The "gender" debate in Australia

Peter Vogel (
Sat, 25 Apr 1998 11:43:59 +1000 (EST)

Over the past couple of years, there has been some discussion around
the poor educational outcomes of boys. This was initiated by a
government enquiry into the matter a few years ago which highlighted
the problem areas. As a result it was proposed that a Boys' Educatin
Strategy be developed to complement the existing Girls' strategy.
Unfortunately a change of government shortly afterwards resulted in
this being scrapped and "replaced" by a Gender Equity strategy.

The Minister employed a well-known girls' advocate to develop this
strategy, and the result was a rework of the old Girls' strategy
wherein the language was changed to make it superficially appear
gender-neutral, thus obviating the need to look specifically at the
issues highlighted by the previous government's study study of boys'

It was with some interest therefore that I followed the recent
discussion in this forum, which echoed much of the discussion we have
had in Australia over recent years. The question that interests me is
the apparent confusion about whether the discussion was about
single-sex education, or about the advantages of single-sex-education
as it relates to girls.

There seems to me to be some serious inconsistencies between the
claim in the list's info file that "EDEQUITY serves as a forum to
discuss how to attain equity for males and females; and how gender
equity can be a helpful construct for improving education
for all" and the charter of the organisation that hosts the list:
"The national Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Equity Resource
Center works to improve educational, social, and economic outcomes for
women and girls."

This tension was very evident in the recent discussion, where it was
clear from the opening speakers remarks that their intrerest is in
girls' advocacy. For a start, the panelists were all (I think)
associated with women's organisations. Deborah Brake, senior counsel
at the National Women's Law Center, makes the point that "Discrimination
Against Women Is Alive and Well in Education". I am not arguing
against this proposition; my pioint is that to expect her to dwell
on, or even be interested in, the issues facing boys would be

I think it was she who also said: "Some have advocated special
programs for inner-city male youths to enhance their educational
opportunities, but the educational crisis confronting disadvantaged
communities is gender-neutral".

Unless the situation in the USA is very different to here, the
educational crisis is NOT gender neutral. The difference between boys'
and girls' academic performance is not as great as difference between
advantaged and disadvantaged groups; i.e. gender is a secondary
determinant of educational outcomes, well behind socio-economc factors.
However, in Australia, girls outperform boys in all socio-economic
groups, and the gap is most pronounced in disadvantaged communities.

Again, my point is not to attack the persons making what I believe
are misinformed statements but to express my concern that maybe the
girls' advocates that claim to be unbiased really believe that they
are, and hence are not open to learning about the bigger picture. Of
course, they are not obliged to advocate for boys. That is not their
job. However they should be honest about their position and

Full marks to Ellen Wahl who did mention boys, and who prefaced her
remarks by saying that:

The recently-released AAUW Educational Foundation report in which Pat
and I participated was focused on that from the outset. What does the
research tell us about single sex schools and single sex classrooms,
especially regarding their effects on girls, the AAUW asked us.

Unfortunately, other who will subsequently rely on such research,
will forget that this was advocacy research, and use it to bolster
their position that equity is a girls' issue.

I appreciate Linda Purrington's honesty in writing "Yes, girls'
groups are nice; it would also be nice to have boys' groups
to deal with the kind of behavior the girls are protesting." This is
exactly the subtext of the Australian "gender equity" strategies:
their interest in boys in schools revolves around their effect on

And then there was the infamous "joke" that it might be good if there
were no boys at all.

Somewhere along the line came the inevitable comment that "just
because we say "girls" doesn't mean we aren't also including boys.
Was the author of this for real?? Would she be happy to go back to
calling police oifficers policemen, firefighters firemen?

Subsequent posting by Ms Purrington spelled out clearly why she
believes that girls and women are disadvantaged. I agree with most of
her points, especially that the solution to the problem is to engage
the cooperation of men in changing our culture (meaning men and women)
of violence and destruction. This I believe starts at kindergarten,
and in my view the goal of raising boys who want to be good parents,
teachers, and nurses is far more important to global wellbeing than it
is to ensure that 50% of rockets are built by female scientists.

To sum up the point I am trying to make: please reflect on whether
you are actually an advocate of equity, or a girls/women's advocate,
or whether you believe the two are synonymous. If your interest
extends to boys' as well as girls' wellbeing, please remain aware of
where most of the present inititatives are coming from. As several
contributors to the present discussion have pointed out, there has
been very little quality into true gender equity issues. Single sex
schoolling is only the tip of the iceberg.

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