'Mary Bousted is right. I fell into the trap of pigeonholing girls as intuitively more empathetic'

The government’s mental health tsar considers the issue of gender in the classroom and mental health education

News article image

Last week was the gift that kept on giving, as far as potential column content was concerned.

A major new clinical study revealed that environmental factors are far more pertinent in our development of depression than genetic ones. Scientists inbred rats so that all the genetic factors for depression were present and then made half of them a "rat Disneyland" to live in, where all their physical and psychological wants and needs were met, at which point their symptoms disappeared. Thus, all those who pooh-pooh the idea that poverty, trauma, stress etc can cause mental illness (and therefore there is no responsibility for us to do anything about them, for they make children "resilient") can go home. You are wrong: for it hath been proven by clever people with Bunsen burners. Social justice warriors rejoice.

The second thing that happened was the legend that is Mary Bousted, she of the bravery and opinions, was all over the gaff, press-wise, espousing her theory that inherent sexism prevents young women from speaking up in class and therefore affects their academic performance.

Cue an invitation for me to go on radio station LBC to speak about the same, upon which I discovered that the ATL union general secretary's original thesis had somehow been changed to: “Are you beautiful? Do people expect you to be stupid?” (I mean, I was once “beautiful” during what I refer to as “the lost years” of my brief modelling career and people undoubtedly did expect me to be stupid, but that’s a slightly different issue).

And then I found myself unwittingly embroiled in some epic trad-vs-prog online infighting amongst teachers (because I randomly tweeted something nice about Sir Ken Robinson). I found myself thinking that, for all the handwringing and blustering we adults do about the behaviours of children online – the cyber bullying, the obsessive trolling, the clique-forming – there are times when we’re not setting a particularly good example in those regards.

I could merrily column the flip out of any of the above three topics, so I did what any sensible person would have done and asked Twitter to vote on what they’d like me to write about. And going through to the next round, with a chance to win 800 semi-lucid words exploring their relevance to education is – dramatic pause – option two – gender bias in the classroom. It was close – the runners-up received a decent amount of interest and I may well revisit them in the future, but for now let’s talk about sex, bay-be.

Disclaimer: for the purposes of the rest of this column, when I say "boys" I mean "people who fall at the masculine end of the gender spectrum", and vice versa. I believe gender identity to be a fairly fluid entity, coming, as I do, from a family where my brother is far more "girly" than me (and a fantastic human being for it – never underestimate the appeal of a bloke who is in touch with his feminine side) and I’m often accused of being "blokey" (by which people tend to mean that I’m quite courageous, a trait which has inexplicably been attributed to the half of our species who don’t give birth).

So… Dr Mary Bousted reckons that a desire to be perceived as "feminine" prevents girls from having opinions and interacting in lessons.

The first observation I’d make about her statement is that, in my experience, it really applies only to secondary school environments. Recently, I was lucky enough to observe some of the work of Family Links, an organisation that helps primary schools adopt whole-school approaches designed to nurture self-esteem and good mental health in tiny people. I sat in on some "circle times", an activity which Family Links schools practise once a week or more and part of which involves asking children one by one whether they agree or disagree with a saying or statement.

In the six-year-olds I was observing the girls were far more forthright in their views than the boys. The girls took the time to dissect the statements and confidently agreed or disagreed (to my surprise – when I was six I would have believed anything my teacher told me, particularly if it rhymed). The boys, conversely, seemed to dislike the moment when the metaphorical spotlight of the circle’s attention fell on them and were far more likely to simply repeat what the person next to them had said.

'Boys likely to challenge ideas'

In secondary education, with people who have transitioned through puberty, where I spend the majority of my time (within my organisation the Self-Esteem Team I specialise in working with Year 11 and sixth form), the opposite is true. In co-ed environments, boys are far more likely to challenge the ideas I’m putting forward, whereas girls tend to wait until they are asked if they have any questions and then request further information, or for something to be repeated.

I must confess that, until reading Dr Bousted’s piece, I’d never stopped to consider that there might be something wrong with this. I’d fallen into the trap of unconsciously pigeonholing girls as intuitively more empathetic and therefore better able to absorb the kinds of complicated emotional concepts we discuss in our classes. It didn’t occur to me that they might be itching to express an opinion but too constrained by what their peers might think of them to put their hands up. And that is chiefly, I have concluded, because I went to an all-girls school and so my own education was never tarnished by gender politics.

All of this is my rather convoluted way of saying that Mary Bousted is totally right.

With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to think about the way that girls and boys respond to mental health education. If you are one of the three pupils in an average class who has a mental illness, your reaction to hearing you’re going to have a PSHE session or assembly on mental health is, in my experience, usually fear. The teenagers we work with worry that they will be singled out, that we will demand they share their experiences with the rest of the class or that the class will be triggering (all of which are understandable, but unfounded fears). But this anxiety manifests in very different ways in different students.

Whereas young women will often beckon me, or their teacher, and whisper in hushed tones that they want to be excused from the lesson, young men will misbehave to get themselves excluded.

It was actually my Self-Esteem Team colleague Grace Barrett who made me aware of this. A couple of years ago, I’d just gone to an international school in Switzerland and came back full of what can only be described as Feminist Rage because of the disruptive behaviour being exhibited by some of the boys ("In a hundred grand-a-year school!" I blustered. "The parents of the girls and gay guys are paying a hundred grand to send them to an environment where they CANNOT LEARN BECAUSE THE STRAIGHT GUYS ARE BEING DIPSH*TS!!").

Once Grace had calmed me down (by putting a bagel in my face), she asked me to consider whether the behaviour of the boys wasn’t their way of saying "I feel vulnerable. I don’t like this." She told me that whenever she goes into schools and a boy is throwing furniture or otherwise "larking about", she asks the supervising teacher not to follow their instinct and exclude them , because that is probably one of the pupils who needs the class most. What that pupil needs is, in fact, reassurance that they’re safe, in the same way as the girl with her head down, silently quaking at the back, does.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve acknowledged that fearful reactions to the prospect of tackling sensitive subjects look different on different people and I like to think my classes have become better because of it. Much like the LBC phone-in, this isn’t directly related to what Mary Bousted originally said, but it is a different take on gender and learning, which you might find interesting. 

Until next time, TES Readers…

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you