'We must tackle gender prejudice early in schools'

Talk of a 'backlash against women' shows us that schools need to shatter gender stereotypes, says Kevin Stannard

Schools have a role to play in crushing gender stereotypes in early childhood, says Kevin Stannard

An article in the current issue of the Atlantic [1] magazine on “the global backlash against women” claims to identify a common thread running through right-wing populist movements in the US, Brazil, Poland, Hungary and even Italy.

Surprisingly, it isn’t economic anxiety or immigration, but a desire to subordinate women. The overarching thesis might be a bit of a stretch, but the litany of highly personal insults aimed by these countries’ leading politicians against their female opponents – attacking them as women – suggests that “populist” male politicians think there is capital to be made out of misogyny.

Concern that the scales have tipped too far towards women was also apparent in a Fox News series, Men in America, which aired in the US last year. In this, Tucker Carlson rehearsed the metrics that show males at a disadvantage (including school success, university graduation, ADHD diagnoses, obesity, addictions, imprisonment), and blamed high-profile liberals for ignoring these issues in favour of an undue focus on women. Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist, apparently stoked the fire by arguing that coverage of equity, diversity and inequality in schools amounts to indoctrination [2].

The “backlash against women” reflects the marginalisation and threat to status perceived by some men in a world where equality is the expectation, if not yet the reality. The onslaught ignores the fact that girls and women aren’t having it all their own way by any means: low-wage roles are still overwhelmingly female; while, job for job, men still substantially out-earn women, and remain dominant in boardrooms.

Equality laws and shaming adults who deviate from the dominant discourse will only go so far if underlying prejudices remain, and such prejudices can comfortably coexist with legal structures requiring outward and visible conformity to gender equality.

Gender stereotypes 'embedded early'

A lot of this is generational: fears of marginalisation and loss of power are less evident among younger adult males, so there is hope for the future. But even then we cannot be complacent. Gender stereotyping and prejudice are not innate, but they are embedded early and this where schools come in.

A recent study found that girls and women still encounter bias in circumstances where brilliance is viewed as the key to success – and that these biases are shown by children as young as 5. [3]

Much has been made of the enduring “confidence gap” between men and women. A study by Queensland University’s Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace [4] investigated the general tendency for girls’ confidence to fall below that of boys from age 9, with the gap persisting into old age. Interestingly, the exceptions to this confidence gap were girls taught in all-girls’ schools, reflecting, among other things, the importance of watching other girls and women in leadership positions.

And it is precisely this – women in prominent leadership positions – that has incurred the wrath of many male politicians. The confidence gap is likely to last at least as long as the rearguard action conducted by those who argue that equality has gone too far.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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