Silenced and excluded, girls need to be heard

13th September 2013 at 01:00
With gender inequality and discrimination a fact of modern life, more must be done to combat male dominance in the classroom

This summer, Twitter witnessed an onslaught of vile abuse against two women in the UK. After a widely reported bid to get a famous woman pictured on the #163;10 banknote, campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy were threatened with rape and violence, simply because they put their heads above the parapet and argued that women's achievements and contribution to the life of the nation should be recognised in such a way.

But it is not just high-profile campaigns that reveal the dark current of misogyny beneath the apparently civilised veneer of contemporary life. A recent survey, conducted by law firm Slater amp; Gordon, of 2,000 women who had returned to work after giving birth found that many felt discriminated against by employers when they started a family. More than half thought the attitudes of colleagues and bosses changed after they got pregnant, nearly half thought that having children had halted their career progression and a third said they had found it impossible to climb the career ladder.

The effects of discrimination (be they subtle or overt) on women's work, their earnings and their prospects of advancing in a career should not be brushed aside or ignored. The facts are uncomfortably clear. The 2010 figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - the most recent available - show that full-time female workers earned an average of 16 per cent less than men, and female top earners were paid 21 per cent less. In its May 2012 report, the OECD says: "It is likely that part of the unexplained component of the gender pay gap reflects discrimination."

Evidence of gender inequality on this scale has prompted debate in the UK about how girls should be educated. Although girls outperform boys in most subjects (in 2012, 86.3 per cent of girls achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, compared with 79.8 per cent of boys - a gap of 6.5 percentage points), this early success at school does not translate into promotion in the workplace.

Research suggests that schools are not good at challenging gender inequality, particularly in relation to girls making their voices heard. Quite simply, in most classrooms, boys talk and girls listen.

Creative disruption

Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust, attracted media comment when he argued (in these pages) that disruptiveness can be empowering and prepare girls for working life in modern Britain. Schools, he argued, should encourage disorderly qualities in girls - the willingness to question, suggest alternatives, challenge, take risks, adapt and lead.

There is, however, a problem with this approach. Teachers, understandably, don't like disruption from anyone but it is the boys who find it easier to challenge and dominate lessons. Boys are less likely to be confronted by their teachers when displaying this behaviour. Meanwhile, it can be dangerous for girls to be assertive, speak confidently, take up class talk time or defend their opinions vigorously. In behaving like boys, girls can become targets of abuse from male and female classmates whose innate sense of how the sexes should behave has been offended. Peer pressure, particularly in the teenage years, will outweigh teachers' exhortations for equality between the sexes.

You might say, "well maybe, but not in my classroom". If that is your reaction, please do one thing. Make an audio recording of your lesson (better than filming because it is less intrusive) and replay it, counting up the number of times that boys and girls have spoken. I did, and the results shocked me. As a good feminist, I thought that my classroom was a haven of equal opportunities. It was not. It was a place where five boys dominated speaking time, spoke for longer when they answered a question, and disrupted the answers of girls and quiet boys.

I was mortified by the evidence of my own collusion in male dominance and was determined to do things differently.

Over time, I developed classroom strategies that promoted greater equality. The most successful of these I called "buzz sessions". They work like this. At key moments in the lesson, when a central concept has been explained or a new stage in the topic developed, draw the class together and say that you want to understand what they have learned or what their opinions are. Then put a key proposition to them, or ask a fundamental question, or challenge them to disagree with what you have said (or any variant of these). Give the students two minutes to talk to the person next to them to develop their ideas. Don't expand the time limit - everyone needs to feel under pressure to have something relevant to say.

When the time is up, choose who should talk. Make time for several answers and give the chosen students time to develop their ideas; don't be afraid of some silence while they marshal their thoughts. As the students get used to this approach, you can get them to ask supplementary questions of the speaker and, through supportive encouragement, enable more students to speak confidently and at length.

This approach worked for me. It gave girls and quiet boys a chance to "rehearse" their arguments and shape them into a public statement. It gave them confidence that their answers would be heard and would contribute to the shared learning in the lesson. And it focused my attention on ensuring that a wide range of students, of both sexes, had their voices heard.

Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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