A teenage girl recently contacted Sophie Walker about something that had happened in a physics lesson. The teacher, the girl said, thought that it would be funny if he stood at the whiteboard and mathematically proved that women were the root of all evil.
According to Ms Walker, the leader of the new Women’s Equality Party (WEP), this is just one example of the sexism still endemic in schools. “I would love for it to be astonishing,” she says. “But the sad thing about it is it’s not astonishing. It goes on all the time.
“The message that keeps coming back from all the other parties is: ‘Oh God, equality. It’s so hard. Wait another 50 years and it will happen.’ We’re here to say that that won’t wash any more. By focusing on how children are raised, we can meet these goals.”
The WEP, which plans to put up candidates in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections, has drawn up an equality manifesto, including significant emphasis on classroom gender equality. For example, it calls for gender equality to be a stand-alone measure for inspection.
“If there’s an accounting for the importance of gender equality set at the heart of the curriculum, then we start tackling attitudes in general and also in individuals,” Ms Walker says. “We’re changing culture and changing attitudes. Gender equality is an essential part of the function of education.”
The best way to ensure this kind of change, she says, is to focus on specifics. The party is exploring the feasibility of gender quotas for heads. “There’s an awful lot of women teachers, and a disproportionate number of male headteachers,” Ms Walker (pictured, right) says. “We want to encourage women into leadership positions. Women are disproportionately shouldering responsibility for parenting and caregiving. And women who are not having children are being constrained by the expectations of others that they might. We need equal parenting, equal pay and equal representation.”
But classroom inequality is also about the drip-drip sexism of daily life. Ms Walker cites the example of her own six-year-old daughter, who “thought she could do everything” and loved superheroes. But, when she went to buy an Avengers schoolbag, she found that the sole female Avenger didn’t appear on any of them.
“If you’re a girl and you love superheroes, then your options are very, very limited,” she says. “I find it very sad that children feel so limited so early on. Limiting our options from such an early age is insane, and is damaging to our society. This has got to stop.
“Girls need to be encouraged to know that they can do anything they want. If they want to wear a pink dress and become a train driver, they can. And, equally, if a boy wants to wear a pink dress and become a train driver, he can.”
As part of the battle against limited options, the WEP would bring in compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE), taught by specialised teachers.
From the start of primary school, children would be taught about mutual respect; later, this would lead into a discussion about the importance of sexual consent.
“Bits of it are already there,” Ms Walker says. “Young children are taught the importance of behaving nicely with each other: keep your hands to yourself. But you don’t tend to get to the part where you can have an important discussion about relationships.
“We’re not equipping our children for life,” Ms Walker argues. “The outside world has changed so much that SRE that focuses primarily on mechanics – taught by the geography teacher on a Tuesday afternoon – is just not appropriate. It’s cruel to continue to ask our children to navigate life, with sexting and revenge porn, with no discussion of consent.”
She does, however, acknowledge that sexism is most insidious when perpetuated by well-meaning liberals who fail to recognise their own sexist conditioning. But this, she insists, can also be legislated for.
“I hate to sound like a politician who’s taking you back to the core message here,” she says. “But that’s why we think it’s so important that gender equality is a stand-alone criterion for inspection in schools.
“That frees young men and women from gendered expectations, and it also creates a greater awareness among teachers. We’re urging a system that creates opportunities for all children.”
What the WEP wants
Inspected equality Equality of the sexes would become a standalone criterion for inspection in schools.
Curriculum audit Is the curriculum balanced? Are the achievements of women given equal attention to those of men?
Beyond pink and blue Challenge gender stereotypes in toys, books and advertising aimed at children.
Better careers advice Independent, inspected, equal careers advice.
Work experience Ensure work experience is part of the curriculum, so pupils can try out different roles.
Sex and relationships education Compulsory SRE, taught by specialist teachers, with particular focus on consent.
Quotas for heads and primary teachers Examine the feasibility of introducing quotas – for both sexes – at primary classroom and senior management levels.