It’s hard for girls to be ‘brainy and feminine’ at school…

ATL general secretary, Mary Bousted, said in a briefing to journalists before next week’s conference that the pressure on girls to be quiet, attractive and listen to the boys doing the talking is ‘as great now as it ever has been’ as sexist bullying persists in mixed schools. She went on to say “it’s very hard for a girl to be brainy and feminine,” pointing out that there are many derogatory names for girls who want to do well at school but few for boys.

Dr Bousted also suggested that there is a “hierarchy” in single-sex schools. “You still get that sorting into the brainees, the swots, and the ones who like boys”.

Dr Bousted’s comments about mixed schools do not surprise me given that gender stereotyping is still so prevalent throughout society.

Consider, for example, the tiny number of column inches devoted to women’s sport in the newspapers or how infrequently you can see women’s sport being played on the television. Consider the furore over Marin Alsop becoming the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms (the head of the Paris Conservatoire, Bruno Mantavani, suggested that conducting was too “physically demanding” for most women and Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, said – unbelievably – that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”). How many works of art are there in the National Gallery by a female painter (11 of the 2300+ works in 2011 since you ask)? How many women MPs are there (191 out of 650 in the UK) and what sort of rubbish do they have to put up with? Remember ‘calm down, dear!’ from David Cameron to Angela Eagle.

Gender stereotyping and unequal opportunities are still with us, then, and impacting on both boys and girls as there are, of course, areas of life in which men are under-represented. Where does all this leave us in a school context? As a girls’ school, St Swithun’s has a real opportunity to make a difference and to encourage our pupils to grow up to be who they want to be without any pressure upon them to behave in certain ways. Is there a hierarchy as Dr Bousted suggests? I am not sure about a hierarchy, and indeed, who would be top – scientists / first team sportswomen / lead actresses / artists? What I see are girls trying all sorts of different roles encouraged both by their peers and by the adults they encounter. I still sometimes hear comments from parents along the lines of ‘girls like doing X’, but it is our responsibility to explain that part of our mission is not to fall into lazy stereotyping and expectations, but to give all our pupils the chance to be themselves.


Jane Gandee, Headmistress, St Swithun’s School

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