Does gender equity limit choice?

Quentin Bryce looks at choices for girls and boys, puts them in an historical context, and asks Does gender equity limit choice?

About the author
Quentin Bryce, AO, was the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. This is an edited version of an address to the ninth conference of the National Council of Independent Schools’ Association.

Does gender equity limit choice?

There’s nothing new about gender equity.

It has been around for centuries. It could be said that the history of the last five hundred years at least has been about the development of concepts of equality of human beings.

During this time, the notion that any one group in society should have more than a fair share of opportunities and resources, as a birthright, has gradually been undermined. The current concept of human rights demands that all people be regarded as equal, and this includes the sexes.

It is important to recognise the philosophy of gender equity over the centuries has been based on the understanding that people want their society to be organised on principles of justice and fairness, including justice and fairness whatever your sex.

Rationale for gender equity
Behind all the gender equity reforms is the basic principle that gender equity extends choice: it allows more people more structural opportunities.

History and anthropology show us that there have been some rigid and righteous ideas about gender and that these have placed enormous restrictions on members of society. In some societies females have been required to dress in very restrictive ways. Some are not allowed to wear pants, or to show their faces, or their ankles. Some women have not been allowed to cut their hair, ride a bicycle, drive a car. Others have not been allowed to become doctors, or lawyers, or priests!

Gender equity is about removing these restrictions based on sex, so that there are more choices for more members of society. Of course, this applies to the individual as well. In the past, females and males were each supposed to confine themselves to half of the human values and characteristics. This was personally painful for many people. Women often had to deny their strengths; men had to hide their nurturing abilities.

I want to look at gender in relation to the curriculum and at sex-based harassment (the term used in the Review of the National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools). I want to look at the implications of gender equity and expanding choices for girls and boys at the end of the 20th century.

The basic principle of gender equity means that gender should not limit the way an individual grows, or determine the stereotypical contribution they are allowed to make to the community. This principle is enshrined in Article 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in which the Sex Discrimination Act finds its source.

Why have gender equity policies and programs been necessary? The reason we need explicit programs to ‘free up’ gender and make more choices available is that, in the past, we have tried to make the two sexes conform to set patterns to make girls behave in one way, boys in another. Over the centuries, as our understanding of anthropology, sociology and psychology have become more sophisticated, we have begun to see just how false, how painful and how wasteful some of this social engineering has been.

Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was one of those anthropologists who, by using cross-cultural comparisons, helped to show how what we thought was the ‘true nature’ of women and men was really a measure of the way we socialised the sexes. This is the difference between gender and sex: the former concerns socialisation, the latter biology. Certainly girls and boys would not turn out to be feminine and masculine as we know these categories without a lot of instruction, and a system of rewards and punishments.

Medical scientists of great renown published papers which insisted that it was dangerous for women to be educated, that their brains would burst and their uteruses atrophy, if they engaged in learning or novel reading.

Mary Wollstonecraft
It’s not just cross-cultural comparisons that we can find illuminating. In our own history, British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) has been one of the most influential writers on gender.

“Women are made, not born,” she said, and listed all the ways society made women characteristically feminine. One of her starting points is education.

If our history was taught more equitably, what we would know—and would therefore need no reminder of—was that when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her charter for women’s rights girls were not allowed to be formally educated.

At the same time that men passed laws to prevent women from attending educational institutions—and remember, only men could vote and sit in the House of Commons—it was men who also insisted that women couldn’t be entrusted with responsibility because they were not educated. Here were women who were not allowed to become learned, and who were then blamed for not being well-informed.

Wollstonecraft strenuously objected to the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of her contemporaries, who insisted that men should be educated for the world, and that women should be educated to please men. She pointed out that this man, who sent his own children to the foundling home, presented himself as the expert on child rearing.

What Wollstonecraft wanted was gender equity: she wanted women to be educated not for men, but for themselves! She argued that there could be no equality until the two sexes had equality of educational resources. Her educational programs for gender equity, among the first written, still have much to recommend them today.

Mary Wollstonecraft was of course treated in much the same way as other women of her time. She was ridiculed and rebuked for trying to interfere with sex differences. She was not praised then—and is not often praised now in our educational or history curricula—for her brilliant contribution to educational policy, to social justice and the increased possibility and choice for human beings. While she was called a “hyena in petticoats” and a “philosophical sloven”, Rousseau is still studied and praised as the champion of liberty despite his view of freedom depending on the exploitation of half the population.

There is no gender equity in the way that women’s and men’s intellectual contributions are recorded in history.

In the 19th century, girls were constantly discouraged from moving out of “their sphere”, as it was called, and were belittled and humiliated if they tried. This is well illustrated by the pronouncements of the highly acclaimed philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He begrudgingly acknowledged that women could acquire learning but that “they may as well grow a beard”, with the result that many women turned away from learning and intellectual activities. They didn’t want to be branded as unfeminine, to risk their possibilities of “getting a man” when this was the only real choice available to them.

Medical scientists of great renown published papers which insisted that it was dangerous for women to be educated, that their brains would burst and their uteruses atrophy, if they engaged in learning or novel reading.

Florence Nightingale
Perhaps the most chilling example that can be found of this form of deprivation is in the person of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). As a woman reared in the 19th century, she was supposed to show no interest in anything other than in getting a husband. Her assessment of this was that she was in danger of dying from intellectual starvation.

She had to fight every inch of the way to become involved in the world, to be able to work in the public sphere, believing it was not only the individual woman’s loss, it was a loss to the whole society.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Florence Nightingale put forward sound arguments for ending gender inequity so long ago, but we are still a long way from seeing them fully implemented.

For more than 200 years there has been a campaign for equal educational opportunity for the sexes. Many women and some men have been involved in the struggle for girls to be allowed entry to schools, and then universities. Now that women have become 50 percent of the university student body—an extraordinary achievement in such a short time—the focus has shifted somewhat, so that it is educational policy-making authorities, and the university hierarchies and administrations—the top echelons—where so few women are to be found which are seen to be in need of reform.

All kinds of case studies could be presented, from finance to the choice of fiction in the curriculum. Examples include the way money is spent on squash courts rather than child-care, the status given to boys’ sport in educational institutions in contrast to girls’, the way books chosen represent boys’ interests rather than girls’.

Women at home and abroad are still 'discouraged' from doing certain subjects and courses. One has only to look at the pattern of student enrolments to know that this is still the case in some respects.

There is a very big gender imbalance in training areas. What we have to ask ourselves is whether this represents choice, or lack of choice. Are girls not doing engineering because in all sorts of subtle ways they are being told it is not the right thing for a girl to do? If this is the case, we need to revise the counsel we give girls so they are not put off by false gender prescriptions but have the full range of possibilities open to them.

Or is it the case that girls are not enrolling in engineering, or technological subjects, because they do not like the philosophy, the ethos, the nature of contributions from these disciplines? If this is the choice girls are making, then it is not the advice to young women which needs changing but the way the subjects are constructed—if we do want girls to go into them.

Women and mathematics
We do know the advice that girls can be given can limit their choices, and there is probably no better example of this than in mathematics. Again, if we knew our history, we would know that the idea that girls could not do maths is a very recent one. In the 1700s everyone knew that girls were no good at Latin and Greek—they were not allowed to go to school to study these languages, which were considered “the mark of the educated man”—but it was widely accepted that they could do maths.

Let me present a very interesting illustration. Early in the 18th century, women were commonly encouraged to sharpen their mathematical skills. The English Ladies Diary, published from 1704 to 1841 was designed to teach “Writing, Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, the Doctrine of the Sphere, Astronomy, Algebra, with their Dependants, viz. Surveying, Gauging, Dialling, Navigation and all other Mathematical Sciences”.

Early issues of the journal presented a variety of articles, including a chronology of famous women from Eve to Queen Anne, Robert Boyle’s remedy for colic, methods for preserving apples and pears, and much advice on marriage. However, in the fifth volume of the journal, editor John Tripper announced that since the ladies seemed to prefer mathematics to cookery, the diary would dedicate itself exclusively to “enigmas and arithmetical questions”.

Mathematics was accessible to women because its study required neither a closet full of equipment nor a large library: it was a poor person’s pastime. It was seen to enhance a woman’s life and character—as it was not considered unfeminine, there were no philosophers saying, “Well, women can acquire learning, but it’s a very laborious process and they may as well grow a beard because it makes them so unattractive to men”—and women took advantage of the opportunity.

What does this suggest about all the recent gender equity programs in mathematics? It suggests that they have been designed simply to remove some of the obstacles that were only recently put in the way of girls and mathematical achievement. If we knew more of our educational history we would be in a better position to appreciate some of the social engineering strategies of the past—and to devise gender equity programs for the present.

This brings me to one of the most blatant restrictions and distortions in education today. While our institutions provide a wealth of information on male experience, and present it positively, there is little information routinely presented on women, and what is, is often far from flattering. According to educationalist Dale Spender the curriculum offerings of some schools are up to 90 percent by, for, and about, males.

You don’t have to be an expert at mathematics to know that gender equity should mean that half of what is taught in education should be related to female experience.

Half the authors taught should be female, not the paltry 7 percent which is usually quoted today as the number of female writers included on courses in educational institutions in Australia—and in an area in which women are believed to excel!

This is not negotiable. Social justice demands no less: women are 52 percent of the population and their presence, priorities and perspectives should be reflected.

To believe that women do not have a positive presence in our traditions because women have not done anything important is to think that women have yet to prove their worth. But for women to realise that women have done the most amazing things, have made such a wonderful contribution, have led such remarkable lives, but that we have not been informed of it before, is to have a very different and much more energising view of the possibilities of women, past and present.

Think what it could mean if the work of female inventors, Aborigines, explorers, mathematicians, and social workers, educationalists, pacifists and priests were standard curriculum content. We would not only have a very different curriculum, we would have a very different society. All these women, and all the issues that are part of women’s lives, need to be recognised in the official knowledge which is transmitted to the next generation, if there is to be any form of gender equity in the curriculum.

Gender equity is more that what is taught, it applies also to the conditions under which teaching takes place. It is a matter of grave concern to me that the National Policy for the Education of Girls lists sex-based harassment in schools as the single most debilitating factor in girls’ educational lives.

Sex-based harassment
Sex-based harassment, which is about the exercise of power, is the imposition of behaviour based on sex stereotyping. It relegates girls and women to an inferior position relative to boys and men in Australian society. It is evident whenever a girl is made to feel embarrassed, frightened, hurt, angry or uncomfortable, just because she is female.

Girls describe sex-based harassment as the major disruptive factor in their school life and the National Policy makes the elimination of such harassment its number one priority. It must not be accepted as harmless teasing or as natural between girls and boys because, in many circumstances, the impact on the social and educational experience of girls is devastating.

Just as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted that Rousseau was wrong, and that it was untenable to develop the well-being of one half of humanity at the expense of the other half, so too have educational authorities today made the same ruling. Gender equity has to mean choice for all, not the right of some to choose to exploit others.

Some of the worst forms of sex-based harassment have occurred when girls have tried to move into non-traditional areas. This is certainly one of the problems with girls and engineering, for example. It seems it is not too difficult to get some girls to enrol in engineering: the problem is that they don’t stay. Sex-based harassment is the major reason.

But just encouraging girls to excel in the ‘traditional’ areas of males is not gender equity. It is another form of valuing the achievements of men and devaluing those of women.

If we try to insist that all girls should do what boys do, we are failing to value the things that girls do. Many of the things that girls do, and in which women excel, are not only desirable, but necessary for our community.

We need more, not less, when it comes to communication skills, nurturing abilities, co-operative competencies. We need more emphasis placed on history, on philosophy, on media studies, and all the other areas that are under-funded.

Gender equity is not just about including more about women in the curriculum for the sake of girls. It is also for the sake of boys. Clearly girls need to know the achievements of women in the past, but boys also need to be familiar with the great deeds done by women.

When women know what women have done, there is a significant increase in their self-esteem and self-respect. When men know what women have done, there can be a considerable increase in their respect for women.

Careers and supporting families
It used to be the case that people argued that it was more important to educate a boy than a girl, because he would have to work all his life to support a family. This cannot be applied any more. Each year fewer and fewer families are supported solely by men, and more and more families are supported solely by women. So marked is this shift that we are fast approaching the situation where it will be more accurate to say that it is a matter of necessity to educate a girl, for it will be she who will work for most of her adult life and will be more likely to support a family.

What we need today is an education system that reflects the realities of adult women’s and men’s lives. We should be offering all our young people an education based on the assumption that they will earn their own living and that we would want to equip them as best we can for the task before them.

It is not just a matter of whether gender equity limits choice. We need gender equity in terms of efficiency. It is only by utilising all, rather than half, of our intellectual and creative abilities that we can hope to become the clever country. Only by providing the best environment, including an environment free from sex-based harassment, can we hope to promote personal growth, satisfaction, and a more balanced community.

It is not a matter of whether gender equity limits choice, but that gender equity is the only viable choice for a just and sane society.