Educating Girls

10 May 2015

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 10 May 2015 

Last night I attended an event at which the journalist and feminist, Anne Summers, led a conversation with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. As you would expect, the discussion raised a multitude of issues (and it was great to see some Queenwood girls there engaging with them), but one in particular was raised during the Q&A which made me want to jump out of my seat.

Q: I’m studying Year 11 Economics and it’s a male-dominated subject, and quite often the boys in my class or the male teachers make snide comments because I’m one of the only girls. Do you have any advice for me? 

This was almost immediately followed by another young woman:

Q: I’m a teacher and I often try to pick my male students and colleagues up on disparaging language and attitudes about women. Unfortunately, I have trouble getting my senior colleagues to support me. Do you have any advice? 

Of course, co-ed schools aren’t all like this. But one of the simplicities of life in a girls’ school is that we do not have to work on sending out the right messages about gender equality. Quite the reverse in fact: frequently, in a girls’ school, it is a matter of the less said the better. Too often, young people see straight through our earnest speeches about ‘Girls, too, can be engineers’ – and think ‘she doth protest too much’. Far more powerful is what is lived but left unsaid. I recall a senior judge telling me how delighted she was when her three-year-old grandson turned to her and said, ‘Grandma, can boys be judges too?’ 

Later in the evening, Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, and Kevin McCann, Chair of Macquarie Group, joined the panel. On the issue of occupational segregation (where professions largely occupied by women tend to be lower paid) and the consequential pay gap, Alan Joyce was emphasising the importance of encouraging women to aspire to careers in higher-paid sectors traditionally the preserve of men – in his case, pilots and engineers. 

He’s right, and occupational segregation can be seen in schools too. For some reason, boys and girls tend to define themselves against each other, and despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers, in mixed company it is harder to persuade boys to do English or play the flute or persuade girls to study Extension 2 Maths or lift weights. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the only schoolgirl AFL team in the Sydney competition is from Queenwood: would the girls in a co-ed school be as likely to have the confidence to put on the shorts and play ‘the boys’ game’? 

In girls’ schools, every leadership position is held by girls; every instrument is played by girls; every subject is taken by girls; every sport is played by girls – and it doesn’t even cross their minds that someone else might doubt their right to do so. This is precious. This is the only period in their lives when they will have the freedom of a single-sex environment, and it is doubly powerful that they experience this at the formative time of childhood and adolescence. Best of all, the time that we don’t have to spend combating snide remarks and denigrating attitudes can be devoted to getting the very best out of our girls.

Ms Elizabeth Stone