Promoting gender equality in schools

Promoting equality and inclusion are generally seen to be part of the work of schools and other educational bodies. There has been an important and significant focus on race equality over the years, but an understanding of what the promotion of gender equality should mean and how to go about doing this is less well developed. Here we offer some ideas for why this might be and some practice ideas for strategies to promote gender equality.

In England, for instance, the gender equality duty has now been overtaken by the single equality duty, but it is not yet well understood by teachers. Research by the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission suggests that in the UK the gender equality area is the equality challenge with which schools and teachers feel least comfortable to take forward, when compared with race and disability equality.

Are sex and gender still important in education?

For many people, one of the first ways we make sense of ourselves and others is whether we are ‘male’ or ‘female’ biologically (i.e. what sex we are). This in turn is felt to inform the ways in which we dress, act, talk, move and how we make sense of (and judge) others. Judith Butler talks about ‘gender performativity’ – which is a useful concept for understanding how we and others ‘perform’ being a woman / man / girl / boy (our gender).

Sex and gender are often conflated – but many would argue there is a difference between what anatomical parts we have and the socially constructed ideas of what it is to be a man/boy and what it is to a woman/girl. In many Northern contexts, at least, most can only occupy one or the other position, whose boundaries are relatively narrow (just think of the way many young children already see girls and boys as different and understand these two groups as being different, having different skills and interests).

Most people, across the world, would acknowledge that whether someone is seen as being male or female influences how we respond to them. There is also a commonly-held perception that differences between boys and girls can be, at least in part, explained by differences in their physiologies (including how their brains work) – think of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ type arguments. Thus, boys are assumed to be more inclined to the sciences, girls to humanities.

At the same time, there is also a sense that we have reached the age of gender equality (a strong rhetoric in Scandinavian countries especially) and that in many societies anyone can do and become anything they want (if they put their minds to it). These ideas are captured in what has been variously called ‘top girl’ (by Angela McRobbie), ‘future girl’ (by Anita Harris: hyperlink to book) or ‘neoliberal girl power’ (by Claire Charles). These ideas are circulating strongly in Northern contexts but also mirrored in the international development objectives which see empowering women as being central to development.

This poses a dilemma for people working in education. On the one hand, we know that whether you understand yourself and are seen by others as female or male shapes how you experience the world, interact with it and your future (women still earn less than men, still carry the greater domestic burden etc.). While at the same time there is a sense that being female does not disadvantage you in any way, in fact, you are likely to do better, as the continued alarm about boys’ ‘under-achievement’ attests to.

Over the last decade in England, for instance, there has been some focus on ‘gender’ within policy and practice – but it has mainly focused on raising boys’ achievement and getting girls to study maths and science. This has in part led to an over-emphasis on differences between students based on their sex or perceived gender.

So what does the promotion of ‘gender equality’ mean?

What might educational institutions need to think further about to create spaces which promote (gender) equality?

Amanda Keddie (Griffith University, Australia) and UK colleagues who led the The No Outsiders action research project have all sought to examine how understandings of gender equality and sexuality equality can be ‘troubled’ and alternative understandings of gender facilitated. Here, the work has explored how using teachers’ critical reflexivity and by provoking ‘conversations’, awareness of local gender inequality can be raised and understandings challenged.

The social theorist Nancy Fraser offers another way of thinking how to develop a set of strategies for promoting gender equality. Fraser argues that socio-economic and cultural injustices always need to be considered together. She calls for a politics of redistribution and recognition. The focus should be on restructuring the underlying systems which result in inequality alongside remedies problematising current ways of thinking narrowly about masculinity and femininity and promoting other ways of being. Thus, drawing on Fraser’s work, educational institutions such as schools could do the several things:

  • Ensure equal pay and fair representation of men and women at all levels across the school (male teaching assistants, female head teachers and other senior managers).
  • Develop initiatives that promote young women to follow post-compulsory education and career trajectories which will facilitate higher earnings in the future.
  • Identify who is becoming dis-engaged from education and is likely to do less well than hoped – and develop support strategies to tackle this.
  • Challenge stereotypical, either/or understandings of what it means to be male and female – across the whole school community (parents/carers, staff, students).
  • Have clear and consistently followed procedures for identifying / reporting sexual bullying and violence against women and girls incidents.

In order to do the above though, school communities need the support and training to engage with the concept of gender and reflect on how imbued our day-to-day reflections and actions are with a relatively narrow understanding of sex and gender, and to see and appreciate the many ways gender inequality is reinforced at so many levels throughout our educational spaces.

Useful links

Keddie, A. (2005) ‘A framework for gender justice: Evaluating the transformative capacities of three key Australian schooling initiatives’, The Australian Educational Researcher, 32(3): 83-102:  In this paper Amanda Keddie draws on Nancy Fraser’s work to develop a framework of transformative justice, which she uses to assess three relatively recent initiatives in Australian schools to address social and gender equality.

Maxwell, C., Chase, C., Warwick, I., Aggleton, P. and Wharf, H. (2010) Freedom to achieve. Preventing violence, promoting equality: A whole school approach. London: Womenkind Worldwide. Accessible under UK Education Research: This report reviews key literature on promoting gender equality and challenging violence against women and girls with young people and charts the experiences of five schools in England and Wales who over a two-year period attempted to develop a ‘whole school approach’ to the promotion of gender equality.  It concludes by setting out key steps any schools could take to create spaces for gender equality.

UNESCO Gender Equality Division website: This website has numerous resources to support the development of gender-specific programmes and gender mainstreaming developed across UNESCO’s five areas of work – including Education.

Guidance is available on the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission website: This website offers educational institutions guidance on adhering to the New Equalities Act (now law in England, Scotland and Wales).

Further reading

Myers, K. and Taylor, H. with Adler, S. and Leonard, D. (eds) (2007) Genderwatch: …Still watching. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books: This is a comprehensive guide which examines all aspects of schooling and how gender shapes knowledges and practices within these spaces.  Drawing on research to pose challenging questions, it offers those working in and with schools the resources to understand current practices and ways to make schooling more gender equitable.

Nayler, J.M. and Keddie, A. (2007) ‘Focusing the gaze: Teacher interrogation of practice’, International Journal of Inclusive Education,11(2): 199-214: Using the experiences and reflections of three Australian teachers, this paper examines how an understanding of their own histories and positions, as well as an interrogation of practices within schools enables these teachers to engage a ‘politics of resistance’ around (gender) inequality.

Skelton, C. and Francis, B. (2009) Feminism and ‘the schooling scandal. Abingdon: Routledge:  A comprehensive review of research and theory (as well as a call to action) around gender (alongside other forms of inequality) within schooling.


Page author: Claire Maxwell

Updated: 15th January 2013