If there’s a word guaranteed to give me the boak, it is the word woke, which has been co-opted by fusty conservatives to pillory anyone vaguely left-leaning. On Saturday, educationalist Professor Alan Smithers became the latest to set my teeth on edge with it by saying schoolboys are being let down by “wokeism”, which apparently upholds the gender attainment gap.
According to Professor Smithers, “education is tilted in favour of girls” because there are “inherent differences” between the sexes and the education system has been set up in such a way that it allows girls to flourish while boys trail behind. But nobody dares talk about that, he says, because any conversation about it is shut down lest it be “thought a microaggression if you say that one group is biologically different from another group”.
That girls routinely outperform boys in exams is not up for debate – this year, for example, the gap between male and female pupils obtaining an A in their Highers widened to almost 10% in favour of girls – so it absolutely is an issue worth examining. Indeed, the Scottish Government says it will be reviewed as part of the reform of qualifications and assessment. What I don’t understand is how Professor Smithers can assert that particular traits are innate and that “wokeism” is maintaining the status quo. What exactly are Professor Smithers’ claims based on? In the words of my old Maths teacher: show us your working, please.
Let’s begin by thinking about what it means to have a “male” or “female” brain and to be inherently good at one thing or another because of it. Neuroscientists have repeatedly debunked the idea that men and women have significantly different brains; there’s very little evidence to suggest men are naturally better at, say, science while women are more suited to the arts. Yet these opinions and perceptions pervade, and that is precisely the problem; they become self-fulfilling prophecies. We are moulded to a far greater extent by our social experiences – the toys we play with as kids, the media we consume, the way we are treated and stereotyped by others – and so a lot of the gendered traits we exhibit are not a result of our biological make-up but the environment and cues we’ve absorbed over many years.
Where this can benefit girls within the sphere of education is that, and I’m of course speaking in general terms here, we have historically been socialised to be polite, obedient and good communicators. We’re less likely to get away with being troublemakers and more likely to acquiesce to authority figures. Boys, meanwhile, are generally expected to be a bit more boisterous and may even be berated for displaying traits perceived to be feminine such as sensitivity or bookishness. A study by Roehampton University found that studious pupils, especially boys, were often targets of bullying and would “dumb down” to fit in with their peers. Schools reward children who are compliant and bury their heads in a book, but social pressure could prevent boys from behaving in this way.
Professor Smithers points to girls’ “superiority in reading” as an example of the education system being biased towards their “natural abilities”, but could it be that enjoying reading is seen as a feminine trait and therefore boys don’t always feel as encouraged to develop an interest in it? Shouldn’t we therefore be looking at ways to dispel this perception and inspire boys to find pleasure in reading rather than de-emphasise its place in the curriculum?
Smithers also says that “in tests of very young children, boys are actually ahead in numerical skills and spatial skills” but, again, this is not because of their biological maleness. Research shows that spatial skills are better developed in people who played with certain types of video games and construction-based toys such as Lego, regardless of gender. But boys are much more likely to be given these types of toys. And so it goes.
I’m all for tackling the gender attainment gap in education, but we have some almighty barriers to hurdle if the real problem is, as I suspect, the way in which we impose limitations and expectations on children based on their gender.
Perhaps we’d make more impactful strides if we looked more closely at early years education. A few years ago, BBC Two ran a documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? which really struck a chord with me. In it, a class of 23 seven-year-olds received a gender-free education for six weeks. They participated in the same sports, read the same books, played with the same toys and met adults who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes, including a female mechanic and male make-up artist. By the end of it, boys were better able to identify their emotions, there was a 57% reduction in boys’ bad behaviour, an equal number of girls and boys ranked in the top 10 of the class for spatial awareness and the girls’ self-esteem improved markedly.
An approach such as this could conceivably help to narrow that gender attainment gap in later school life, and it could also have further-reaching benefits in achieving equality outside of the classroom. Because while girls might outperform boys at school, this doesn’t translate to the workplace. Men still occupy significantly more senior leadership positions, outearn women and dominate the fields of STEM. And that’s before we consider the gender discrimination flowing through every other realm of our lives, from our relationships to our mental health, and disadvantaging women and men in different ways.
So, yes, let’s look at finding ways to help boys do better at school, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming the solution lies in a curriculum designed around supposed differences in male and female brains. If we show children from a young age that their intelligence and abilities are not predetermined by their gender, that one gender is not superior to the other and that they can pursue any career they want, we widen the opportunities available to them both in school and their lives beyond. Call it wokeness if you like, but it sounds a lot like basic human decency to me.
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