Starting Young: Gender Disparity in the Classroom

On Friday evening I was asked to speak at the first Youth for Women’s Equality meet up at Chiswick Town Hall. I chose to spoke about gender inequality in the classroom – here’s (more or less) what I said:

Because of the way we raise our children, in to a gendered society, the differences are strikingly obvious from an early age. Whether or not we dress our girls as princesses or our boys as superheroes, the constant images, media stereotypes, societal expectations and antiquated modes of thought that have travelled across the years and in to contemporary thinking patterns – all reinforce gender stereo types. This reinforcement in turn soon takes it’s toll on children fulfilling gender roles in the classroom, which is damaging to both sexes. When we prescribe roles for children to fit in to, we also limit them.

I have worked for the last eleven years as an arts facilitator in schools all over the country, with children of all ages, and I’m struck by how often I see disparity between the genders creeping in. Everything I speak of today comes from my own observations and experience in classrooms.

Not so long ago I was running a maths class on ratios with some Year five children. I had a bag full of superhero toys. We were trying to find the ratio of men to women. There were of course more men than women, superheroes are generally more male. I soon pulled an astronaut figure from the bag, the entire class shouted ‘MALE’ – I asked how they could tell, the figure had a helmet on. To which the reply came ‘Because astronauts are boys.’ Are they? I asked. Most children replied with a straight ‘yes’ some others quietened down to think about it. Any girl in that class would immediately discount her chances of being an astronaut. Or she may not, but just consider how much she’ll have to fight against, how often she will have to stand her ground if she wants to be an astronaut. It’s so much more difficult when you constantly have to prove yourself because you have chosen to go against gender expectations. What must that do to one’s self esteem?

I also run film-making workshops for children, which interestingly are a much bigger hit with boys. Recently I witnessed a group of 10 year old boys sitting in a circle discussing an idea, with the sole girl in their group sitting on the periphery, disengaged from the conversation. I asked her why she wasn’t joining in – “Well, the boys all have a really strong idea of what they want to do, and it doesn’t really matter what I think.” I asked her if she had an idea, which she did, so I reintegrated her with the group, and facilitated the discussion to ensure her voice was heard within the group. But I can’t facilitate every discussion that children have in every class I lead, and it is a concern that some voices aren’t heard, particularly, as was the case here, if that voice is the female voice in a group of males.

It seems that gendered toys and games are on the rise – in the 80s Lego was Lego. Nowadays Lego is pink and princess themed for girls and blue and castle themed for boys – genders are being targeted by the toy industry more than ever, making those children that don’t fit the norms feel outside. By gendering toys and encouraging girls to play nice games with Princesses and so on, we reduce opportunities for them to play at being engineers, fire fighters, knights, train drivers and police officers.

Ask any child aged eight to give you a list of boys jobs and girls jobs and they will no doubt happily oblige, playing to every stereotype in the book. This is where it starts. It actually starts at birth. But this is where girls begin to give up dreams of becoming astronauts, footballers, train drivers, rugby team captains and even Prime Ministers. We know that girls are less likely to become mathematicians and scientists. I don’t recall learning about a single female mathematician or scientist when I was at school, other than Marie Curie, is it a wonder that with no female role models, girls are feeling like these are ‘boy subjects’?

I joined the Women’s Equality Party because I want to see a change. I want to work with children that see the possibilities for their lives as limitless, not ones that have been restricted by the gender they happen to have been born as. I want to see both girls and boys and gender queer children, succeed equally in schools with a stronger awareness of the inequalities that currently exist so that they go out in to the work place and the world with a hunger for change and a drive to strike the balance. I want to work within a system where girls are not sitting on the periphery being quiet for the male voices, and a world where girls feel equally as empowered in a classroom. I want classrooms to be spaces that belong to everyone, with both boys and girls feeling their voices, ideas and opinions carry equal weight.

I want us to imagine a future for our children that is free of gender restrictions, that will allow them to dream in to becoming whoever they choose to become without limits. And speaking specifically from my own experiences as a woman, I want to see things change for girls. Because equality is better for everyone.

(c) Amie Taylor 2015 (@spoonsparkle)

This blog post was originally published on Amie Taylor's blog 'The 1033 Project' all rights reserved