Gender roles

29th July 2011 at 01:00
Traditional ideas of how they should behave still exert a powerful influence on young people, who tend to revert to the `proper' roles of boys and girls. Adi Bloom reports on the schools taking bold steps to try to break down these stereotypes

Initially, it was going to be called the Dream Centre. Or, alternatively, the Second Chance School. Either way, the general emphasis was towards unadulterated cheese. "I had really mushy names," Alex Torres says. "Really ridiculous names. But I wanted something really powerful - something that said, `This is what we can do.'"

Then she happened across a wartime motivational poster. A woman in denim overalls and knotted headscarf pulls back her sleeve to reveal a muscular forearm. She raises a wry eyebrow at poster-viewers. "We can do it!" she tells them.

She was Rosie the Riveter, created by the US wartime government to encourage women into the factory jobs abandoned by enlisting men. And suddenly Ms Torres' school, in the low-income suburbs of Los Angeles, had a name: Rosie the Riveter High.

"Our school is very female-orientated," Ms Torres, its principal, says. "There are pictures everywhere of women who were pioneers in their fields: women astronauts, women who changed their society. The English classroom has pictures of women writers; the science classroom has women scientists; the social-science classroom has women throughout history. We're showing that women can achieve whatever they want to achieve."

Officially, schools on both sides of the Atlantic are long past the era of study-based segregation. It would be a brave - and quickly unemployed - headteacher who shepherded girls into the home-economics classroom, while boys experimented with the vices and saws in the design and technology workshop. But, while official segregation may no longer exist, the unofficial separation enforced by pupils' own prejudices is often just as powerful.

"It's a girl's job," Imogen Green says, eyeing the sewing machine in front of her. "You always see your mum doing it, so it always comes quite naturally to think it's a girl's job. But most men can do it. It's not like it's hard. They just choose not to. They think, `It's like a woman's job.'"

Thirteen-year-old Imogen is a pupil at Abbotsholme School, an independent boarding school in the Staffordshire countryside. Along with all other Year 8 pupils, she is undertaking a nine-week course in extended skills. These skills span the spectrum of household usefulness, from pet care through to car maintenance, via washing, ironing, sewing and cookery.

And pupils' interest in these lessons is invariably predictable. "I thought sewing was a bit girly," says Imogen's classmate, 12-year-old Ross Sheridan. "Mostly my grandmother does it. But I'll probably do car maintenance GCSE - I want to be an engineer. It's quite male-dominated, but I think most girls prefer fashion to getting their hands dirty."

"Prejudices come from television or whatever," says Abbotsholme head Steve Fairclough. "Enquiring minds absorb bad things as well as good." Several of his male boarders, for example, have refused to tidy their own rooms, believing it to be women's work. "I remember the matron putting them right in their place," says Mr Fairclough. "`Well, you have to, young man!' It's about educating the next generation."

Alex Torres, however, believes that it takes more than the occasional nudge in the right direction. Ms Torres, who also works for Rosie the Riveter High's parent organisation, Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles, points out that only 2 per cent of US women are employed in the construction trade. Similarly low numbers work in engineering, technology and science. "Most of these are high-wage careers," she says. "That's where the wealth is. But, as a society, we're very set in our ways with regards to what girls' jobs are and what boys' jobs are."

As a charter school - the US equivalent of an academy - Rosie is allowed a degree of curriculum flexibility. And so its pupils receive lessons including car maintenance, metalwork and mechanical design. Much of this, however, is delivered as applied learning, rather than in discrete classes. For example, construction and maths teachers will work together, delivering lessons that involve measuring the height of a building, or calculating how much paint would be required to coat a room. "Applied mathematics, rather than book mathematics," Ms Torres calls it. Similarly, history teachers might look at the types of building or industry that prevailed during a particular era.

"It can be surprising to the students," Ms Torres says. "They'll say, `When I came here, I hated maths. Now I know how to do things. Now I like it.'"

But, she admits, it is an ongoing battle against stereotypes: against the girls' inner sexist, censoring any hints of the non-feminine. "Something happens when these girls get to middle school, especially the girls who are heterosexual," she says. "They start acting dumb. Women are expected to be dumb in our society, not to be straight-A students. So they start failing maths and science.

"Girls on their own will have hundreds of questions to ask about science or technical careers. But when we talk to mixed groups, the boys are the only ones who ask any questions."

This is backed up by the Abbotsholme pupils. "I didn't mind car maintenance," says 13-year-old Lucy Bradley. "Though a couple of boys answered most of the questions. Some of the girls knew what things were inside the bonnet, the engine and stuff like that. But they just stood and watched, really."

Nonetheless, when her classmate Ross speculated about girls' disdain for dirty hands, Lucy responds with outrage. She plays the drums; she goes horse-riding and trail-biking. Her hands are regularly far from clean. "Why do they say stuff like that?" she sighs. "It's probably because they're jealous of girls doing it. I don't think girls would mind if boys were good at cooking or sewing. Girls can be a bit more mature than boys. But boys don't like girls who are as good as them. Some can be quite angry about it: `You can't do that and you can't do this, because it's a guy's job.' They're just being guys, really."

"Yes, you're going to find some neanderthals wandering around," Ms Torres concedes. "But we tell them: it's not everyone. And, when you meet that neanderthal, here's how you should react. You're not there to flirt, you're not there to be a girl. You're there to work. You need to be the best worker you can, and that's when people will respect you."

Zoe Eaves agrees. She teaches resistant materials and electronics at Judgemeadow Community College in Leicester and is one of an almost entirely female department: pupils assume that "Miss" is the correct way to address all members of design and technology teaching staff, regardless of sex.

But she acknowledges that stereotypes do not break themselves. And so, at key stage 3, Ms Eaves and her colleagues deliver lessons that combine the extremes of the Damp;T spectrum. Pupils, for example, are invited to create a bag in textiles lessons. Then they move through to Ms Eaves' electronics classroom, decorating the bag with a light-sensor circuit.

"It could be a fashion thing, or it could be a safety thing when you're cycling home," she says. "But the boys' bags usually look as decorative as the girls'. And the boys get quite excited about using the sewing machine. They think it's like driving a car. It's gadgetry."

Nonetheless, when it comes to GCSE choices, boys still tend to default to resistant materials, while girls opt for textiles. "I don't know why, to be honest," Ms Eaves says. "It's probably more to do with their perception of future needs. But you just keep plugging away, really. Nothing happens immediately."

Steve Fairclough agrees. Abbotsholme takes pupils from Year 1 onwards: this, ideally, should be when equality training begins. "It has to be from age five," he says. "That's when sexism and stereotyping starts - some would argue before then. From the age of five, our pupils are putting on wellies and getting dirty. We're not separating boys and girls. People are people here.

"I would hate to think that we're changing people's personalities. But we don't think any person should be barred from doing any job at all."

Change comes through the small details. The fact that Abbotsholme boys are happy to roam the school corridors dressed in regulation blue-and-white aprons may be because they are comfortable with their inner baker. But it may also be because the same aprons are worn during design and technology lessons.

By the sixth-form, however, these same boys have spent years of their school life learning to bake, wash and iron. And they are much better at keeping their rooms tidy than their female classmates. Indeed, competence at housework reflects less about pupils' sex than about their status as a boarder or a day pupil: boarders are inevitably more adept with an iron or a frying pan. "Whether it's being nagged by matronly types - I don't know," Mr Fairclough says. "But it's a fact.

"Some of our toughest ice-climbing expeditioners are girls. And some of our boys will cry in chapel, because they are so moved by a piece of music. You can play rugby, then decide to go and make some buns. And enjoy it. The key thing is not to be scared of emotion of any type."

The original Rosie the Riveter, of course, eventually became Rosie the 1950s Housewife, patriotically giving up her job so that demobbed soldiers would be able to return to theirs. The original Rosie's challenge to social stereotypes was sudden and shortlived; back at Rosie the Riveter High, Ms Torres hopes that Rosie's modern-day heirs' success will be longer-lived, if slower to take hold.

"It takes time, of course," she says. "It used to be that organisations said, `No, no, we don't want to work with you.' But now they have a certain respect for our graduates. They know they have the right skills and the right attitudes. When they come to them, they're prepared for the job. They are beginning to come to us and say, `What graduates do you have for us this year?' I think it's changing a little bit."

Original headline: Return to gender

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