Conference 2011 Keynote Address: Gender and Education in the Twenty-first Century, Engendering Debate? (Becky Francis)

Becky Francis’ keynote took on the task of exploring the current place of gender in the education system. She reflected on our current place as researchers in gender and education, on the theoretical challenges of our work and on our relationship to practice.

So, where are we now? Becky summarised that, while the place of women’s studies is troubled in many UK universities, gender as a topic is secure and gender and education as a field is very successful. The journal Gender and Education has maintained a feminist focus alongside becoming a high status academic publication. So the work of feminists is recognised but challenges remain.

There are gender inequalities in the position and remuneration of  education workers and in the gendered impact of increased workloads. The academically admired qualities of ‘charisma’ and ‘gravitas’ are ones that are not easily to acaquire as a woman. Becky suggested that they require individuality, confidence and a substantial beard. She wondered: Is doing gravitas as a woman a radical act or is it symptomatic of falling into a masculinist value system? And has academic feminism joined the mainstream at the expense of radicalism and engagement with educational policy and/or practice? After all, gatekeeping and elitism are practices that most feminists in the academy acquiesce to but ones in direct opposition to a feminist ethics of collegiality.

To address these issues, Becky drew on Sheryl Clark and Carrie Paechter’s work on girls’ unwillingness to play the ball with boys during football matches due to their desire to be ‘nice’. By analogy she saw three possible positions for feminists in academia: playing the ball and actualising equality via equal practices; avoiding masculine practices in personal actions via maintenance of feminist ethics; and a radical rejection of masculinist academic values such as individualism and competition via an insistence on collectivism, equality and open access. She saw us as a long way from the third position. We do very little to resist league tables of universities, research assessment exercises, competitive entry requirements and now the effective privatisation of universities in England.

Becky suggested celebrating generosity over niceness. In the current climate, it’s easy to grow bitter but we can avoid this by being more generous with each other and with those outside the academy. Rather than judging other people’s actions we could understand that the struggle can take many forms.

Moving onto theory, Becky started, as did Carol, that the introduction of the distinction between sex and gender, led to the pluralising of femininities and masculinities. This was useful but has since become problematic as it leads to a production of typologies, putting gender back into boxes, and tends to essentialism if all masculinities are performed by men and all femininities by women. We need accounts that: embrace the fluidity of gender and the ongoing power of the gender dualism, acknowledge the role of the material without a return to biological essentialism and that understand the concentration of power in social structures and the dispersal of power through discourse.

Becky developed an approach based in Mikhail Bakhtin’s work. She described a top-down binary gender monoglossia operating alongside a bottom-up heteroglossia of diverse ways of doing gender. Monoglossic gender is always trying to erase the explosion of gender heteroglossia, while heteroglossia is always trying to deconstruct the reductive monoglossia. To illustrate this model, Becky discussed: Margaret Thatcher, who had a feminine aesthetic alongside a masculine political style: Katie Price, who is famous for her pneumatic figure that embodies hyperfeminity and her hard-nosed masculine approach to business and family life: and Peter Andre, whose body represents a hard-bodied hyper-masculinity but who was also the main carer for Katie Price’s children during their marriage.

Returning to the question of our feminist purposes, Becky tackled an issue with particular pertinence to the UK context: the new criteria of ‘impact’ for research funding. As academic work is increasingly usurped by the work of think tanks and commercial research organisations, she wondered, why are we rejecting impact? As feminist educationalists shouldn’t we have a raft of examples of impact? There is often a lack of will among policymakers and practitioners, but we also need to address our own lack of interest in engaging with policy and practice and our reluctance to give clear messages in our work.

(Heather Mendick, Goldsmiths, University of London)

Other conference keynotes that may be of interest: Gender and education, history and progress (Carol Dyhouse); Educating desire (Davina Cooper) 

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