Dani Garavell: Yes, girls are bullied but boys can have it tough too

The male/female dynamic at school bears watching. Photograph: Branimir Nedeljkov

The male/female dynamic at school bears watching. Photograph: Branimir Nedeljkov

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It’s too easy to say that being bullied at school holds females back in adult life when the truth is far more complex, writes Dani Garavelli

I found the claim by Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, that sexist bullying in the classroom was impacting on girls’ achievements, a trifle perplexing. While I don’t doubt girls are objectified and taunted – it happens everywhere else, so why not in school? – all the evidence suggests it’s boys who are under the greatest pressure to rebel and who are falling behind as a result.

Sure, girls are still chronically under-represented in some fields, making up just 14.4 per cent of the science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce in the UK. It is hard to get them to choose those subjects because they do not want to appear “nerdy” or to stand out in a male-dominated environment. But when they do overcome that hurdle, they often fare better than the boys, just as they do in almost every other area of the curriculum.

The statistics for boys make for depressing reading: though male high achievers continue to outperform female high achievers, a recent OECD study showed boys are 50 per cent more likely to fall short of basic standards in all subjects. Boys are also more likely to be excluded. As a result, they are less likely to apply for university. A report last year by UCAS revealed women now outnumber men in almost two- thirds of degree subjects, and that the gender gap in British universities has doubled in last eight years. According to the Law Society of Scotland, there are twice as many women on law courses and traineeships, with six in every ten solicitors under the age of 45 female.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this trend: a dearth of male teachers, a shift from kinesthetic (physical) to books-based learning, and boys spending less time on homework and more on computer games. But personal experience suggests boys come under even more pressure than girls not to appear too bookish, too committed, too bothered about their grades. My own 15-year-old son, who is currently trying to balance his football commitments with his National Fives, will revise at home but point-blank refuses to use the study room at his club. Why? Because, like many of his friends, he believes being perceived as “swotty” spells social death.

Though girls, too, are encouraged to rebel and, as Bousted suggests, to prize beauty over brains, they at least have some literary role models to aspire to. Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger spends half her life in the library and always has her hand up, but her studiousness doesn’t stop Quidditch star Viktor Krum asking her to the tri-wizard tournament ball. And then there’s Liesel from The Book Thief, for whom the written word is both a compulsion and a salvation.

Over the past 20 years, I have read scores of children’s books with male protagonists and even those who are positive role models are doers rather than thinkers or readers. But books intended for boys also tend to glamorise naughtiness: think Dennis the Menace, Horrid Henry or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Is it any wonder boys believe their role is to act the goat? Or that they come to regard books with suspicion?

Sometimes boys flourish at primary, only to opt out in the early years of secondary. They are said to distract the girls, who mature more quickly and have more “Sitzfleisch”: the ability to persevere with a task. Boys feel they have to live up to a tough masculine image, though given the consensus seems to be that girls perform better in single-sex schools while boys perform better in co-educational ones, those expectations must surely be coming from within their own gender.

You could argue that none of this is important; if boys can’t learn to behave, it’s their problem. Besides, it’s not long before they start to overtake the girls in terms of pay and promotion. Rather than fretting about their shaky start, we would be better off trying to establish what it is that allows them to zoom ahead once they’re working. Something Bousted says relates directly to this. A former English teacher, she taped a discussion during one of her lessons and discovered “the boys were talking and the girls were listening”. This deferring to male opinion in group discussions may not impact on their exam results, but if it becomes entrenched it will damage their prospects later on. In the same way, compliance is often regarded as an asset in schools, but is of little use when you want to negotiate a salary hike.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from all this is that viewing the problems affecting school children in the context of a gender war is reductive. Not only can it mask other, much more significant factors impacting on under-achievement, such as social class and ethnicity, but portraying one party as the oppressor and the other as the victim may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we want to improve the futures of all children, we need to focus on debunking all gender stereotypes, not on finding ways for children to work around them (such as encouraging boys to read football annuals or girls to do cheerleading). We want boys to read as widely as possible and girls to have the chance to become great athletes and scientists. Only when children are able to explore all of life’s possibilities – unfettered by social preconceptions – will they be able to realise their true potential.

It would be good, too, if we could admit that girls and boys are both prey to peer pressure, even if manifests itself in different ways. Maybe if we focused on what unites the genders rather than on what divides them, there would be more mutual tolerance and less bullying – sexist or otherwise – in adult life.

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