Gender issues in schools

Gender issues in school need to move up the agenda

female outlineI tried really hard not to mind what I saw at my school’s Sports Day. But it is no good. I really do mind, and this really does need talking about.

In the secondary school I was teaching at in the summer, four houses competed against each other on Sports Day. One of the houses is headed up by a PE teacher who, it turns out, is a bit of a heart-throb for some of the female staff. Let’s call him Mr Benson.

On Sports Day morning, the nine female staff in Mr Benson’s house turned up wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a large photo of his face and the words, Benson’s Babes written across their chests. Worse still, the women had paid for Mr Benson to have his very own T-shirt, which labelled him, The Boss.

All this was done without Mr Benson’s knowledge. This was not Mr Benson’s initiative. I assume also that none of the senior management team knew about it in advance. But the fact remains that for a whole school day nine female members of staff walked around with those T-shirts on in front of over 800 children.

barbie dollWhat is a babe anyway? Look it up and there are many definitions, which swing from sexually attractive young woman, to guileless, unsophisticated, naïve person. To me, it conjures up the image of an adoring, sexually compliant female. Whatever it means exactly, Mr Benson, The Boss, had nine of them. One male boss and nine women who see themselves as his babes. Pass me the bucket.

To me, the word babe is a demeaning description for a woman, which has its roots in a long history of gender inequality.

I accept that every woman has the choice to accept or reject the gender roles assigned to them by society. Every female can choose to wear whatever they like. But not in school. Not in front of 400 young females, a large proportion of whom are struggling with their identity and the pressure they feel to present themselves as sexually attractive, 24/7.

Not in front of 400 young males either.

Not in a school which scratches its head on a regular basis about its hard-to-reach girls who seem more focused on their appearance than their maths.

Not in a school which claims it wants strong female role models.

Not in a school. Ever.

What should senior management have done on that day? A group of female staff unwittingly reinforces negative gender stereotyping. They’ve spent £100 doing it, and want some fun from it. What would you do? It’s not easy, but a senior management team which clearly understood the gender issues of the day would have insisted that the T-shirts were removed from view.

None of the mainly male senior management team lives with female adolescents at home. So none of them has seen first-hand the daily struggle to cope with the pressure of the demanding and often vicious social media world most of our girls live in. But that is not an excuse. There is a lot being written on this subject. It is time for senior management to do their homework. It is time to supplement the tomes on teaching and learning, and read up on sexism in the 21st century.

natasha walters front cover of living dollsThis is so important because teaching and learning always take place in a context and everyone in education needs an up-to-date understanding of the context our female students find themselves in when they walk through the school gates. Natasha Walters’ Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism would be a great place to start. In this book the author lays bare how we are deluding ourselves if we believe that the remnants of old-fashioned sexism have just withered away now that women have equality in law.

We all need to face up to the fact that many young girls are feeling intolerable pressure to conform to a narrow definition of what it means to be a woman. We all need to get our heads round the complex reasons why so many girls feel the need to wear a short school skirt. Why so many feel the need to plaster their faces in foundation before they can make an appearance in school. Why there is a rigorous waxing routine for PE lessons. Why Wear-What-You-Like Days are torture.

We all need to understand gender issues in schools, so that T-shirts like those never appear again in any educational establishment.