Society - Could equality be as simple as ABCD?

18th October 2013 at 01:00
But French scheme is attacked for pushing gender theory 'ideology'

"One is not born a woman, one becomes one," French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her feminist treatise The Second Sex, published in 1949. Sixty-four years and a feminist revolution later, the French government has taken these words to heart.

Frustrated by some girls' stubborn insistence on becoming hairdressers and boys' desire to become car mechanics, ministers have launched a pilot scheme in primary schools that aims to remove gender stereotyping from the classroom.

The ABCD of Equality, as the initiative is known, will stop children limiting their study and career options to socially ingrained gender roles, ministers said. And training teachers to treat girls and boys equally should raise attainment, too.

But opponents of the scheme - to be launched in schools next month - have questioned the need for it, accusing politicians of trying to introduce "gender theory" to classrooms. Campaigners, who have held protests outside a number of schools, have even set up "gender watch" groups to monitor the project, which they say could "harm the construction of children's identity".

The scheme, initiated by the education ministry and the minister for women's rights, will be rolled out in 600 classrooms across 10 French school regions. A website with resources, information and opportunities to share teaching practice was launched at the beginning of the month.

After receiving training earlier this term, teachers are now preparing to use new teaching resources to help children question society's expectations of what is "masculine" and "feminine".

In one cross-curricular lesson, children are encouraged to compare pictures of a young Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the first president of France, wearing a bolero jacket and skirt with images of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's famous "smoking jacket for women". Children as young as 6 will also consider how fairy tales, with their princesses and knights in shining armour, dictate gender roles from a very early age.

If the pilot project is successful, it will be implemented across all French state schools from September 2014.

Sexism and inequality are a priority for the Socialist French government, and in particular for the minister for women's rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

In August, a report by French education inspectors claimed that schools helped to entrench sexism in society. The report found that teachers showed "preferential treatment" to boys, even when they believed they were "being fair". Teachers' expectations of girls were also lower, although girls were regarded as "more responsible and ready to be of service".

A spokesperson for the French education ministry said the ABCD of Equality would "transmit the culture of equality and respect between girls and boys from the youngest age".

"Inequalities in school success and study choices too often determine the professional careers of girls and boys," they added.

The pilot scheme had been set up "because school should be a place of learning, of equality and success for everyone", the spokesperson explained, saying that the project would "make children aware of the limits they put on themselves and give them self-confidence".

Despite these noble aims, opponents of the scheme have been vocal in their criticism. Sylvia Larrousse, a mother of three, told newspaper Le Monde: "What we disagree with is schools putting forward an ideology. By promoting a lack of sexual differentiation, they are bringing into question the complementarity between the sexes."

Antoine Renard, president of the French Catholic Family Associations, said that critics feared "a confusion in children's spirit, disassociating the physical dimension with the behavioural dimension".

La Manif Pour Tous, an organisation that has spearheaded recent campaigns against gay marriage in France, is working to establish "gender watch" groups in each French department to "stop the spread of gender theory, which harms the construction of children's identity as a man or woman, in schools".

Teaching unions, meanwhile, have generally welcomed the principles behind the project.

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