Working With Girls in Schools

In the 1970s and 80s in the UK there were a wide range of feminist grass roots and specialised groups for teachers and youth workers about issues and concerns regarding ‘working with girls’ in schools and beyond (See Jean Spence’s reflections on girls work in the GEA newsletter, January 2011). However, there is surprisingly little UK literature on what it means to ‘work with girls’ and related issues around girlhood and femininity in contemporary schools. This is not the case when it comes to boys, with a range of guidance documents focused on working with boys and the problems of masculinity.

Some of the reasons behind the creeping neglect of issues regarding gender can be found in the ways in which education over the last 15 years has focused narrowly upon creating strategies to diminish the alleged gender gap between girls and boys in school achievement. Here the ‘gender agenda’ was concerned primarily at addressing boys’ underachievement.

As the Mythbusters document clearly highlights, many of these concerns oversimplify girlhood/femininity and boyhood/masculinity and overlook the diversity between girls and between boys that feminist research has long sought to highlight.

GEA members and other feminist researchers are again having to make visible the ways in which girls educational needs have been overlooked. For an excellent overview see Paechter, Jackson and Renold (2010) Girls in Education: 3-16: Continuing Concerns, New Agendas. There are chapters here on a wide range of experiences that girls’ have to negotiate both inside and outside schools and in new post feminist times. Summing up in their introduction to the collection the authors state that, although there is a popular sentiment that we are now living in a ‘post-feminist’ world, gender inequality and oppression still exist. In particular, many girls and young women’s lives are not reflected in popular stereotypes, Moreover,  girls still face multiple educational, material and social disadavantage, yet these stories and experiences are often marginalised with the continued anxieties about boys’ educational attainment.

Beyond this, theoretical work has questioned the essentialist and unitary notions of gender and girlhood. Put simply, that there are many and diverse ways in which girls can be (or not) ‘girls’, we might consider the implications of even developing a literature on ‘working with girls’. Indeed, much of the literature which targets girls’ educational needs may be contributing to reinforcing gender stereotypes of what it means to be a girl learner (e.g. hard-working, rule-following, good at languages and literacy) a particular type of ‘girl’ (e.g. consider the media categories of mean girl, the slut, the laddette) or other aspects of ‘femininity’ (e.g. bitchiness, internalisation of failure, low self-esteem).

There are however some general lessons for those who do want to offer support or otherwise engage with girls and there are some excellent websites and resources that are listed below. One of the key messages of the ‘working with girls’ chapter in Genderwatch by GEA members Emma Renold and Debra Murphy is to urge practitioners to critically reflect upon any strategies that are focused specifically upon girls. The pointers below are taken from that chapter and may be helpful starting points for any educational programme or thinking through school based practices more widely. It is important here to consider how such programmes might unwittingly bolster rather than challenge existing gender stereotypes.

Pointers on feminist work with girls

1. Critically explore your own assumptions around girls, girlhood and femininity:

– What stereotypes of femininity do you as a teacher or youth worker working with girls hold around girls and femininity (e.g. different ages, ethnicities, sexualities, class groups etc)?

– What kinds of dominant images of femininity does the school itself reflect to the pupils or young people who attend?

2. Learn from girls (and with girls) how they understand themselves and each other as ‘girls’ within various educational contexts and settings:

– What do girls themselves think about being a girl? (e.g. how are different kinds of femininity valued by themselves, by others)

– What kinds of images of femininity do girls bring with them into the school context?

– How are different kinds of femininity acted out in different contexts? (inside school and beyond the school gates)

3. Critically explore how dominant notions of what it means to be a girl or young woman impact upon girls’ everyday lives, social interactions and aspirations and expectations:

– What kind of dominant images of ‘femininity’ (e.g. in the media, peer culture etc.) do girls consider impact most greatly upon their everyday lives? (positively and negatively)

– How do these dominant images of ‘femininity’ influence the ways that girls think about and plan for their futures?

4. Recognise how differences (sexuality, class, gender, age) intersect and interact with each other in anticipated and unanticipated ways:

– What differences do you think make a difference to girls’ lives?

– How are your own assumptions challenged when discussing with girls how issues of class, age, sexuality, disability or religion affect their lives and understandings of themselves and their futures?

Useful Links

Girls in Education ESRC-funded seminar series website

WOMANKIND’s UK schools project

Feminist teacher blog

Further Reading

Aaopola, S., Gonick, M. and Harris, A. (2004) Young femininity. Buckingham: Palgrave: This text draws on international work to do with femininity, identity and youth cultures to explore how girlhood is defined and portrayed in contemporary theoretical and popular discourses, encompassing topics such as sexuality, the body, friendship, family, education, work and citizenship

Hey, V. (1997) The company she keeps: An ethnography of girls’ friendships. Buckingham: Open University Press: In this book, Val Hey explores female friendships in secondary school including the role of social class in this and the impact on learning.

Jackson, C. (2006) Lads and Ladettes in School. Buckingham: Open University Press: In this book, Carolyn Jackson uses research with girls and boys in secondary schools in the UK to look critically at claims that boys’ laddish behaviour is making them behave badly and underachieve in schools – it also looks at how far this behaviour applies to girls.

Lloyd, G. (2005) (Ed) Problem Girls: Understanding and Supporting Troubled and Troublesome Girls and Young Women. London: Routledge: This edited collection explores the issues surrounding girls and young women who are seen as troubled or troublesome. It sets out to further our understanding of young women who face or cause difficulties, offering a diverse and complex view.

Jackson, C., Paechter, C. and Renold, E. (2010) (Eds.) Girls in Education 3-16: Continuing Concerns, New Agendas. Open University Press: This edited collection looks at a whole range of issues in the academic field girlhood studies.

Osler, A. and Vincent, K. (2003) Girls and Exclusion: Rethinking the Agenda. London: Routledge: Boys dominate debates about school exclusion and, as a result, services for excluded young people are oriented around boys. In this book the authors focus on the girls who are excluded.

Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H. and Melody, J. (2001) Growing up girl. Palgrave: In this book, the authors explore the educational pathways of young women focusing of how social class influences this.


Page author: Emma Renold

Updated: 15th January 2013

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