Retrospect of eNSPIRED’s gender and education lecture

Every child has a right to (safe) access to quality education. Yet 65 million girls worldwide are denied it, and for 17 million of them the future is not looking any better. In addition, around 150 million children are at risk of missing out on education, because they are working or fleeing conflict. Girls from the poorest families are particularly at risk of dropping out. This stands in sharp contrast to the Belgian education sector: girls and boys have equal educational opportunities, but boys are drawing the short straw in the face of the ever-growing learning gap.

At eNSPIRED’s international guest lecture on gender and education in Ghent on 13 November, gender specialists madeleine kennedy-macfoy from Education International (EI) and Wendelien Vantieghem from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) looked for the differences and similarities between these gender challenges.

madeleine and Wendelien: a short introduction

madeleine kennedy-macfoy is programme coordinator of the Gender Equality Action Plan at EI. The organisation represents 32 million members in 177 countries and aims to involve teachers more closely in education policy by mobilising them through teacher associations. EI acts as an exchange forum between policymakers, teacher trainers, teachers and teacher associations worldwide.

Wendelien Vantieghem works at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) as a research coordinator of the Potential - Power to teach all – project, an inter-university collaboration. The main objective of this project is to develop the competences of (student) teachers to create inclusive learning environments. She is also a member of RHEA, Research Centre Gender, Diversity and Intersectionality of the VUB. Wendelien focuses primarily on social inequalities such as socio-economic background, ethnicity and gender in the Belgian education sector.

Gender stereotypes and gender-based violence in and around schools

Not many understand international gender issues like madeleine does. Especially school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV) is an important area of study for her: “Gender stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum, but are rooted in societies that confirm these prejudices. This manifests itself at school level, for example as SRGBV, a type of violence that occurs all over the world and takes various forms.”

The feeling of insecurity that accompanies SRGBV is one of the main reasons that girls do not go to school or drop out early. If we want to ban gender stereotypes and SRGBV in school, we need to involve the wider community as well,” she advises. This is a long-term process because the taboo around SRGBV is big, and because religious stakeholders may have an important influence. Only when everyone in and around the school is involved, can we implement sustainable changes in school policy. This makes it easier to recognise SRGBV and to implement appropriate procedures to combat it’’, says madeleine.

From access to true participation

“In Belgium, girls are doing very well at school”, Wendelien contributes. “Boys on the other hand are more often referred to special needs education and are more likely to repeat a year or leave school without a diploma. The number of girls in higher education is also significantly higher than the number of boys. Because we have equal participation in education in Belgium, the focus of research has shifted away from access to education to true participation in education, which also looks at learning outcomes, attitudes and behaviour in school.”

Because of their perceived ‘negative attitude’ in the classroom, boys in Belgium appear to be less motivated in school. “To explain this, we need to put gender in a broader perspective”, Wendelien clarifies. How you behave and what your interests and hobbies are, are unconsciously linked to male/female characteristics which have an impact on our lives. For boys it is considered cool if they act tough, rebel, are sporty and challenge teachers in class. Girls, on the other hand, make more intimate friendships where good results and a positive study attitude are socially less punished.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and related communities (LGBT+)

Gender is not part of the curriculum in Belgium, and many teachers have difficulties addressing it. In this regard, there is a big difference between teachers’ stance towards LGBT+ and how they approach the subject in the classroom. Generally, teachers are positive about LGBT+ and reserve extra attention for LGBT+ minority students and LGBT+ students with a lower social background. Yet they do not feel competent or comfortable addressing the topic in class. 85 percent of young people indicate they have been misinformed about LGBT+. As with SRGBV, the taboo around sex plays a major role here too", explains Wendelien.

SRGBV and the school’s role

According to madeleine, schools can take steps to help girls feel more secure in the face of SRGBV, regardless of social thinking: “It is important to create a safe space where they can go with questions and learn about their rights.Teachers also need to know and respect their professional code of ethics and approach everyday situations in a gender-responsive way. As a role model, they must be aware of their behaviour, because any accusation directed at a teacher is harmful to the image of the profession.”

A closer look at school culture

The attitude of teachers and the school towards gender norms has far-reaching consequences for the personal development of young people. According to Wendelien, it is therefore important to critically look at your school policy: “Flexible gender standards are important for the wellbeing of students. By loosening these standards, students can discover who they are without wondering what others think of them’’, says Wendelien. “Question your policy and check how gender neutral your rules are. What are the dress codes for girls? Is there a gender neutral toilet? Is there a poster of the LGBT+ Helpline? Do not split your guidelines into groups based on sex, because that way you only focus on the differences between the two sexes. As a school leader, you must get the entire team’s support on this so there is a shared vision on the school career of a child.”  

Gender in the classroom

Are you a teacher and do you want to work more on gender in your classroom? According to Wendelien, minor adjustments to the lesson content are often already a first step in the right direction: “Everyone has prejudices, including you. Engage in self-reflection and review the lessons you already give today. For example, address the genocide of the LGBT+ communities and the Roma populations in your lessons about the holocaust, or discuss female researchers and writers and look for educational material on the subject.”

Long-term process

This process is not always easy. “Changing school culture is a long-term process because it is linked to social thinking”, says madeleine. “You have to continue to train and motivate every new generation of teachers. Teachers also need support to do their job. By listening to the people in the field, we can close the gap between policy, organisations and teachers.”

Below you can find the pictures, download all the presentations and watch the entire guest lecture.

In the picture

Gender and education: international guest lecture (part 1) - madeleine kennedy-macfoy

Gender and education: international guest lecture (part 2) - Wendelien Vantieghem

Gender and education: international guest lecture (part 3) - an international dialogue