Why is it that males, compared to females, underperform at school and yet outperform women post-school?
The conundrum of The Education System vs. The Corporate World...
As a committed teacher, working in the UK state school system for several (11) years, the annual start-of-term, post-summer holiday, meeting would always include a section on the Summer Exam Results; as well as the headlines, and department achievements (putting backs up and creating a culture of competition between staff before term starts - thanks!), the most significant discussion would be about the gender gap in education. Not just in our school but nationally.
There are many reports available to show this is a ‘problem’ for children who attend school (not including the “263 million children, adolescents and youth [who] were out of school, representing nearly one-fifth of the global population of this age group” uis.unesco.org reports, 2016). The gendertrrust.org.uk reports that, in the UK, “data analysis suggests that boys are struggling to keep up with girls at key curriculum milestones. By Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 year olds) girls are already moving ahead of boys in their test scores. In the 2015 test scores, around 83% of girls achieved a level 4 or higher score, whereas only 77% of boys in the same age group were able to attain level 4 or higher. These trends continued up to GCSE level, with around 10% more girls earning 5 or more A* – C grades than boys who were achieving the same standard.” From experience, year-on-year, the gap keeps widening, despite strategies, endless meetings and the ritual bollocking of teachers who don’t know what else to do...
Head teachers would herd their sun bleached, bleary eyed staff: teachers, support staff, office staff and caretakers, together in the dreary main hall, sitting them like a naughty class on hard plastic chairs facing the front, and ask them: “looking at the results for this year groups, it would seem that females have outperformed makes by ...%. That’s an increase on last year. What do we need to do to ‘close the gap’ on gender?” They never offered an answer and I never felt that I had the right one (unless, of course, they accepted the utopian vision shared by the hopeful among us that if we tore up the Tory funded National Curriculum (looking everywhere, I could not uncover the cost of this... but I did find out that the new SATs cost £44millions for schools in their first year!) and created an exciting and engaging learning environment focused on and designed for our learners and their needs, preparing them for the ‘real world’ and including a range of practical and literature cross-curricular based study, with a focus on health and wellbeing, employment experience and effective careers advice... you know, like the successful Finnish do it. Other than that, I never found out the answer to this question).
Around the world, Head teachers are singing to the same tune as they share a duty: to provide a successful learning experience for all. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS - the official and trusted source of internationally-comparable data on education, science, culture and communication) has a duty too. As part of the International Observatory on Equity and Inclusion in Education, their mission is for the achievement of: “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with Target 4.5 specifically aiming to “eliminate gender disparities and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations” (uis.unesco.org). So with all this hot air and policy making, why are males continuing to be thwarted by our educational establishments whilst reveling in the real world?
I don’t know, is my answer.
Perhaps the questions leaders should be asking are not only why is there this ‘gender attainment gap’ in school but how is it that these very same ‘underachieving’ males go on to have the most lucrative, successful careers compared to their female counterparts - which leads us onto the next highly contested phenomenon: the ‘gender pay gap’?
One of the issues might be the deeply embedded popularity, in many cultures, to focus on RESULTS as a measure of schooling success. Results are religiously and rigorously compared against peer groups and year groups this creating a system which ignores the individual differences between students and removes their autonomy. In other words, maybe male students are not performing after all! Schools might be using the wrong measurements for success...?
Secondly, the school environment. How well are modern schools adapted to the learners - learners who now own a computerized phone from the age of 4 or 5, can coherently communicate electronically from a similar age and has a network of friends and followers by the time they are starting secondary school? Have you seen the popularity of the YouTube channels these youngsters are setting up? Yet when they enter a school they are forced to sit, faceless, complacently, in plastic chairs listening, writing, reading from white boards and papers, demanded to remember up to eleven different subjects (whose content are dictated by the ‘new’ 2016 National Curriculum, which is in fact backwardly set in a ‘slimmed down’ archaic model selected by ex-education minister Michael Gove and written by civil servants, with no teaching experience) - not because it’s that young person’s passion or strength - but because the Government has decided it is so. And what for? Each student has to pass up to twenty exams in the summer. Is it any wonder that there are reports of a rise in poor mental health, stress, anxiety and battles with identity? And I’m sorry school leaders, adding ‘mental health and wellbeing’ to ten minutes of tutor time once a day isn’t even scratching the surface or contesting this complication.
This autocratic style schooling system doesn’t seem to suit our male learners, yet they still go onto to be managers, bosses and leaders in many companies and corporations. Despite this, school seems to nurture many females into achieving outstanding results year on year, yet in later life they fall off the band wagon. Is it fortuitous? Or do schools need to adopt a business model system to strive for and possibly achieve more equal gender attainment, or to ‘close the gap’?
School: a controlled environment, offering lack of choices, of free movement, of opportunities to explore and express independence or identity. All concluding in a few momentous months of examinations, back to back, followed by a long wait and then a brief arrival of the envelope with your results: success or failure, future or no future, joy or shame...
Work place: a controlled environment, offering an abundance of more autonomous choices that demand self motivation and self reflection: what do I want to do, what tasks do I want to take and how will I undertake them, what are my strengths and where do I need more support or training; offering chances to specialize, to have successes and receive rewards, bonuses and social recognition (and not only once at the end of your career!). And of course, there are more serious consequences if the work isn’t done: you could lose your job, lose your wages, lose face amongst your peers and more.
So females lead in schools and males overtake them post-school.
But the UN and UNSECO, as well as other organizations, want themto be going head to head in school exams for the top grades and in the board room for the top jobs. What is the future of this gender inequality battle?
The introduction of a ‘gender equality quota’ has been issued in many countries to level out the playing field. Governments are promoting the use of quotas to curb ‘inequality’ in employment and provide a preference for the minority group in question, or reduce common cases of “preferential treatment” - for instance, when candidates are equally qualified, a man is almost always appointed for the job. Is this the best way of striving for equality in the (corporate) world? And, how powerful is an equality employment quota: is it not discriminating in itself? In a statement by Linda Senden, Professor of European Law, an expert in the field of European equality of the sexes and a member of the Utrecht University hub of a Gender and a Diversity, she aims to settle these concerns: “A quota arrangement is not discriminating in and of itself, but merely aims to prescribe a certain result.” The results are often without sanction but some are, such as a fine.
In California they seem to be making history with the introduction of SB 826: this is a new bill that “requires California-based public companies to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by the end of calendar year 2019.” According to www.lexology.com, “Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law on Sept. 30 that requires publicly held companies headquartered in California to include women directors on their board of directors.” Sounds like a pioneering move by the US state. Sadly, however, this newly born bill has already faced fault finding as there seem to be a number of loop holes that could affect how the bill is applied.
In the Netherlands, gender inequality is acknowledged yet the Government moved the goalposts: the 2016 30% target was changed to 2020 because it wasn’t being met. “There is a women's quota in the form of a target figure: on 1 January 2020, 30 % of the seats in big companies must be occupied by women. A good ambition, but as long as this isn't tied to strict sanctions, it's mostly a symbolic arrangement,” commented Sinden. Doesn’t moving the date make a mockery, somewhat, of the whole proceedings?
The Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency report that: “Australia, along with many countries worldwide, has made significant progress towards gender equality in recent decades, particularly in education, health and female workforce participation. However, the gender gap in theAustralian workforce is still prevalent; women continue to earn less than men, are less likely to advance their careers as far as men, and accumulate less retirement or superannuation savings. At the same time, men have less access to family-friendly policies such as parental leave or flexible working arrangements than women.” With the rise in stay-at-home dads and bread winning women isn’t it time country policies caught up?
The UN has been a driving force for change; they recognize the benefits of a world of equality, evenness and equanimity. Gender equality is defined as, “not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” It is evident that change is happening: for instance, compared to 18% in 2007, in 2017 in “46 countries, women now hold more than 30 per cent of seats in national parliament in at least one chamber.” Positive progress.
Thankfully, talking about ‘gender equality’ has moved the debate quite far in a few years: its no longer the stale conversation about men vs. women, or Mars vs. Venus. From now on, there is a need to engage in exchanges that mean ‘gender’ encompasses all people and all identities - cross-gender, trans-gender, non-binary individuals, the whole of society! Perhaps we need to stop talking about ‘gender’ altogether and start to focus on ‘individuals’ as learner, member of society, employee. Subsequently, don’t we need school, societal and employment systems and laws which give equal weighting to ANYONE, irrelevant of their gender, sexuality, race, class status? So we can stop talking about the ‘gender gap’ and start finding ways of helping everyone to be their best, whoever they are.
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