Introducing Gender

When we talk about the differences between male and female we can enter into a confusion about what is naturally different and what, for want of a better word, is artificial. So it is useful to be careful about the language used.

This is done by making a distinction between sex and gender. Sex differences are biological, gender differences are cultural.

Many people engage in the confusion between the biological and cultural and argue that the two are linked anyway, usually by references to sexual organs and early societies. So, beginning with sex, the male is seen as the initiator, the aggressor even, active anyway, the woman receptive, passive... Man looks at femaleAdded to this is near eastern religious views of woman as unclean when she bleeds, inactivity in late pregnancy and nurturing the small child. So when it comes to social organisation, he is the hunter, the builder, the civiliser. The argument runs that the cultural nature of basic social organisation directly derives from biology.

But it doesn't, because the view of sex is rather a lousy view of woman's sexuality. It is based on a fear of women and is cultural from the beginning. It is about power and hierarchy. But biology does not lead to cultural forms, in that even primitive, never mind early agrarian, societies are highly diverse. And in technological societies, gender and sex are separate entities.

The problem with gender differences is that they are not value free. They create associations with one gender or another which are otherwise called sexual stereotypes, an attempt to label all men and women with their own brushes, so to speak. Cultural differences are reinforced and become matters of superiority and inferiority and, therefore, forms of domination, submission and oppression.

This happens in work. Biology does not discriminate between the sexes regarding intelligence and types of work, even if it is argued that women are less muscular and have smaller fingers than men. Rather, culture determines what is normal for men and women to do and therefore ascribes ranking to those posts. It is cultural that, for example, most secretaries are women and therefore secretarial work tends to be looked down upon instead of being seen, particularly up the career ladder, as administratively invaluable to the smooth running of management. Cultural barriers set up a chasm between the better secretarial posts and higher management whereas if more secretaries were male there would probably be a greater career movement between administration and company management. It is then a female stereotype that sees women as suitable to be secretaries, to be second rank, to wear the right clothes, look nice, serve the male boss etc. Indeed, sexual stereotypes often become sexual once they have been linked with power.

So where does it all begin? It happens through socialisation, a term sociologists use meaning the way we acquire from society what is deemed as normal for our society. We acquire the basics of gender differences and therefore sexism through family and school. There is no evidence of ability or intelligence differences between male and female as groups, yet females, as well as falling into a range of stereotype classifications, become more internalised than men and in general lose confidence and chances in life.

A little bit of history to show how deeply rooted stereotyping is within the curriculum in schools. The 1870 Education Act created compulsory schooling. Let's see some of the early subjects introduced, seeing as we are so aware today of the National Curriculum. In 1876 Domestic Economy was introduced, in 1882 Cookery, 1890 laundry work, types of education with a vocational bent produced for and taken by girls. This was very much linked with the family.
We wish to present today an analysis of sex stereotyping through the school years. We have videos we have made to bring issues to your attention and see if we can spot when and how sexism comes into children. I want to begin with a few initial statements of clues to how this happens based on research studies.

When babies, girls are associated with pink and boys with blue. Which colours they wear alters the behaviour of adults towards them. Baby girls wearing pink are touched more often than boys. Girl toddlers are expected to be quieter, cleaner and less active than boys. As well as this, the children observe the gender division of roles of their parents in the home which are more marked in working class than middle class households.

In school age, these observations become more absorbed as are the expectations of children. Boys are seen as outdoor whereas girls are seen as more indoor children near to the domestic tasks. Seven year old girls are more likely to give reading and writing as their hobbies, knitting and sewing rather than making models, individual bouncing ball games rather than team sports, playing with dolls which relate domestically to mothers and with clothes fashion unlike the remote Action Man dolls of boys. Girls learn from female actions on television as do boys from their sex and because boys are more 'outdoor' children they are expected by parents to become more emotionally autonomous with less soft parental intervention in their disputes than for girls. Girls mix with girls and boys with boys, boys who, for example, dislike football and girls who dislike so called nice clothes can be marginalised from their own sex.

By adolescence, girls are under greater pressure to be involved in domestic tasks, spend more than boys on clothes, hairdressing and cosmetics, and are in general more home centred in their hobbies and pastimes. Also home centredness relates to fears in poarents about behaviour and pregnancy. The lads still go out! Boys read magazines on topics whereas girls read magazines which relate more to love and romance and domestic matters. In schools the brighter academic girl is seen as more home based, less likely to be hanging around and therefore the school re-inforces what happens at home. These differences and findings intensify in working class and ethnic minority culture homes.

The home divisions of gender interact with school in that girls come in with expectations that neatness, conformity, hardworking and quietness are virtues amongst girls which then tie in with academic success. Verbal ability is demoted.

In school the outwardness of men is reflected in male history, male literature and such events on the big and remote stage, whereas women are associated with the more internal aspects of deeper feelings, as in the arts etc. If girls do a science, how often is it biology concerned with the inner life of animals and people? Reading shows few central women characters either.

Then there are whole areas of sexism in schools, practices which have continued to the present day or nearly so: boys names on registers first, or by called by their surnames, girls called by first names; the way school uniforms are gender based, segregation in the playground, segregation in P.E., the sexual make up of staff including female cleaners and male caretakers, the respect staff expect and get between male and female, curriculum choices, attention given to boys and girls, girls asking less for help than boys, how boys and girls help in school tasks and so on.

I give these as a broad brush overview. Our presentation focussed on these issues and hopefully raised your awareness of them.

To complete the points outlined here, it is worth saying that not all is bad news. Girls have been slowly going towards educational equality, even if they are not yet there. It has been a long process of first of all ignornace about stereotyping and channelling, then recognition but doing nothing, then doing a little and recently trying out some anti sexist policies. It is hoped that the National Curriculum will, by a large measure, reduce significantly the bias of females towards the arts and males towards the sciences that occurs when subject choices are made.

Maybe, but still we still select knowledge and skills and stylise according to gender. Much of the selection, however, is hidden, say in the language or illustrations of text books, and this makes selection unconscious or subconscious. That is why a deliberate anti-sexist policy is called for by many, so that we look for all the hidden cultural symbols and associations that make the selection of knowledge unfree, unfree because it is subject to semi-hidden stereotyping.

The process of selecting knowledge also involves confidence, often confused with intelligence. It isn't. The latest report from the United States, How Schools Short Change Women, using several Harvard and other studies, shows that girls got higher grades in class work but did less well in exams and that the gap in science performance as opposed to science ability has got even worse. Science teachers pay more attnetion to boys (one study found 51% of 8 year old boys used a microscope but only 37% of girls) and they answer far more (eight times more than girls in one study). Sport is arranged around boys and textbooks give few female role models. Then family demands cause many girls to drop out of the school system prior to higher education. So all this affects confidence in ability and acts against girls, and whether in the United States or here leads to a position of women getting lower status and lower paid work. Any anti-sexist educational policy has to tackle the key problem of confidence.

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