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The fight for equality isn’t over, says Kevin Rooney – but perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on victimhood, and start celebrating how far we’ve come...
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Asked to give a thought provoking introduction to a lesson on feminism, one of my female A Level students decided on an approach guaranteed to get a reaction. She drew a vagina covering the entire, two-metre whiteboard, ostentatiously adding in the labia and clitoris.
She explained that she was drawing on the iconic image from Germaine Greer’s seminal text, The Female Eunuch, and proceeded to tell the young men in the class they needed to get better at satisfying women’s sexual needs if we were to achieve full equality.
What followed was a lively and fascinating class discussion on the psychology and physiology of sex and the pros and cons of feminism. Job done.
I have been teaching politics and sociology to 6th form students for over two decades now and this is just one of the many stories I could tell you about my experiences of the young women I have encountered while doing so: self-confident, opinionated, feisty, independent, and ambitious for their futures.
Yet during this time I have increasingly felt like I must be living in a parallel universe; because the narrative about these same young women in the media and amongst experts seems to be almost entirely negative and problematised.
Barely a month goes by without another new report informing us that they are suffering from sexism and discrimination in education, like the one published by the National Education Union and UK Feminista entitled It’s Just Everywhere – a study on sexism in schools and how to tackle it.
Other reports highlight the barriers to young women in science and tech subjects.
This negative narrative jars with my personal experience, but also with other stats that get much less of an airing in media discourse.
From the age of seven, girls now outperform boys in reading, writing, speaking and listening. And while boys still do better than girls in maths and science, the gap has closed considerably in recent years.
Female attainment at GCSE is significantly ahead of that of males, and girls stay on to study A Levels in greater numbers. As a result, more women are now going to university and are leaving with better degrees than their male peers.
Nor do these young women in education face the lack of female role models that those in my generation faced. In the two decades that I have been teaching, women have risen to the top of all sections of society in an incredibly visible way.
The prime minister and first minister of Scotland are both female, and where I come from, in the north of Ireland, women run both Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Women now head up the Metropolitan police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the TUC, whilst the CEOs of the six Medical Royal Colleges in the UK are also all female.
Commentators who pointed to the BBC row over the pay gap as proof of institutionalised discrimination failed to notice that the top three Vice Chancellors criticised in the press for earning scandalously high salaries were women.
Of course there is still more to do. Black spots of inequality stubbornly persist. While young women now dominate in the science of medicine, girls are still not studying physics in equal numbers despite multiple initiatives by the learned societies in science.
If we want our daughters to get the chance of top jobs in tech, and the AI that is the future, we need to do a lot more to encourage them to embrace IT subjects in bigger numbers.
But I am still bewildered by the fact that we seem unable to acknowledge and celebrate the very real improvement that has been and is being made.
My worry is that continuing to focus on and emphasise disadvantage and discrimination undermines the huge progress we have made and, crucially, creates psychological barriers to young women confidently claiming and enjoying their newfound opportunities.
After the row a few years ago when Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt allegedly made a sexist joke at a scientific meeting, one senior female Oxford scientist took to the airwaves to warn that an overly negative and outdated narrative about the dominance of male dinosaurs in labs was actually putting young women off pursuing research.
My feminist friends argue that present day gender discrimination is less overt but no less damaging to the prospects for girls.
One teacher, for example, argued with me that female students in her classes are still noticeably more reticent about speaking out and engaging in robust debates in the classroom. But I simply do not recognise this.
For almost the whole time I have been teaching I have run weekly debating competitions, and have also entered my students into national debating competitions like Debating Matters.
Not once during that time have I employed positive discrimination in selecting participants – yet two thirds of pupils in our regular Friday debates at my current school are female.
That’s anecdotal, of course; but I see no reason why we would be in any way exceptional, and my experience of meeting other schools in debating competitions suggests that we do not have an overall problem with young girls stepping up to use their voice.
It’s imperative that we listen to the views of young women themselves. When I wake up to yet another official report or radio broadcaster describing the barriers facing girls in education I ask my female students for their reactions.
Obviously there are different opinions, but on the whole, despite often facing serious challenges, they do not see their gender in itself as an obstacle to achievement, and they absolutely reject the narrative that presents them as victims.
Many compare themselves positively to their mothers or grandmothers who did not have the opportunities they enjoy today.
There is a lovely scene in the excellent new documentary about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which her granddaughter and other young, female law students thank RBG for paving the way for their opportunities to study law on equal terms to men; photos show RBG as the only female student taking law at Columbia law school, while her granddaughter reports that her law class at Harvard has a 50:50 in take.
I am not suggesting there are no battles yet to be fought, or that the legacy of inequality will not take time and vigilance to eradicate completely. But I think we must also encourage young women to recognise and celebrate the incredible gains that have been made in education.
And my advice to anyone who thinks my female students are marginalised victims of sex discrimination is to come to my school and debate the motion with them; I think they might leave with a more optimistic outlook than the current narrative suggests.
Kevin Rooney is a teacher, author, and convenor of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum.
The Academy of Ideas Forum gathers monthly to discuss trends in education policy, theory and practice.
Find out more about what to expect at academyofideas.org.uk/forums/education_forum.
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