Looking at girls’ academic achievement, you’d be forgiven that girls have got it made and are flying in education. They outperform boys on most academic measures, with 70% of girls reaching the expected standard at KS2 in 2019 compared with 60% of boys, a gap that only widens.
At GCSE, three quarters of girls achieve grade 4 or above, with 5.4% of girls’ grades at the top grade 9, while those figures are two thirds and 3.9% for boys. Even in traditionally ‘male’ subjects, girls are pulling ahead, with girls’ entries to Science A-Levels overtaking boys for the first time last summer.
But after school, the picture becomes quite different and the attainment gap swiftly seems to reverse. Looking around the public landscape, women aren’t what would seem to be their rightful share of economic or political power. Just six FTSE 100 CEOs are female, and 34% of the House of Commons – although that is higher than ever, nearly half of them are childless compared with a third of their male counterparts.
More than that, there’s still a polarised social backdrop of gender expectation that tells girls to be quiet, sit down, and put themselves last. At the youngest end of the spectrum, it’s the overwhelming message from children’s clothing. Boys’ clothes have explorers, adventurers, and the slogans proudly declare them “Future Inventor”, “One to Watch” or “Wild One!”
Girls’ shirts proclaim “Be kind” on a backdrop of unicorns and sparkles. There’s nothing wrong with unicorns or sparkles in themselves, but when they’re a girls’ only choice they do seem to be symptomatic of the infantilising of women and a particularly childlike brand of femininity.
That “Be Kind” message is also interesting in light of recent events –#bekind sprang to popularity after Caroline Flack’s death and social media everywhere has latched onto it. And we should be kind, no doubt! But those traditionally feminine qualities of kindness, nurture, and collaboration have generally been held less valuable, replaced by more traditionally masculine ones of ambition, individuality, and competition.
Those are all pretty healthy in different situations – but insisting girls must be only feminine seems ludicrous. Yet that’s exactly where we’ve ended up often in spite of ourselves. Even the UN agrees, in a report criticising global companies’ AI devices for choosing female voices by default, sending “a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button.”1
We all recognise the type: the ‘Blue Peter girl’2, or the ‘Nice Girls’ from Diane Reay’s 2001 article about primary schoolgirl identity. They’re the ones we rely on, even when we know we’re doing it too much. They’re the ones who show visitors round, befriend the new girl, or lend someone their work to catch up from. We know that they’ll have done everything right, answered every question – and self-assessed it into the bargain – and generally be lovely. We’ve got them tagged to be head girl from Christmas of Year 7.
But they’re also the ones we’ll sit next to the other one who needs to be kept quiet. They’re the one we forget, sometimes, to give praise because it’s ‘how they are’ and they’re self-motivated anyway, aren’t they? And when it actually comes to being Head Girl, well, actually wouldn’t it be better to give it to someone a little more dynamic and who can rally the rest a bit more through her social connections?
Bad For Boys
Some arguments suggest this is biological, that girls are nurturers and boys are aggressively masculine because it’s all about evolution, and fighting for a mate. But actually there’s a lot of research suggesting that evolutionary biology isn’t the whole story (it isn’t replicated in every society in the world, and is founded in Victorian science which openly connected its conclusions with contemporary gender roles). Researchers including Cordelia Fine and Angela Saini have meticulously documented these flaws, calling into question the biological ‘truth’ of gender.
This kind of patriarchal thinking holds back boys as well as girls. By polarising gender this way and not openly encouraging a blending of masculine and feminine, we’re trapping boys into an alpha male identity which restricts their experience of emotions and healthy relationships.
Inevitably, this has led to a crisis of male mental-health and a continuing perception that seeking help, or even just discussing personal emotions, is simply something ‘men don’t do’.
And actually, giving these more feminine qualities a higher value is really important to encourage our students to be self-confident, motivated, aware of themselves and others, and to be able to truly explore their own identities with confidence as they grow.
Whether we work in a primary or secondary setting, tackling these big questions of gender is essential. Top of the to-do list is encouraging an open conversation that challenges and explores these at every level. A study of reading books as recently as 2018 revealed the biases in representation of gender.3 Male characters are polarised – hero or monster – and women are only given the role of mother, and usually deeply undervalued. The mother stays at home, not often actually part of the child’s story.
When animal characters are male, they’re the powerful and dangerous dragons or tigers. When they’re female, they’re the prey, vulnerable and tiny. Textbooks aren’t a lot better, especially in Key Stage Three where investment can be less than GCSE – researchers, scientists, doctors and astronauts are the male roles – in one case even when the picture of a NASA astronaut was the female Sunita Williams her name wasn’t used and the pronoun attached to the caption was male!
We can think about the roles we put students into as well. When we organise groups, do we take opportunities for girls and boys to practise leadership and nurturing? Do we reward kindness, and discuss what kindness means to us in order to build empathy and understanding?
Oracy’s another interesting example where unconscious bias creeps in and the masculine traits have become more valued. In her excellent book, Mary Beard traces the origins of rhetoric to ancient Greece and Rome, arguing that even the structures of oracy are patriarchal ones; they demand one individual stand up and talk at others, rather than the more feminine quality of a discussion where everyone has a voice.
Instead, we could create roles that deliberately focus on bringing others into conversation, summarising from others or finding ways to connect others’ ideas to build a more collaborative oracy skill.
When planning the RSE curriculum for implementation in September 2020, it’s a good time to question who’s taught what and when. Are boys and girls taught together? If we choose to separate them to help them ask questions, it’s important that both sexes get the same content; both deserve to know how the other’s body works.
We should think about wider skills our students need to level the playing field in later life, not just at work but in their daily lives. Financial literacy is a critical skill; women earn less than men over their lifetime, and often have worse savings and pensions so they’re hit harder by life events. Being aware of the importance of money and thinking about what they value, even from a young age, can help build money confidence.
Finally, perfectionism is often under-estimated but in many girls, especially those helpful ones, the thought of being wrong can become almost physically crippling, in large part because their self-worth is so tied up in the value that other people place on them. It’s worse because schools often value the very things that perfectionists do to mask their insecurity: the tiny, neat handwriting, the beautiful headings and meticulously double-underlined date. We have so many opportunities to break this down in schools, helping students to set realistic expectations for themselves for what they can produce or how long a task would take, clear scaffolding to make daunting tasks more manageable, and providing ways for students to take risks, challenge themselves and have it be ok that they don’t do as well as they might have wanted to.
Top tips for building a gender-aware education
- Take opportunities to explicitly challenge gender stereotypes, in everything from play corners to literary text choices.
- Audit subject take-up at GCSE and A-Level and explore barriers to either gender.
- Question everything from a gendered lens. Why are we still teaching PE separately? What about RSE? Do boys and girls have opportunities to learn exactly the same content even if we decide to keep them separate?
- Ensure skills like oracy and writing provide opportunities to value feminine qualities like collaboration, kindness, and nurture.
- Consider other skills and knowledge that even up the gender divide, like financial literacy.
- Structure and scaffold carefully to help girls break down their perfectionist barriers.
Charlotte Woolley is the Author of Lost Girls : Why A Feminist Revolution in Education Would Benefit Everyone published by John Catt. She is Head of English and Communications at a girls’ school in North Yorkshire where she’s worked for a decade to raise girls’ aspirations and change the gendered narrative of education
- I’d Blush If I Could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education, UNESCO, 2019
- Chris Curtis, http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com/
- Donna Ferguson, “Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children’s books”, The Guardian, 21 January 2018