Addressing gender equality in schools

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Photo: iStock

There is a lot schools can do to address gender inequality. Anna Feuchtwang offers a few ideas and signposts some resources

Gender is a dimension of life that affects a school community on so many levels – from the curriculum to staff roles, from pupil achievement to behaviour, and includes schools’ relationship with parents and carers too.

In fact it is so big and all-pervasive that it can feel hard to know where to start to ensure gender equality for pupils.

The statistics on sexual violence show the shameful level of gender inequality in our society: one in five women in Britain have been sexually assaulted compared to one in 20 men, according to the large-scale Natsal-3 survey.

Recent reports from the BBC on the number of incidents of sexual abuse in school are very concerning too. These incidents will have included male victims, although assumptions are often made that men are the perpetrators only.

Scratch the surface and important differences between boys’ and girls’ experiences emerge. Boys and girls seek help at different rates and in different ways. For example, the number of girls accessing ChildLine’s counselling services far outweighs the number of boys, yet boys are more likely to use phone counselling than online.

Evidence shows that men have poorer health literacy than women, are more likely to engage in behaviours that pose a risk to health, and are less likely to acknowledge health issues (Men’s Health Forum: http://bit.ly/1KRdWGF).

Our recent research into the attitudes of men and boys to health issues confirmed these biases and found that work is needed across society, challenging the social expectations of men and woman, to improve health outcomes.

There is much that schools can do to address this gender inequality, both within the curriculum and through a whole-school approach. A developmental programme of sex and relationships education (SRE) as part of PSHE is essential.

Gender is a term that pupils may not immediately understand, so opportunities are needed to build an understanding of the difference between sex and gender; of gender roles and stereotypes, and of gender identity.

The fact that sex refers to the biology of being male or female, whereas gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours and norms that society maintains for men and women, is a good starting point.

The Sex Education Forum (SEF) has published The Gender Issue, a magazine to support schools in developing SRE that addresses gender inequality. The lesson ideas within show how teachers can avoid the trap of focusing only on “pills, pregnancy and periods” and inadvertently pushing boys away from SRE.

Instead a more creative “gender aware” approach is demonstrated, so that a topic such as fertility can be just as interesting and engaging for boys and girls. The magazine also demonstrates how issues of power and control can be addressed explicitly, for example using drama activities. This approach is supported by new research findings that when SRE discusses gender inequality directly it is more effective in improving health and wellbeing outcomes for young people.

This work can be combined with teaching about respectful behaviour and how it is wrong to tease or bully, thus helping to prevent sexist, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.

Promoting gender equality must also be part of a whole-school approach. For example, many more women teach SRE than men (almost nine in 10 according to a 2014 SEF poll). Is this because men are not interested in the subject or because they are not asked or encouraged to teach it? A quick staff survey might provide some insights in your own school.

The fact remains that while gender inequality may not be new, it continues to affect the lives of both pupils and staff. A more switched on approach to breaking down these barriers can and should be part of the everyday work of gender-aware schools.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

Further information

The Gender Issue is available from the Sex Education Forum at www.sexeducationforum.org.uk


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