Girls are destined to be teachers while boys are destined to be businessmen, it’s just what nature says
Lorna Lamont, Focus West Development Worker
In the week of International Women’s Day (10 March 2022) I thought it would be fitting to discuss the topic of gender.
Gender in the 21st century is something that is widely discussed and constantly evolving. Historically it was simply seen as two parts: male and female (Wood & Eagly, 2015). However, in modern society we have grown and learned the variation and spectrum that gender can be, including identities such as non-binary and trans-gender (Young Scot, N.D).
Looking at gender within the context of education however, it has historically created a divide between boys and girls at school, due to the institutionalised sexism within the curriculum and education system (UNESCO, 2021). This has resulted in a negative effect on the development of all boys and girls regarding their understanding of gender and the aspirations or achievement they might make.
Emily (14-year-old girl) enjoys maths and science at school, she dreams of becoming an engineer when she is older and loves the idea of working with cars. But she is the only girl in her class that has chosen to take Physics at Higher next year. She is worried she will be picked on or laughed at by her peers and she doesn’t want to feel isolated within the classroom. What can she do? She needs Higher Physics to be able to continue with her dream of being an engineer, but the way society has socialised girls within her life, is to be interested in English and writing. Why is this the case?
Emily is experiencing a common feeling a lot of girls have while studying at school and choosing their subjects, because she doesn’t fit into societies box of what being a girl involves and what she ‘should’ enjoy. But where has this stemmed from?
Gender stereotypes. Stereotypes have been engrained in society from many years ago, and still to this day, they are impacting the way in which young people develop, particularly in education. Boys like blue and girls like pink (Alan et al, 2018), is the instant stereotype we associate with each gender. Girls are brought up in an environment being taught to be caring, nurturing and empathetic towards everyone, being told they will become teachers or work within the creative industry (Alan et al, 2018). Meanwhile, boys are taught to be rough, playful, and cheeky, being led towards the more practical or science-based routes at school and told they will become rich and successful (Alan et al, 2018). What impact is this having on these young people at school?
Firstly, it creates something called a ‘glass ceiling’ for girls (BBC, 2017). The glass ceiling is a term that has defined the way in which education and other institutions has limited the achievement of females. Within school, this is exhibited through lack of representation of female teachers in subjects such as science and maths, whilst also gearing girls towards more creative pathways. By not representing women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) subjects, it means females lack a positive role model in that field, and if they are interested in this area, like Emily, then it can create worry or stress about potential isolation or mockery. Women are brought up in a society that teaches them that men are the breadwinners and are there to earn the income, while women are the nurturing, caregivers, whose career isn’t as important (Tabassum & Nayak, 2021). At school, this majorly impacts girls because they might not see their education or their career ambitions as worthy or something they are capable of.
The misconceptions and gender stereotyping within school has created a gender-based educational attainment gap. With girls it has created an underachievement of certain subjects, with research highlighting the specific low grades in physics, in comparison to other subjects where they present high achievement (Hofer & Stern, 2016). This was suggested to potentially impact their academic careers and severely restrict their future opportunities, highlighting the effect the glass ceiling can have for such young females. This research suggested the reasons for underachievement in specifically physics was due to low interest and low self-concept in this subject, echoing the already made point of how girls are deterred away from this subject choice, and through socialisation and traditional gender stereotyping, they don’t believe it’s in their domain to achieve well in the STEM subject field (Hofer & Stern, 2016).
But not only does this negatively impact the girls and limit their aspirations, it inhibits the achievement of boys.
Sammy (16-year-old boy) has become the class-clown, he is always the joker and shouting out in class to try and make his classmates laugh. He finds it funny to distract his peers, and his teachers only giggle and brush it him off as ‘typical Sammy’, ‘boys will be boys’. Sammy hasn’t been told that his misbehaviour is limiting his ability, he is very intelligent and could do very well in his subjects and exams, but his teachers have had to put him in the lower sets for most subjects to try and manage his behaviour and not distract the higher achieving students.
By encouraging boys to be playful and cheeky, it can easily lead them down a route of misbehaviour and lack of concentration in the classroom, and Sammy is just one example of this. When boys are growing up, their parents and teachers encourage them to be rough and ready, and don’t prepare or teach boys to be emotionally sensitive (The Children’s Society, 2020). Through this, it gears boys towards a harsh working environment and prepares them to deal with the brutality of these types of jobs. For example, working within business you need to be confident, demonstrate leadership qualities, and have thick skin when it comes to dealing with negative situations (Stobierski, 2021). This is what boys are socialised to be when they are growing up, and at school if they are the class-clown or taking the lead within the class, this is seen as something admirable and entertaining. Sammy was positively reinforced by his peers and teachers, with the giggling behaviour, and whilst this teaches him that he has the authority and dominance over the class environment, it has led to the underachievement of his own potential.
The misbehaviour of boys and encouragement of this type of attitude, has led to the underachievement of boy’s attainment in school. Research has shown boys typically demonstrate difficulties self-regulating and paying attention in class which has led to lower predictions in average academic achievement (Owens, 2016). This research particularly highlighted how behavioural problems in boys aged 4-5 years-old, was a factor in what is leading to the current gender gap in education and schools by the age of 26-29 years old (Owens, 2016).
But its not just as simple as overcoming the gender stereotypes. It is not just a case of two extreme gender identities of male and female. As we know, the 21st century is an ever-evolving society where people are beginning to express their gender identity more confidently and publicly (Young Scot, N.D). Therefore, we, as members of society and those that work within education, need to be aware of new challenges that these people may face and be sensitive to the changes we should be consciously making. This can include small changes, such as gender pronouns, so being aware of how we use he, she, and they. But also more institutionally, we need to be active in advocating for freedom of gender expression and encourage people to aim for their ambition regardless of gender or the stereotype associated with that.
What can we do now?
By simply starting the conversation about gender and the educational attainment gap, we can begin to see the cracks in our system. We need to highlight these and call out the institutions for where they are being unfair and unequal. We need to normalise the expression of gender and personal interests, without the over-arching presence of out-dated gender stereotypes. Everyone, regardless of gender, deserves to achieve their highest potential, and have the unbiased support and encouragement, from educational professionals, their family, and society at large, to be able to reach this.
SCAPP thanks to Lorna Lamont, FOCUS West, for supplying this blog