Working towards eradicating gender stereotypes

Every child is different. Yet, there is increasing pressure for children to reach certain stages at precise moments. It is our job as educators to empower young people to develop at the right pace for them – academically, emotionally and socially, to be able to celebrate achievements, and manage pressure and challenges without the fear of failure or inadequacy, so that school days are happy, rewarding and fulfilling.

Stereotypes and generalisations have no place in any educational setting; however, for a Head to argue that girls and boys aren’t different would be a mistake. Anatomically they are different, the rate at which they develop is different, and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that they learn differently. In a single-sex environment it is not about exploiting these differences, or promoting masculine or feminine traits as ‘better’, but about allowing pupils to be themselves. School settings with high expectations require a growth mindset and empowered, aspirational pupils with an accurate sense of self, rather than conforming to gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes exist in the world around us. Only recently an independent co-educational school was accused of sexism through its advertisement showing a boy aspiring to be a lawyer, swimmer or a politician and a girl destined to be a vocalist, actor or writer. Such perpetuations reinforce assumptions made about gender-defined roles and limit young people’s perceptions of their choices. As educators we play a role in equipping young people with the tools today to help them with their tomorrows, ranging from resilience and adaptability, to having that inner-confidence to strive for success. Young people should be allowed to develop in an environment which supports who and what they want to be, with the breathing space to flourish and fly. All career paths and subject choices should be on the table; nothing should hold any child or young person back, least of all their gender. As a girls’ school, it is imperative that stereotypes are irrelevant and that we encourage the girls in our care to live up to our motto, to fear nothing. Last week we were joined by an alumna, Captain Van Lieshout, who is actively working to dissolve career gender stereotyping by inspiring the next generation of women about careers in aviation and the exciting initiatives easyJet has to redress the gender imbalance in the pilot community.

The gender gap, and its associated inequalities and prejudices is something that, as a society, we need to eradicate. Telling girls to be like boys, or indeed boys to be like girls, is unhelpful. It feeds into stereotyping and fosters a culture of generalisations and assumptions.  As humans we are all capable of being sensitive, of banter, of tuning into emotions as well as being hurt. Lucy Elphinstone, Head of Francis Holland School, believes girls can be too sensitive, advocating that girls should be taught about how to “wing it” so they are not at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs. Whilst yes, coping with spontaneous situations and thinking on your feet, being decisive as well as pragmatic, are all invaluable skills, being well-prepared is equally valuable. Sarah Fletcher, former Head of City of London School for Boys, stated that boys are just as sensitive as girls, and that the assumption made is that young men are “a lot more robust” than they actually are. She proffered that “There isn’t a huge difference in the sort of issues boys and girls are concerned about”. We must move away from all forms of stereotyping and categorisations of boys and girls, and focus on addressing the needs of every individual to bring out the very best in them.

The centenary of the women’s vote has shown us just how far we have come and we should feel proud of the progress we have made, but there is still work to be done. Confidence for all young people is key. This resonates with what we are aiming to achieve at Sydenham High, telling our girls to stand tall, be bold and resilient in all that they do, celebrating hard work every step of the way. We develop fearless girls. We want our girls to be comfortable decision-making, taking risks and believing in themselves. Our girls do not need to try and be like boys; we celebrate our girls for who and what they are, nurture their individual strengths, personalities and characters and develop their areas of need. Our girls are always encouraged to be themselves and are given the toolkit from which to draw requisite skills to overcome the challenges they face, be that in school, the world of work, university, relationships or simply everyday life. The LGBTQ+ and Feminist societies, PSHE and assemblies play a key role in promoting openness, tolerance and understanding, as well as support. If young people are accepting of themselves and others, happy in their skin, then they will lead happy lives, of this there is no doubt.

As educators we have a responsibility to support every pupil on their journey to becoming an adult, helping to manage those teenage years successfully and collaboratively. Academic and pastoral excellence therefore must go hand in hand if we are to ensure that the girls in our care are well-rounded, secure and have that genuine sense of self to prosper. We must be flexible, tolerant and accepting of the needs and identities of all our pupils. Ultimately, it is the culture of a school that enables a young person to feel comfortable developing their own identity, whatever that might be.