“Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a given society at a given time and place considers appropriate for men and women, and boys and girls and the relationships between them.” educateachild.org
Based on the sexual organs with which babies are born (those who are indeterminate are often designated male or female), binary gender roles are assigned which have far reaching effects in society. This is very much evident in education. Gender stereotypes which abound from nursery to sixth form have an impact on further and higher education choices and beyond into available careers.
Negative judgements are made about the abilities of girls vs boys, leading to under-representation of girls in some subjects such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Traditionally, a lesser role has been assigned to females leading to narrower career expectations and a hidden or overt gender pay gap in most careers. The inequality can be seen to continue into gender roles in staffing in education where some subjects might be seen as taught more by women or by men and women may be under-represented in senior leadership roles. Seeing these stereotypes played out around them often influences the perception of boys and girls of their roles and place in society, leading to a vicious circle of gender inequality. Intersectionality means that black or brown girls and women and those from poorer backgrounds can experience disadvantages at multiple levels.
Stereotypes around gender-based emotional characteristics can be particularly restricting. Notions persist such as, women are emotional and have low productivity because of days lost to their menstrual circle and maternity leave. Conversely, the view is held that men do not or should not show their emotions but are tough and stoic. Where a man may be celebrated as firm, decisive and assertive, a woman with a similar presentation is often labelled aggressive and confrontational.
Such views not only hamper the progress of girls and women, they also limit the ability of boys and men to express themselves. These restricted views have a negative impact on mental health as many girls, women, boys and men can struggle with self-awareness and self-regulation. Boys and men are not encouraged to talk about their mental health which is reflected in the higher suicide rates amongst them.
The issue of gender is further complicated by increasingly vocal groups of people who are transgender, non-binary or gender fluid amongst other terms, pointing out that gender is a spectrum. Exploration of this view of gender is revealing other aspects of gender inequality in education.
An ethical education organisation should creatively apply The Equality Act to create policies which enable gender equality in a way that is more than lip service or a tick box exercise. Such policies are crucial for addressing how children are taught but also for gender equality amongst staff in education so that the resulting changes in practice and attitude are fully visible to children and young people thus breaking the vicious circle of gender inequality. The result would hopefully be to remove stereotypical boundaries imposed by society so that they can achieve in school to their full potential and aim for any job for which they can be equipped. Gender equality in education should equip all genders to face inequalities in society at large, particularly as studies indicate that a more gender equal society leads to improved health and emotional wellbeing and ultimately, improved productivity.