Back in 2017 I sat down to watch a BBC Two show called ‘No more boys and girls: Can our kids go gender free?’ I had reasonable expectations; like many teachers I’ve known for some time that the differences we see between boys and girls in education are social, and not biological, in nature. I cringed my way through lovely primary teacher Graham Andre calling the boys ‘mate’ and the girls ‘sweet-pea’, and the class moving to use a gender neutral toilet. I peaked from between my fingers as traditional stereotypes of gender were explored, the parents considered the messages in clothing, and the seven year old's confirmed traditional career expectations. Yet the work done in the programme by Dr Javid Abelmoneim and Mr Andre set both pupils and teacher on a path to gender equality. The kids explored more career and life options, the boys got to talk about their feelings, and the girls learned that maths is not inherently terrifying. As well as becoming a BAFTA nominee, Graham Andre has been doing research and training teachers because, as he says, we create the atmosphere in the classroom.
The different way that we treat boys and girls begins before school, and can be reinforced throughout. This moved me to reflect on what I could do in secondary education and whether education can ever be truly gender neutral.
As teachers, we’ve known for some time that:
● Girls outperform boys throughout secondary education and at GCSE
● Any strategy we use to raise the attainment of boys also raises the attainment of girls
● This makes little difference after compulsory education, as boys begin to catch up at A Level or equivalent and
● The ‘glass ceiling’ still exists in most areas of work with women and non-binary people unlikely to be in the senior roles of many professions, and under-represented in political leadership.
Having no background in psychology I was interested to find out why. There are a few differences of sex, rather than gender, to be factored in. At the age they transition from primary to secondary school, boys approaching puberty are generally ahead in their gross motor skills, meaning they may enjoy sports and become restless seated in a classroom. Girls of this age may have better developed social skills, and are less likely to solve their problems using physical aggression; although this too may be social conditioning and not genetics. The fascinating part here is the part we play as adults and teachers in reinforcing this behaviour.
Studies consistently found that teachers do the following:
● Praise ‘good’ or compliant behaviour in girls; but praise correct knowledge in boys
● Overlook ‘good’ or compliant behaviour in boys; and overlook misbehaviour and correct knowledge in girls
● Criticise poor behaviour in boys; and incorrect knowledge in girls
(Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Delamont, 1996)
What happens next? We already know. The girls seek out school subjects and friendships which reward their compliance. The boys speak up more in class and in groups. This affects, with exceptions of course, their education choices, and ultimately their life choices. These effects are not the result of biological sex or gender identity. They are the result of societal influences.
As a teacher, it may only be a case of recognising your unconscious bias that begins to even out this inequality. You could carry out an audit of your own practice to consider the following:
● Do you speak in the same tone to boys as to girls, and at the same physical distance?
● Do you distribute praise evenly and in specific terms?
● Do you uphold the school behaviour policy evenly, in a way that reflects the diversity of your pupils?
● If you use a boy/ girl seating plan, have you used data to assess its usefulness, and considered who loses out?
● Do your lesson resources make stereotypes or assumptions about gender, or other protected characteristics, such as race, ethnicity or disability?
I gave some examples of using gender neutral language to a group of NQTs, such as “the engineer always arrives early to the site.’ They all replied that they already do this. That’s great! It means our societal bias is lessening. This is important because the use of gender-specific words tends to be biased towards masculine words. This contributes to gender power imbalances. It is linked to bullying in schools. The NEU found that 66% of female students and 37% of male students in mixed-sex sixth forms have experienced or witnessed the use of sexist language in schools. 64% of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools hear sexist language in schools on at least a weekly basis. Most worryingly, over a third of girls at mixed-sex schools have been sexually harassed while at school.
Gender neutral language respects the diverse identities that make up your classroom. Using a wide range of role models in your teaching provides representation. You can’t be what you can’t see, as Marian Wright Edelman (probably) said. Your LGBT+ pupils will benefit from this representation too. Gender-based stereotyping and bullying often crosses over with homophobia and transphobia. Kids being told to “man up” or told “you run like a girl” or boys being told they are “girly” or “gay” for showing emotion only create more barriers to learning. To make your classroom inclusive, show zero tolerance on this type of language. Where it is used flippantly, flip it round and model an inclusive way of speaking or writing. In traditionally male dominated STEM subjects, seek out those diverse role models to use in your teaching, and invite in guest speakers to engage with your class.
A final area to examine is that of microaggression. A microaggression is related to unconscious bias because it reveals the prejudiced ideas we hold about a group of people or protected characteristic. They appear minor to an outsider but collectively damage self-esteem and mental health, and erase identity. Examples include, but are not limited to:
● Asking someone where they are really from.
● A fascination with touching Black or Afro hair.
● “Are you sure that’s what happened?” Disbelieving people of colour, particularly women.
● Attempting to physically help a disabled person without asking them.
● Misgendering people, particularly trans or gender non-coforming people, or using the incorrect pronouns when you know the correct pronouns to use.
The best way to avoid these is to use what we are already great at as teachers - get to know your colleagues and pupils as individuals and treat everyone with “mutual respect, care, empathy and warmth” (Evidence Review Great Teaching Toolkit June 2020). Apologise if you mess up, and learn from your mistake. Put the work on yourself if you need to know more information, and not on the minority concerned. Adapt to include.
As we emerge from lockdown and look towards a new academic year, we have a chance to consider what our classroom looks like and who it represents. Can physical distancing allow us to be more inclusive as we rethink and rearrange? Will it mean the end to using the boy/ girl seating plan for nothing more than the sake of it? I hope so!