Could gender quotas be the answer to sexist boys’ school culture?

Gender quotas for teachers, staff, leaders and schoolbook authors could be introduced at elite boys’ schools to tackle issues related to sexism and misogyny, according to a Deakin University study.

The research – an Australian first – probed how an exclusive boys’ school education impacted students’ attitudes towards women, consent and gender equality.

Each of the 13 interview participants attended some of Melbourne and Perth’s most prestigious single-sex boys’ schools between the 1970s and 2010s.

They were aged between their late teens and late 50s and came from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, including families with extensive intergenerational wealth and postwar migrant families with little financial capital.

In their interviews, the men disclosed they had little to no exposure to women while at school and felt this was harmful to their development.

Deakin Centre for Research for Educational Impact (REDI) researcher Dr Lucinda McKnight said gender quotas were a notoriously controversial topic. But the recommendation came from study participants themselves who even now struggled to articulate or properly comprehend important gender issues faced by women, including domestic violence and pay inequality.

“One participant told us he had to unlearn what his school’s hidden curriculum taught him about gender so he could participate meaningfully and respectfully in society. Another said gender quotas changed his workplace for the better,” Dr McKnight said.

“Our study explored how entrenched gender inequalities are perpetuated in elite boys’ schools and how this impacts students’ ideas about gender and women. What we found is gender education is desperately needed at these schools over and above what is currently provided in sex education or Respectful Relationship programs.”

Under the proposal, quotas for female teachers, guest speakers and professional staff of diverse ethnic backgrounds could be set to enhance greater representation of women at elite boys’ schools.

Quotas could also help shape the curriculum, with half the books students required to study to be written by female or gender diverse authors or feature non-male characters or protagonists.

Greater representation of female staff in school leadership roles could also be mandated.

Dr McKnight said the research uncovered holes in the students’ knowledge about women and gender, and the study recommendations aimed to address those gaps.

“One man told us girls were talked about in a ‘dehumanising’ way among their classroom peers and others said they felt disgust and shame at the actions of other men or their younger selves towards women,” Dr Lucinda McKnight said.

“But we must be careful about demonising our study participants because they have shown courage and commitment to gender justice by volunteering to be interviewed for our research. Their elite school education has let them down in this respect and this is what we aim to rectify.”

While the study concluded significant learning gaps relating to women and girls existed at the country’s top boys’ schools, it noted gender inequality was also a society-wide problem that existed beyond the school gates.

Dr McKnight said historical and societal factors were also at play when it came to gendered violence or discrimination and more research was needed to identify ways of tackling the issue more broadly.

“Putting the blame solely on elite boys’ schools is unfair and problematic. Our study shows they do have their issues, but we need to look at the bigger picture,” Dr McKnight said.

“Boys who attend elite boys’ schools often go on to occupy positions of power and influence. Our interview participants included a law student, an engineer, a chaplain, an academic, a chief executive officer of a financial institution and a surgeon.

“These men are in a unique position where they can help lead society towards gender justice, and that is why it is important to scrutinise what they learn at school, whether that be consciously or subliminally. It’s about giving them the right education to start with.”

This aspect of the broader study was led by Dr Lucinda McKnight, with co-researcher Dr George Variyan from Monash University and Deakin University Project Lead, Dr Claire Charles (REDI).

An article on the findings, The girl (w)hole: A genealogy of elite boys’ school alumni’s encounters with feminine gender, has been published in the journal Gender and Education. Read the full article here.

Media contact:
Rebecca DiNuzzo
Coordinator, Communications
Deakin University
M: 0407 878 813
T: @DeakinMedia

News 1 August 2023