Why girls need to be heard in the classroom

Written by Louise Macdonald on 5 March 2019 in Comment

Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2019: Louise MacDonald, chair of the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls reflects on the findings of its listening exercise

School test - Melanie Holtsman

After a long-fought battle, just over a century ago, some women across the UK were granted the right to vote. 

Over the subsequent 100 years, we have been slowly moving towards a more equal society, but we still have a very long way to go.

Issues such as the gender pay gap, period poverty and the inequality of childcare continue to dominate the news. And in 2018, through global movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, women started to demand radical change. 

It is against this backdrop that Nicola Sturgeon created the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls. She was keen to understand what it was like to be a girl or woman living in Scotland, and how policy and legislation could be changed to meet their needs. 

Last month we presented the First Minister with a report that set out how we can begin to achieve that. And while our work is primarily focused north of the border, I believe our story will resonate with communities across the UK and beyond. 

At the heart of the equality debate is the fact that women’s voices all too often go unheard. In gathering the evidence for this report, we listened to those unheard voices and untold stories. We spoke to hundreds of women and girls from communities and cross-sector organisations across Scotland, who told us their stories of discrimination and the impact it had on their lives. 

Our report makes eleven key recommendations covering everything from education, to the legal system and childcare. These are deliberately focused on systemic change – how we put the building blocks in place that will allow attitudes to shift.

 From encouraging people to stop smoking to reducing drink driving, the science of behaviour-change has been proven to make us rethink our actions and attitudes. We need to take a similar, and holistic approach to gender equality. 

That is why we are calling for a new institute to be set up that has the remit to examine and change public attitudes to girls and women’s equality and rights. It would develop and test robust approaches to changing public attitudes to girls and women’s equality and rights, shattering stereotypes around what girls and women are expected to study, work at, and be.

A recent survey by Girlguiding Scotland, revealed that a quarter of all girls were afraid to speak out in class for fear of sexual harassment and we’ve heard that this is also the reason why girls are avoiding so called ‘male-dominated’ subjects such as physics. 

It is unthinkable that women should be silenced in an environment that should be encouraging them to speak out and ask questions. We need to create an education and learning system that supports everyone and that’s why we have recommended that the Scottish Government establishes a Commission on Gender Equality in Education and Learning, which would set out how gender equality can be embedded in all aspects of learning (from teacher training, to school behaviours/cultures, to the curriculum and youth work practice). The aim would be to create a new gender-neutral national education strategy.

We have also made recommendations around increased paternity leave, the provision of more childcare hours and better representation of women across government. These recommendations will benefit not only women but a nation of men and boys. 

At the heart of the report is the belief that gender equality is a must-have for now – not a distant dream. 

Gender inequality is complex and harmful and affects everyone – not just women and girls – collectively as a country. The pace of change demanded in the wake of #MeToo should not be allowed to slow. It is up to us all to create a society fit for future generations of women and girls.    

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