Gender equality: are schools leading girls down the wrong path ?

First published by Women’s Agenda, 8 December 2015

At this time of year school communities across the country are assembling to hand out prizes and hear end of year speeches from departing school captains and leaders. They will also be welcoming the newly elected students who will take on leadership roles from the first day of school next year.

Six years ago, on my son’s first day of kindergarten, two of his school’s year six leaders took my uncharacteristically terrified five-year-old by the hand. They reassured his close-to-tears mother that his hysterics were a “normal” reaction to the first day of school, all the while smoothing his way to class. The girl student leader in particular (I won’t say her name to avoid unasked-for identification, but let’s just say it was the word for ‘a tumultuous weather event’) knocked me over with her preternaturally calm and self-possessed manner.

Last week, as my son and more than a dozen year five students rose to speak in front of their school to make a pitch to become school leaders next year, many recalled those first encounters with school leaders as their inspiration to put up their hands this year. Equal numbers of boys and girls stood up in front of hundreds of fellow students, equally confident. And, in a system that guarantees gender parity each year, there were separate ballot papers for the boy and girl candidates.

This kind of recognition of school leaders from both the male and female student body is, of course, a great thing. Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the no holds barred end of year speech given by Ravenswood school captain Sarah Haynes, who criticised her school for being “more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated,” – more proof, if it was ever needed, that girls can be brave, honest, smart and forthright as any boy (whatever the complex story behind her words).

A quick glance at the selection procedures for school captains and leaders in NSW comprehensive public schools will show you that most aim to select equal numbers of male and female students for leadership positions. But this official approach to equity only highlights the huge disparity between what we’re teaching children at school – where a gender utopia of sorts is in place – and what happens once children leave school. Of the 18 heads of government and opposition parties in Australia today, you’ll find just one female: Annastacia Palaszczuk. We can’t hold schools to account for what goes on as children become teens and then young adults who graduate from school – this slow and steady chopping away of girl’s belief that they can be leaders as they age. But lately, I’ve been wondering if we’re letting girls down by not talking to them more honestly, and earlier, about how the world will shape their lives in a thousand different ways to the boy next to them.

Public schools routinely celebrate NAIDOC week, they ask students to wear orange shirts to celebrate cultural diversity, and they set assignments where student’s study the plight of refugees. And so they should. But when it comes to gender discrimination, there is a comparatively deafening silence.

The best possible way to interpret this silence is that there is a well-meaning, but naively positive, emphasis on a “you go” girl rhetoric. One designed to boost girls’ confidence and belief that they can do anything. This message of personal empowerment might be the right kind of personal psychology in a neo-liberal world, but it’s not a truly honest description of the world girls are entering into. So I’m thrilled to hear that Fitzroy High, in inner city Melbourne, has developed what is said to be the country’s first accredited subject in the Australian curriculum to look at gender inequality.

Fitzroy High School’s Feminist Collective, along with teacher Briony O’Keeffe, have developed classes that explore the term “patriarchy”, and examine statistics on the gender wage gap, violence against women, and female representation in sport. Of course, it had to be Fitzroy High: the school where a rookie school teacher called Helen Garner was booted out the classroom for discussing sex with students back in the 1970s.

Predictably, the new curriculum has faced opposition in the playground and from the usual frothing online commentators. Male students have apparently said they should form a “men’s rights collective” to protect themselves against the feminists, The Age reported. And some have expressed fears the course might addle women’s brains and turn them into either victims or man haters: Ms O’Keeffe said some people had assumed the resources provided would promote misandry, or distort other forms of discrimination, the ABC reported.

Discussion about sexism always seems to attract a high level of vitriol and fear, which shows how deeply held some people’s notions of gender are, and how insecure any questioning of gender can make people feel. Perhaps the closest parallel is any discussion of gay marriage, which continues to be plagued by an insistence that we have to consider the feelings of, and impact on, the world’s straight population.

Along with her comments reassuring readers that her resource “would address how boys and men also suffered some effects of sexism through stereotyping and the perpetuation of gender norms”, Ms O’Keeffe was careful to say the course will look at how race and sexuality intersect with gender. That’s great, awesome really. But it’s also just reminder of how naturalised sexism is: how women need to be always inclusive and accommodating, always looking out for any possibility they might be causing offence. No doubt there’s a module there. I’m sure Sarah Haynes (and a girl named after a ‘tumultuous weather event’) could help them out with that.

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