackle sexual and gendered bullying. Also recommended is career advice, experience and education that really tackles gender stereotyping in the workplace, opening up the possibilities for young adults. They also saw the lack of girls engaging in physical education as a worrying trend that needs real attention given our countries increasing obesity crisis.

The reality of the situation is that we need to tackle gender stereotyping in sexism in all aspects of society, and this is especially important in the life of a young person forming beliefs and perceptions that with define the rest of their life. Rather than focusing on pseudo-neuroscience that tries to show how different boys and girls are, we should put our energies into providing them with a more gender equal and honest environment in which to learn, as well as supporting individuals to make career and life choices that are not defined by the biological flip of a coin.

Oliver Sheldrick

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