Girls and boys, there is life beyond Venus and Mars

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Schools need to tackle narrow ideas about gender in the classroom that are damaging both to students’ education and life chances, argues Ruth Golding

One former student of mine avoided lessons for three weeks because she didn’t want to see her ex-boyfriend. The break-up affected her attendance, she had sexualised comments aimed at her, and she was constantly crying.

It was apparent by her comments that she considered her feelings as less important than those of her ex. But the saddest part was that her education came last of all.

She was one of the girls I see regularly now in schools who are “hyperfeminine”. Girls like this take their self-worth from the boys around them and it can have devastating effects on their hopes, dreams and aspirations as well as their progress at school day to day.

The term hyperfemininity was defined by psychologists Murnen and Byrne (1991), who used it to describe the way in which some women stick rigidly to a very narrow version of the female gender role. Hyperfeminine women may describe themselves as “girly girls” and they seem to only feel successful when they are in heterosexual relationships, often with their male counterpart: the hypermasculine man.

Another pair of psychologists, Mosher and Sirkin, suggested in a 1984 study that the hypermasculine male views women and girls as having a lower status than them, and possess nothing more than a sexual value to them. Most of their company is spent with other men; aggression and risk-taking behaviours are prevalent and success in both is wrapped up in their self-worth.

We need to be more aware of these “types” within our student body because it is important to challenge both – often, they can be the cause of behavioural challenges.

For example, there are boys who end up fighting each other, not because they really want to, or have a real cause to, but because they need to demonstrate to others their aggression and masculinity. If they didn’t fight, they would be seen as much less than they were in the eyes of the other hypermasculine students – their status downgraded to that of a girl.

We see situations like this played out again and again, we don’t always have time to fully analyse what lies beneath the surface of these interactions, or we hold narrow ideas of gender roles ourselves and just view it as “boys being boys” or “girls being girls”.

Culturally, the downside is that gender roles become further ingrained and perpetuate, but for students there are very limiting and long lasting effects on their education and life chances.

How can you achieve your potential when your focus is on what the boys think about you, rather than what you think of yourself? Or how can a boy rise to the top of the class when the pinnacle for the hypermasculine male is achieved through physical strength and aggression, rather than emasculating academic successes?

As educators, we must move students beyond these perceptions if we are to enable everyone to be free to fulfil their potential and embrace all parts of their character. It requires a strategic approach, and a desire to change not only students’ behaviour but our own as well.

As individuals, we hold many biases that can change our expectations of different groups of people. Staff training on gender and unconscious bias can enable teachers to challenge the stereotypes that they hold. We must also tackle gender bias and gender roles in our interactions with pupils: in assemblies, in class, building it into our learning conversations.

And then we must upskill young people. Having a voice is important, especially for those who live through the opinions of others, and both boys and girls can benefit from assertiveness courses.

For dominant boys, it could be that developing the skills that allow them to listen to their female peers is useful. For girls, learning how to represent themselves in a non-critical way can have a huge impact. Books such as Express Yourself – a teen girl’s guide to speaking up and being who you are by Emily Roberts are useful when building courses that help girls to define themselves.

Hypermasculine boys can be quick to anger and express this easily. What they may not be as good at is recognising and validating all the other emotions or parts of their characters that they experience. Meanwhile, girls may need more encouragement to show parts of their character they view as more masculine such as risk-taking or competition.

Programmes like The Virtues Project, founded in Canada in 1991, support students to learn about underexplored parts of their character such as compassion, tolerance, strength and courage, which in turn enables their emotions to become more balanced.

And as teachers we should look to take an active role in coaching our pupils to think differently about themselves and others. The National College for Teaching and Leadership’s CEDAR (contract, explore, deepen, act, review) coaching resources are an excellent starting point to learn these skills.

It appears a contradiction to attend school to unlearn, but when narrow gender roles are oppressing and stifling our students, we have to provide an environment that enables them to relearn their gender roles and become multidimensional, assertive young people, who learn to be all that they can be.

Ruth Golding is head of school at Tor Bridge High in Plymouth

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