HOW TO HELP PUPILS IDENTIFY & OVERCOME GENDER BIAS
‘We live in a country where fewer than three out of ten physics A levels are taken by girls, where just 7% of engineers are women and where men still earn on average nearly 20% more than their female colleagues.’ Alice Roberts (Horizon, BBC2 Nov 2016)
There is a rising awareness in schools about encouraging girls to choose from as wide a range of subject options as possible, but while it is true that the choice of subject can lead to unequal access to certain professions and thus to unequal distribution of power, should we be focussed on encouraging women to compete for these roles? Or encouraging them to challenge the way in which different roles are valued in our society?
Should we be focussed on encouraging women to compete for these roles or to challenge the way in which different roles are valued in society?
This is one of the questions raised by Professor Anne Phillips, Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science, who visited Mill Hill School in north London recently to speak on the subject of gender equality, having been contacted by Issy Ward, a pupil in the Lower 6th.
Issy was inspired to contact Professor Phillips after listening to her TedX talk. ‘I wanted to challenge the view of feminism as man-hating so I wrote to Professor Phillips,’ she said. Her talk, titled De-stigmatising the word Feminism, debunked many myths about certain roles in society being suited to certain genders.
For example, men and women have an identical ‘raised heart rate’ response to hearing a baby crying – but women and men are conditioned to think that women are ‘naturally’ more ‘caring’. There is a lot of subliminal information to which women are exposed from birth that leads them to defer to men rather than to explore their own talents.
A desire to help change this state of affairs prompted Frances King, the first female Head of Mill Hill School in its 210 year history, to participate in the Opening Doors project – a pilot project being run by the Institute of Physics to assess how schools can change practice around gender equality.
‘We decided to become involved in the Opening Doors pilot project to give us a wider framework in which to explore the issues around gender bias that affect both boys and girls,’ said Frances. ‘The project gives us the opportunity to work with other schools facing similar issues, to share good practice and to unpack and challenge unconscious bias in order to help our pupils make choices free from these constraints.
The project gives us the opportunity to work with other schools facing similar issues, to share good practice and to unpack and challenge unconscious bias
‘Being a co-educational school provides us with an excellent platform for exploring ways to challenge sexist attitudes and unconscious bias. We are proud of the fact that just over 1 in 5 of our Sixth Form girls take A level Physics, compared to around 1 in 20 nationally, but we also plan to work with the Great Men project to address these issues for boys so that all our pupils have the opportunity to make the best choices.’
Pupils themselves are increasingly conscious of the problems facing them, including how the media can perpetuate unhelpful gender and occupational stereotypes.
In her TedX talk, Why I want to be an Engineer, 6th former Renua Ikiebe spoke about how popular TV shows, such Big Bang Theory, can further discourage women to identify with STEM subjects: ‘In this show, one of the female leads, Penny, is very attractive and she’s portrayed as being naïve and air headed, and on the other hand, another female lead, Amy, the neuroscientist, is portrayed as being dull, boring and inexperienced.’
For Renua, it was her parents’ support and enthusiasm – and pride in her inventions – that helped her to be resilient in the face of dismissive and even openly sexist attitudes towards her aspirations. Her message is that, as parents and schools, we should do as much as possible from an early age to provide the kind of examples and role models that will help pupils identify and overcome gender bias.
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