When it comes to education (or sport) girls and women have always had the odds stacked against them. When the 11 plus was the most common form of selection used to sort the sheep from the goats, girls had to attain higher scores in order to access the grammar school system. Today there is media and political panic about the fact that girls are outperforming boys at both primary and secondary school. I recently heard a senior UCET official express concern that the number of girls from lower socio-economic groups exceeds the total number of males applying to university. The underachievement of boys is, and should be a cause for concern but that doesn’t mean that we should stop focusing on girls. I have also been told that gender (particularly when it relates to girls) is no longer a hot educational issue, it isn’t something we need to worry about any more. I disagree.
Virtually from birth, most girls are packaged up in pink bubble wrap and shielded from the very experiences they need to develop their spatial skills, self confidence and opportunities for hands-on investigation. Increasingly, as PinkStinks are constantly highlighting, they are presented with toy choices that limit them to caring, pets, domesticity and generally passive pursuits. They are deemed to have a genetic disposition to pastel shades, lilacs and pinks of any hue – they do not!. Books and films also tend to present girls as passive with an aspiration to marry a man to “keep them” or better still marry prince and become a princess, though why becoming what Hilary Mantel described as a “plastic princess designed to breed” should be the ultimate dream is beyond my comprehension. When it comes to sport the are apparently only of interest as “eye candy” or “girlfriends” of male sports personalities.
If we are ever going to achieve the goal of a world class education system then educators need to pay more attention to some of the subliminal messages that girls receive on a daily basis and challenge them. As Sahlberg has pointed out, equality is a cornerstone of a world class education system. With approximately 50% of the population being made up of women and girls we cannot allow the current situation to continue, things need to change. It should not be acceptable for women to be framed and valued only in terms of their looks and bodies, their intellectual ability and sporting prowess needs to be valued too. Unfortunately that is not the case at present. It is unacceptable that John Inverdale focused on Marion Bartoli’s looks and body when she won the Women’s singles at Wimbledon last week, only to make things worse with a grudging “ham fisted” apology when his comments provoked outrage among the Twitterati. Or that The Times and prime Minister David Cameron have hailed Andy Murray as the first British winner of Wimbledon in 77 years – was Virginia Wade not British then? Bartoli isn’t a one off either, as can be seen in this article in the Guardian. Only last week, London Mayor Boris Johnson who described female Olympic volley ball players as “glistening like wet otters” created outrage by suggesting that women only go to University “they’ve got to find men to marry” Responses, to that little gem on the timeline of @EverydaySexism are well worth a read.
If the potential of education to raise aspirations and change lives is to be realised then all educators need to challenge and question the all pervasive stereotypes than are so often ignored or brushed aside. This will need to include challenging the limiting stereotypes about boys too , particularly those relating to natural boisterous behaviour, disinterest in books and reading and a natural interest and flair for science and maths.This won’t necessarily be easy when faced with a “National” curriculum that ignores the contribution of women to History, literature, science and mathematics but it needs to be done.