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Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Gender Matters…a lot

Sandra Irwin-Gowran, Education and Support Manager, Educate Together
Last year, my daughter started in Junior Infants in a co-educational school. Of the intake that year there were only five boys in a class of 26 children. When she told me one day of the upcoming elections to the schools’ Green Committee I naturally expected an equivalent gender breakdown amongst the number of ‘would be’ candidates from her class. I was astounded that three out of the five boys presented themselves as candidates; but only a similar number of girls did likewise! 
While there was no gender quota in place, there was a confidence among some of the boys that they would and could run for office. It is commendable that young boys are engaged and happy to put themselves forward to advocate for issues that are close to their hearts. But for me as a parent this story highlights our need to address gender inequality in our homes, schools and public spaces. 
As a parent I want my daughter and my son to do their best in school and to find a career path that they’re passionate about and that gives them each a comfortable standard of living. But what do the trends for boys and girls predict for them? 
The recently published “Women and Men in Ireland 2016” report by the CSO provides some evidence to back up what most of us think, that is, that more boys than girls take higher level papers in Maths, Physics, Construction Studies and Engineering. According to current trends, if both my children decided to enter a career in Education, my son would have a statistically higher chance of becoming a School Principal than my daughter, based purely on his gender (18% of all men in the teaching profession are Principals, less than 7% of all women in the profession are Principals). 
Our schools very often hold a mirror up to what is happening in other parts of society. We have yet to have a female Finance Minister in Government, yet we’ve had a number of female Education Ministers. Is the message here that women are good for looking after the kids, but really the maths is best left to the boys? Is it any wonder then that there is such a gender imbalance in the take up of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)? We - teachers and parents need to challenge our often biased attitudes in this regard and our promotion of the message that STEM subjects and careers are more suitable for boys. Instead, we should give all our children the clear message that they can pursue their interests in a multiplicity of ways. 
It is critically important that we address barriers that prevent a broader diversity in our workplaces.  Power and equality are difficult and complex concepts and achieving an even distribution of either will always be a struggle but we have to keep trying. We need to dispel the myth that gender equality has been accomplished. We have to keep asking questions, such as does it matter that there is a gender imbalance in the number of boys and girls on the local school’s Green Committee? We need to ensure that the decisions made at local and national levels, from schools to the government, are made with an equal representation of people who make up that nation, including gender and all the other important dimensions such as age, class, ability and ethnicity.
Every year Educate Together, Ireland’s equality-based school patron, holds a conference to support teachers in facilitating learning in Ethical Education. This year we address a core part of the Educate Together ethos, co-education. The conference is about providing the space for teachers to tease out how they approach issues to best effect for all of their students, irrespective of gender.  Ethical Education is a key component of the Educate Together model; it’s a curriculum that is living in Ireland’s equality-based schools and it seeks to offer students the opportunity to meaningfully and critically reflect upon the world around them.. We support our teachers to explore why gender matters and to encourage their students and school communities to do likewise. 
The Gender Matters: Educating for Equality? conference will be held on 24th and 25th November in the Grand Hotel, Malahide and is open to all teachers with an interest in this area.
Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816