Sugar and Spice and all things nice

As Christmas approaches, like most of us, I have been turning my mind to presents. For the first time in some years, I have the pleasure of buying for a baby in the family – my three-month-old grandson. Browsing the aisles in search of the perfect gift, it has struck me quite forcefully how stark the gender divide is even for items destined for the tiniest of people. Girls’ clothes and boys’ clothes. Girls’ toys and boys’ toys. Books for girls and books for boys. The endless aisles of pink and blue. Sparkles and frippery on one side. Trucks and building materials on the other. There is a constant battery of imagery saying that girls should behave and dress in one way and boys in another.

A piece of scientific research demonstrated that when people were introduced to a baby and told it was a girl, they behave in a markedly differently way to if they were told it was a baby boy. The ‘boy’ was sat on the floor and given toys to play with, with a focus more on what he can do, rather than how he looked. The ‘girl’ was treated more gently, held and protected and comments were invariably about her appearance. This was the same baby – the only difference was in how the child had been dressed and labelled. These adults were subconsciously controlling the ‘girl’ baby’s environment, limiting risk and limiting her horizons whereas the ‘boy’ baby was allowed risk, exploration and inquiry. This difference in treatment will continue throughout a child’s education and, sadly, as they mature and become an adult.

Perhaps controversially, I do believe that there are differences between girls and boys. Scientists have shown there are physiological differences in the brain. Girls and boys do, in my experience, learn in different ways and excel in different things. Of course not everyone neatly divides along gender lines, there are always exceptions, but you will often find that the woman who excels at Physics or Engineering does so in a different way to the man who excels in the same subject. They bring different strengths and insights to the table. Those innate preferences to a certain type of working or way of thinking can put girls at a disadvantage – unless you address it so it does not become an issue. It’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about single-sex education. Working with just girls in the classroom, we can teach in a way that appeals to them and tease out a dormant interest in a subject or approach which might never have been ignited in a mixed classroom.

There is still gender imbalance across a huge range of subjects and professions. In girls’ schools like Headington, you do see higher proportions of girls continuing their study of stereotypically ‘male’ subjects than in mixed schools – Maths is our most popular Sixth Form option – but it’s still not enough. Out there in the wide world men outnumber women in professions like Engineering and Computing hugely, in the financial sector and in the boardroom. They still get paid more for the same work. This is despite evidence showing that it is actually good for business to ensure you have a fair representation of women at the very highest echelons. We may have our second female Prime Minister in Theresa May but ask Hillary Clinton across the pond about the barriers to women achieving the highest office and she might have a different perspective about those ever present glass ceilings.

Back to that Christmas present, I must admit I won’t be buying my grandson a pink dress with a sequinned tutu. That’s because such a gift would be impractical for any three-month-old. When I make my choice, I will be looking for something that will be used and loved and appreciated, that is a perfect gift for a baby. Not for a girl, not for a boy but for this unique individual.


Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School

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