We had Daily Life columnist Jane Caro on the show to talk to us about one of her recent articles on gender equality, specifically what we can do to help the younger generations in school. Here’s the full article published in Daily Life. Scroll to the bottom for our chat with her!
I find it a little hard to get as exercised as many people appear to do about the relatively poor performance of boys at school. Part of the reason I am fairly relaxed about this may be entirely selfish – I have daughters. But part of it is because I cannot help but notice that this lack of academic prowess in no way seems to hold the male gender back when it comes to the world of work.
We know, for example, that even though girls go to university in greater numbers than boys (100 to 80) and generally outperform them, winning the majority of university medals and distinctions, they are paid less from the very first day they enter the workforce. This pay gap is estimated to add up to about $1 million across their lifetime. Women remain clustered in low paying, feminised occupations. They are much more likely to work part-time. They are much less likely to be promoted and remain remarkable for their invisibility at any table where major decisions get made. Worse, for many women a lifetime of low pay ends up in a poverty-stricken old age. The majority of those eeking out an existence on the single pension (currently at $737 a fortnight) are women and they are the lucky ones. The fastest growing group among the homeless is women over 55.
Yet the moral panic about gender in our education system has been about the under-performance of boys. Various solutions have been offered for this problem, most of them to some degree pointing an accusing finger at women. Indeed, the under-performance of boys is most often blamed on their female teachers – either explicitly or implicitly. One Federal Minister of Education, Brendan Nelson, went so far as to suggest positive discrimination in favour of male teachers, even to the extent of paying them more money! This was to overcome what is seen as the insidious feminisation of education. Too many damn women emasculating our boys, apparently.
Other learned men (and they are usually men) have suggested that boys learn differently from girls, they need to move around more and hate being confined to a classroom. Implicit in this reasoning is that schools are biased towards girls by their female teachers who actively (if possibly unconsciously) work to hold boys back. Hang your heads in shame, women teachers and female students, you with your wicked, hard-working, sitting-still ways, you are ruining our energetic, high-spirited boys.
It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, that despite the appalling effect all these schools reeking of oestrogen are having, conventional wisdom has it that boys do better at co-ed schools and girls at single-sex ones. Funny how none of the pundits fulminating about the feminisation of education ever try to unpack that one, but…I digress.
There are whole conferences dedicated to the education of boys, endless reams of articles are written, and you could fill a library with the books written about it. I don’t see nearly so much of an industry around the education of girls – unless its of the Princess Bitchface variety (a book about how difficult it is to parent teenage girls) – so very encouraging for our daughters, of course. Yet those pesky girls just seem to keep putting their heads down and working away quietly regardless.
I wonder why?
Is it a dastardly feminist plot cooked up by women teachers to privilege their own gender, as many seem to suspect? Is it – and this is more likely – to do with how quickly girls mature in comparison to boys? Or is it for another reason altogether? I can tell you in one word why I think boys do worse than girls at school, and here it is; patriarchy.
Boys do relatively poorly at school and university not because they are dumber than girls or because they find it harder to sit still (board tables, executive suites, parliamentary chambers and cabinet rooms seem untroubled by men unable to sit for long periods of time), but because they can. Think about it. Boys are not stupid, they look at the world and they see that their gender gets a relatively easy ride thanks to patriarchy. They kick back at school a bit because – quite sensibly – they see that they simply don’t need to work as hard to get ahead. If we compare lifetime female earnings with lifetime male ones, this strategy appears to pay off for most of them but it does cost some of them a great deal in the long run. (Patriarchy is bad for more than women.)
Girls are not stupid either. They look at the world and see that if they want to get ahead at all they are going to have to work their guts out to prove their worth. They can’t just be as good (or as bad) as the boys, they have to be much better. That’s a big incentive to put the required effort in.
So, here is my recommendation if we really want to increase the performance of boys at school – stop giving them an easier ride than the girls when they leave it. When the world is more equal for women to the extent that men really have to compete with them, I guarantee you boys will do better at school.