I’m covering a class for a school trip. A note has been left with the suggested order for children to line up. As I begin to call names for children to partner up, the groans begin emerging from being forced to stand in close proximity to some of their most loathsome foes. Others are more joyous and even begin holding their partner’s hand or even wrapping an arm around someone’s shoulder.
“Keep you hands to yourselves,” I snap.
It’s always a slippery slope from hand holding to canoodling behind the bike shed or a punch in the face.
It’s at this point I notice a pattern emerging in the line. It’s the old ‘girl-boy-girl-boy’ trick.
Later that week the same thing happens as the lunch staff line the children up in the lunch hall: ‘girl-boy-girl-boy’.
Sure it can be effective, depending on the generalised stereotypes available in any given classroom. But it is old-fashioned and restrictive. It plays on the idea males’ boisterous nature needs to be diluted by the sweet natured females. It assumes there will be less chatter because boys and girls for fear of catching cooties. It assumes a globally even spread of x and y chromosomes fertilising eggs (disproved by a class I taught with five boys and twenty-five girls).
Where are we reinforcing gender norms? Where are we unequal? Where can we challenge the gender status quo?
There were two male teachers in my primary school. Neither of them were ever my classroom teacher.
Three of the primary schools I’ve worked in have had only two male teachers (including myself).
Does it matter?
Not really. Each class still had a teacher, which is surely the crux of the matter. Gender shouldn’t be a concern. Yet, the same tropes continue to present themselves. Twenty years since leaving primary school as a student, there is still a “shortage” of male teachers and “role models” in primary school classrooms. People still remark, “It’s good to see a male teacher in primary school”.
But if we are fighting for gender equality, it shouldn’t matter. A teacher can teach, regardless of gender. Students can learn, regardless of who they learn from. Good pedagogy is good pedagogy.
In broader terms, some gender stereotypes are so cultural embedded into our psyche and language, we must still consciously reprogram our speech so the next generations are not conditioned to make assumptions.
‘Fireman’ must be ‘Firefighter’.
‘Policeman’ must be ‘Police Officer’.
‘Chairman’ must be ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’.
And what of terms which were always gender neutral, but assumptions of gender are still made such as ‘nurse’ being a female. We must consciously say ‘he or she’ when elaborating on these ideas. Or the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
This wonderful video, which went viral a few years ago, is evidence the stereotypes still exist with one child assuming a female doctor, female firefighter and female army officer were merely playing dress ups.
Often, I have been teaching in schools where the weekly merit awards are given out in equal measure to boys and girls. Surely this is a patronising notion to both sexes, that your certificate may have been received merely to maintain the gender balance.
Some weeks two female students stand out with their achievement. Other weeks two male students stand out. Educators should apply gender blindness to awarding these accolades. Any cries from the peanut gallery that, “Only the boys/girls receive all the prizes”, should be immediately quashed by highlighting the achievements, that were made, as a gold standard for other students to reach.
Pink and Blue
It’s always good to run the litmus test of placing blue and pink craft materials at the front of a classroom to see who chooses which colour.
A teacher recently posted on Twitter that he’d worn a pink shirt to school, because a male student said, “Pink is only for girls”.
Look carefully at baby clothes and toys next time you’re shopping. Some girls’ items may be blue. But there are not many boys’ items which are pink. We are still being marketed at to impose specific colours on specific genders. And that’s in the infant department, not even considering the presence of ‘Pink Tax’ for adults.
The labelling of the third floor of Hamleys Toy Store was changed in 2011 from ‘Girls’ to ‘Arts and Crafts’. It still plays host to the traditionally female products Barbie, Hello Kitty and so forth. More so, head there today and there is enough garish pink spectrum, as you ascend to level 3, to leave you with a week-long migraine.
Old habits die hard.
Dress or Trousers
How does gender equality look in regard to uniforms? In most schools, girls can choose to wear shorts or trousers in place of skirts or dresses. But when this is taken to an extreme, there is the case currently presenting itself at an American college where girls are forced to wear “pants, capri pants or Bermuda shorts”.
Problematic on a few levels, this move has generated backlash. The main complaint from the school was the ever-decreasing length of the students’ skirts. Obviously, the administration had not seen Kylie Minogue’s music video for Spinning Around, otherwise they would know implementing compulsory shorts is hardly a solution.
Additionally, choosing trousers over dresses could be perceived as enforcing male norms upon women. Why should the trouser win out over the skirt? Why not swing in the opposite direction and much like David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, all children could wear dresses to school. The apropos argument of this book is that the dress does not impact upon the titular character’s daily routine. He continues to play football and hang out with his friends.
The smorgasbord of wardrobe options should be available for all children and adults alike. Feminism does not have to wear chinos. Some girls like wearing dresses and so do some boys. Some boys like wearing trousers and so do some girls.
The comments made around the workplace about ‘strapping young lads’ and ‘strong boys’, need to stop. Medieval receptionist pop their heads into classrooms asking whether there are any male students available to lift some heavy boxes. (Heavens – I’ve been asked myself, despite many of my female colleagues making multiple trips to the gym each week, while I return to my flat to eat chips in front of the telly.)
Next time this happens send them your weediest female students. It’s just a heavy box and doing some tasks requiring grunt can be character building. We must avoid disenfranchising young women by letting men do all the furniture removal and propping up the “Me Tarzan. You Jane” division of domestic work.
There’s probably still room for chivalry, but that needn’t be overdone either.
Case in point was a singing assembly where the male music teacher asked a female teacher whether she could choose three boys to put out some chairs in the assembly hall. Unbeknown to the music teacher he was speaking to a staunch feminist who unleashed a scathing critique on his assumptions of gender and misogynistic views. Whether he was being misogynistic or chivalrous, we’ll never know. He was definitely left speechless and a Helen Reddy song was promptly added to the setlist.
I’ve come to find choosing team captains in PE lessons is still rife with battles of the sexes. If I choose a female captain for one team and a male captain for the other, both teams will predominantly choose children of the same sex. It’s best to choose two female captains or two male captains. There will be a more even spread that way. And hopefully that spread will be an even spread of skill not gender.
The only person free of gender discrimination in choosing teams is the fat kid with dyspraxia who will always be chosen last.
Finally, an aspect of gender norms that seems to get people most hot-headed is when people feel their children are given an agenda by educators or media. They cry out, “Let children be children!”.
The gender norms are so far entrenched, people feel the need to explicitly call them out.
Boys wear blue. Girls wear pink.
Girls are nurses. Boys are doctors.
Boys are good at football. Girls are good at netball.
Girls wear dresses. Boys wear trousers.
Boys have short hair. Girls have long hair.
(Note: I subconsciously began with ‘boys’ when I wrote, ‘boys wear blue…’. I am indoctrinated).
I challenge myself to show these norms can be ignored without explicit discussion. Get girls to play football without having a gender debate. Men should wear pink without a debate. Boys can have long hair without a debate (man-buns excepted). Women can wear trousers without a debate.
Sure it is a nice message Lachlan Gillespie (Purple Wiggle) gives in this post from Emma ‘Wiggle’ Watkins…
…but what if he’d just turned up to a concert with a yellow bow in his hair, without the sign.
We don’t need to tell our children certain things are OK. We need to show them.