Tackling gender matters at school
Schools face as big a job as ever in educating pupils about sexism, harassment and stereotyping, writes Katherine Donnelly
The gender pay gap. Women not getting top jobs, even in the highest echelons of learning, the universities. Sex pests, and worse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, abusing positions of power. All part of a dismaying tsunami of sex and gender-related controversies at home and abroad in recent days weeks and months.
Separately, and together, they illustrate that, despite decades of what was presumed to be greater enlightenment, and even legislation, issues around sexism and sexual consent continue to stalk everyday life and society.
Dr Debbie Ging, Associate Professor of Media Studies in Dublin City University's School of Communications, says that a cultural shift in thinking about sexism and sexual abuse and harassment is needed, and this includes our schools.
Ging is delivering the keynote address at the annual Ethical Education conference of the school patron body, Educate Together, later this week. She will touch on issues such as gender and social media, cyberbullying, gender in education, online misogyny, eating disorders and the sexualisation of children, which gives a taste of the breadth of the challenge.
In light of recent headlines, the conference topic, Gender Matters, is particularly timely and workshops will include gender diverse students, the use of drama and theatre to approach issues on gender equality and development education.
Where once sexism may have been viewed as a problem where women were always the victims, sexual prejudice and gender discrimination can encompass negative attitudes targeted at a person who is homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual.
The "Yes" vote in the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland has loosened attitudes and, in the past couple of years, the Department of Education produced 'Being LGBT in School', a resource for post-primary schools to prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying. So, the social climate is changing and there are many examples now of students in gender fluid or gender transitioning situations are being happily accommodated within their schools, although experiences will vary from place to place.
Sex and gender issues don't even stop there. Ongoing challenges include the age-old stereotyping in the subjects students choose in second level. Why should engineering be seen as something for boys and home economics be regarded as a 'girls' subject'?
Why do far fewer girls than boys go on to study science, technology engineering and maths courses at third level, when girls generally do better than boys in maths and most other subjects in the Leaving Certificate?
One conference workshop will focus on strategies to address difficult or controversial issues that arise in the classroom in the context of gender and gender equality. It will be hosted by Sandra Irwin-Gowran, a former second-level teacher who has also worked as a curriculum and policy developer across a range of areas, specifically on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and poverty issues.
Now Education and Support Programme Manager with Educate Together, she notes that one of the patron's four underpinning principles is that its schools are co-educational. "I guess we thought that was something different 30 or 40 years ago; but it is more than just about putting boys and girls together in the same school or classroom. It means educating all students together, providing equality of experience to each student irrespective of their background, belief system or gender," she says.
It is how those are lived out in practice that the conference will be exploring and she says they want to create space for teachers to discuss the issues.
"It is about understanding things such as why it is that boys have more confidence about putting themselves forward for roles such as school committees.
"We see it all along the way, from school up to public representation, Government and academia. Why does everyone think the school team will be a boys' team, rather than a girls' team?"
Irwin-Gowran poses questions such as "how is it that girls are policed differently in terms of the clothes they wear? Even in schools that have uniforms, why is their clothing more an issue for girls than boys? Even things like childcare, and whose responsibility that is".
As the pupil population becomes more diverse, cultural issues can also give rise to gender controversy.
"It could be a parent who, because of religious beliefs, does not want their son sitting beside a girl in the classroom. It could be a Muslim parent unwilling to shake hands with a female principal," she says.
In another example of matters for discussion, she mentions single sex school toilets.
"What we are trying to say is that not all boys think the same - why are we separating them out? Can we not just have toilets?"