- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Are schools reinforcing gender inequality?

Since the 1960s, education policy has been firmly focused on equality and social cohesion but are schools really furthering gender equality or serving to reinforce the differences? If girls, as many studies suggest, are outperforming boys and achieving higher grades why then do they find themselves in lower paid jobs with less opportunities later in life? To understand this we have to go back to school.

When it comes to subjects, boys are still opting for science and maths in their droves while girls choose literature, history and the social sciences – subjects that are not as highly valued and often considered inferior options for boys. Out of 100 secondary school pupils studying technology or technical subjects there are only 28 girls. (Faits & Gestes, quarterly review from the French-speaking belgian government on equal opportunities). This is even more pronounced in higher education where only 9% of girls go on to study technical subjects; 23% economics; 26% architecture but a whopping 72% of girls study interpreting.

The latest figures from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) show that girls still outstrip boys in reading comprehension by a whole year in some cases, which may not come as a surprise. The challenge here is how to break this stereotype and get more boys reading books. What is worth noting in this recent report is that both genders up to 15 years old are equally talented in sciences and up to that age both genders are still considering studying science and maths at higher education. So how do we explain the disparity at a later age?

Back at secondary school and the choice on options plays a more crucial role than we might think. Such important decisions come at a particularly sensitive age when an adolescent is discovering who they are in terms of gender and sexuality. For both girls and boys, it is difficult to establish themselves in an environment (education or social) that is predominantly made up of adolescents of the opposite sex. And for those that do step away from the ‘norm’ they are often in for a difficult ride. Girls have to deal with aggression or harassment from the boys who don’t feel females belong in what is typically a ‘male’ subject choice. But the boys don’t fare much better. Although boys choosing typically ‘female-dominated’ subjects are more readily accepted by girls they are so often ridiculed by their male contemporaries. To square up to that, any young person must have bags of self-confidence.

Self-confidence is something us females often lack. Young girls have a tendency to underestimate themselves attributing their failure to a lack of potential. Boys on the other hand shrug it off, putting it down to a lack of hard work. If only girls could feel more self-assured they could achieve much more. Studies show that in maths, for example, when girls are more self-confident they attain exactly the same results as boys proving that they are just as capable.

School as a whole is structured in such a way that it constrains girls and boys in predefined roles.
Teachers are unwittingly furthering the gender gap by adapting their attitudes depending on the sex of their student. It is generally accepted that boys will play up in the classroom whereas girls are expected to be quiet and studious, any girl that bucks this norm is considered deviant and abnormal. Teaching staff still spend more classroom time on boys than girls and although less than the two-thirds of time highlighted in the 1970s, it is still significant.

So what can we do to establish better gender equality in the classroom? Well, there are no miracle cures but it is still possible to reduce inequality by:

  • Evenly distributing tasks and classroom contact among all students;
  • Paying more attention to the way stereotypes are played out in school;
  • Supervising classroom interaction between girls and boys; and
  • Adapting advice on subject options on the question of gender.

And why not put in place a taskforce to manage gender inequality in school?