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How are we ‘teaching’ gender?

Stories matter.

The power of storytelling was not revealed to me until my late twenties. I was a mature student, studying English Literature, completely out of my depth and consumed by imposter syndrome. I had long been an avid and passionate reader, so I decided I knew enough about stories to rub shoulders with literary scholars. Suddenly, when confronted with theories and concepts way over my head - I realised I knew nothing at all about stories.

I was exposed to stories that recounted people and places I had no idea about. My Professor explained to me: ‘Don’t read history books to understand a time or place, read the fiction’. We all know that the history books back their own agenda; this was the first time the realisation hit that fiction is actually telling the real history, the real people, the real place. To write a story is to write real life. The plot and the characters can be far removed from the time and place of their writing, and still the story will carry the emotional weight of its conception. If you want the truth, read the story.

I managed to learn enough about stories to make it through the degree and become an GCSE English teacher. I trusted the power and truth of storytelling to be a tool to shape all of our futures. I assumed that the stories I would teach would be inspiring truths, game changing truths, truths that see young people lifted. Stories that show hope and success. And I do. If you identify as a boy.

Only 2% of GCSE English students in the UK study a book written by a female author. A study by, End Sexism in Schools (ESIS) found that 67% of set texts for modern prose and drama were by male authors, while 58% of the set 19th-century novels were by men.

Not only are we not hearing the female authors' voices in our schools, we are also not hearing a true representation of female stories. ESIS found that 69% of the set texts for modern prose and drama papers had a male protagonist, rising to 71% for the 19th-century novel. ESIS calculated that out of the set texts offered by AQA, the most popular awarding body, more than 70% had a male author and a male protagonist.

To add to the disparity, in the most popular GCSE English texts, female characters are either victims or servants. These stories perpetuate a narrative of women as the victims of a patriarchal society, thus reinforcing the notion of sexual inequality as an expected norm.

The texts that we teach show the trouble and struggle of women. This is a story that has to be told. However, we need to change that this is predominantly the only female narrative. We need to inspire, to show the possibilities, to show the strength, the innovation and the unboundness that exists in all those who identify as women. Our young people need to be encouraged to read stories that are written by women - and stories that include positive and powerful female characters.

As Rachel Fenn, of End Sexism in Schools, elucidates, ‘For the next generation to grow up challenging a patriarchal view of the world, both boys and girls need to be exposed to strong and empowering representations of women, not the voiceless victims and servants we see repeatedly in the perennially popular texts taught in English lessons.’

By only providing the option for pupils to engage with the male perspectives on the world through the literature they read, not only do boys never learn to empathise with and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of women, but they also receive the clear message that women’s voices and perspectives are less important and less valid than their own.

Victoria Elliot, Associate Professor of English and Literacy Education in the Department of Education suggests, ‘At the moment, if you’re a middle-class white boy in school, as far as you’re concerned, all the stories are about you. That is really important in thinking about the future and how they react and respond to other people and in life.’

The stories we tell young people in schools become the reference point for their future values, ambitions, and understandings of the world around them. Better representation across the literature of our classrooms is not a one stop, quick fix for improving diversity, equity and inclusion. However, understanding the concept of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ is a crucial first step in tackling the inequalities and discrimination that are still being perpetuated in our society.

The young women and men in our classrooms need to see and hear the successful, powerful, magnificent stories of those who identify as women. If the story is telling the truth, we need to start re-writing the future.

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