Feminist Friday Discussion Round 4: Education

If we manage to have a discussion about gender inequality here this weekend, we’ll have talked about it for a solid month.

We started with a discussion of Feminism as a label, and moved from there to prioritization of issues. Last week, we talked about rape. Every step of the way, we’ve made people uncomfortable. That just can’t be helped. Inequality is an uncomfortable topic; but if we don’t talk about it, it will never get better.

This week, we’re talking about education, because a lot of people have mentioned a need for improved education from various angles over the past three weeks. The problem with  education as a topic is that it can become a catch-all term if we’re not careful. It’s a big, it’s complex, and it means different things to different people.

So what I’m giving you today is an attempt to break education down into a few useful categories, and an invitation to add your own categories, to say something about how specific aspects of education could address specific problems, or to point out flaws in my categorization scheme.

I think education starts at home, the moment a child is born. The first four or five years of learning are very important. By the time a child reaches the public school system, in my opinion, their personality is more than half-formed. Having said that, I think it’s best to talk about early childhood learning and family influences separately from formal education. They just don’t work the same way.

So we separate formal education from the rest. Next, I think we need to break it down into a minimum of three categories:

  • Primary education,
  • Secondary education, and
  • Higher education.

That’s because differences in age matter. We can talk about third graders, seniors in high school, and college sophomores all at the same time; but really, I don’t think we’re going to make much progress doing that.

I think, in order to really get at gender inequality – we have to look at differences in the way girls and boys are treated at home, in elementary & middle school, in high school, and in college. And that’s minimum. (See? Like I said, this topic is large and complex).

Now, here are some things we could talk about, and talk about in different ways for each of those four categories:

1. Gender differences in access to education.

2. Gender differences in subject areas that are considered socially acceptable for girls to pursue.

3. Improving sex education at every level of our educational system (and of course it goes without saying that all sex education should be age-appropriate), because while poor sex education is bad for everyone, it’s worst for women.

4. A role for adult education. This one is especially important, in my opinion, and here’s why. Children learn by imitating the adults who spend time with them and care for them, right down to facial tics and body language. So, if we want little boys to respect little girls, we have to teach domestic partners to respect one another. And if we want little girls to grow up into women who view themselves as assertive, autonomous individuals who are free to pursue their own destinies, we have to teach their mothers to view themselves that way.

 So, my questions for you this week are, where do we start? And what have I left out?

Which part of education would you like to talk about first?

As always,my perspective is U.S.-centric, because I have never lived anywere else. If you live outside the U.S.A., feel free to share your thoughts on gender inequality and education in your own country with us.

35 thoughts on “Feminist Friday Discussion Round 4: Education

  1. Thank you for hosting this new discussion! I think that going through each stage of education: pre-school, primary/secondary/higher education and then adult education, would be a natural way to go.

    I’m always surprised about sex education in school. I’m not even sure whether this is obligatory in France. I remember we vaguely talked about this once in biology class when I was 15 in high school and it was scary the lack of knowledge. I had been lucky to get information from an early age (with age appropriate sex/reproductive knowledge education as I grew up) at home.

    I also find that in anglo-saxon countries you have much better access and mentality regarding adult education. In France, we have big words about this but the way higher education is organized, you don’t really have options about it in the real world.

    I remember being told (by an administrative staff member from the school) not to engage in media studies (i.e. professional cinema school) when I was in my last year of high school because I was likely to become a sleep around if I wanted to succeed in it and that I was smarter than that. I remember being shocked about this, because I didn’t see what the point was. I went through cinema school dealing with every day misogyny (girls were 1/4 of the school) without having to “sleep around”.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I agree with Natacha, breaking down by age is necessary. I received most of my Sex Ed from my Mom. Thank goodness she was an open-minded progressive person who was completely comfortable with the subject. But most parents aren’t. You just don’t want to think of your kids and sex in the same sentence/thought, etc! Sex Ed in schools is abysmal. My son went through it a few years ago and they are not even allowed to talk about contraception. They just told the kids “ask your parents, we’re not allowed to discuss that”.

    The Middle and High schools in our area have been doing a big campaign to educate the kids on sexting. Recently there were 17 kids involved in a sexting “situation” which is why they addressed it.

    There seems to be no talk of respect, consent, etc. They just want to explain the mechanics and leave it at that.

    I think in early grades it should be taught that no one should touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable and if someone tries to alert a trusted adult and teacher. Kids need to learn that anything they are uncomfortable with is very likely something that shouldn’t happen. And they need to know that there is a place or person who is prepared to hear if they have experienced anything inappropriate.

    Older kids need to be taught about consent (including all the “gray areas”, changing a yes to a no, etc.) They need to be taught what rape and sexual assault is. They need to be taught that witnessing rape at a party, etc needs to be stopped and reported. They need to have specific ways of reporting things like this. They need to be taught the criminal aspect of all of this. They need to be taught that it doesn’t matter what a girl wears, if she’s drunk, is she’s passed out, if she flirts, if she has slept with someone before that she still has the right to say no.

    Teens and adults need to be taught that guilt and shame have no place in a healthy sexual relationship.

    And I wonder if these things need to be taught outside of school. We all know (especially those of us who live in the Southern U.S.) the backwards mindset and resistance when it comes to educating children about sex. Maybe a Social Media campaign, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you about the basics of what needs to be taught at which ages.

      This is a thorny issue, all the way around. The ideal thing, for me, would be for parents to teach their children about sex in a responsible way, but you’re right – the discomfort is very common, and it stands in the way.

      I’m thinking you might be right about finding a way to do it outside the schools.

      I also think you’re right about teaching the mechanics and leaving it at that. That’s not sufficient, to me. There needs to be some teaching about consequences.


  3. I think maybe we should talk about elementary school education this week middle school next etc. since all of these age ranges have a fairly large number of relevant sub topics.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks! I’m seeing a fairly firm consensus here that it needs to be broken down by age, so I’ll probably do that at some point, and give each level its own discussion thread.


  4. I think sex education is probably one of the most lacking and important things in this list. It’s abstinence-only in so many places still, and that’s not a good thing. It doesn’t work–teen pregnancy rates in the States, as well as rising STI rates, reflect that.

    We’ve also, I think, got to have some education for educators on what we can do as faculty members to encourage girls to keep working in the math and science fields, as women are still underrepresented in many professions that involve math and science. STEM education is important for all and seems to be lacking as a whole, but it seems that there’s less emphasis on that for girls even than for boys.

    I agree with Gretchen that maybe we need to be thinking about ways to educate outside of schools due to bureaucracy and reluctance to teach, in a publicly funded setting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My comment is long, and yours went up while I was writing, so, thinking now about yours… my point is that figuring out fixing the education system is a big thing, going back to the fundamental purpose. That fix may never happen. So you’re probably right, we should maybe consider education outside the classroom.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Formal education is a complex issue with many branches, not the least of which is that we’re talking about educating millions of people, and we’re talking about multiple reasons to do so, multiple hoped-for outcomes.

        I think we need to think about education in a lot of ways, not just formally (but not neglecting formal education, either).

        Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with the outside the schools idea, and that abstinence-only is insufficient.

      There are lots of models that have worked in other areas that could be applied to a publicly-funded effort if we want to think outside the box.


  5. I like your question about gender difference in subjects, as that is a question close to my heart. Having worked for years as a bank teller (at first as the one male and something of an oddity for it) and then going through my library science degree (which also is a field I am finding with an expectation of women), I am on the other side of the issue. But I can see exactly where our assumptions about these sorts of work can impact me mildly, but can completely box in women, who are stuck looking at these “female-appropriate” jobs.

    Of course, I suppose it is a poor correlation for me to equate the work we do with the education we received beforehand – since those two things seem not to connect, by-and-large. Combine this with other problems we might find here in education (like the comments on sex education above) and we find a system that has mixed, or confused, purpose.

    So maybe that’s really the first question: what is the point of education?The political philosophy answer to that is for us to have an educated voting public. There’s an economic side to it where it is babysitting so that parents can work. A traditional side to it where it’s just something we’ve been doing a long time, and we keep doing it – and keep doing it in a lot of the same ways (such as the bells, added to train us all to work in a factory). There’s the ideal of it preparing us for the workforce. There’s some level of hope of it preparing us for “the real world.” There’s the thought that we graduate out of it as “adults,” so is it our modern coming-of-age ritual?

    What is the point of education? If we could answer that question, I think we could figure out how it could help empower women – or, more broadly, to just empower the students at all. If the purpose is political, then maybe students should be prepared to be more than just voters – they should be prepared to be representatives. If it’s to prepare us for the workforce, then we should come out of it vocationally prepared for work, and with the sky as the limit for everyone on what jobs they can hold. If it’s to prepare us for “real life,” then there should absolutely be strong sex education – and personal finances, driving education in school (I learned to drive in my 20s), maybe even self defense classes. I don’t know, random thoughts.

    My point is, without knowing the purpose, we fight over issues like the place of discussing contraception in schools. And we’re stuck with teachers trying to do the best they can to teach, with the purpose being… students who know a thing?

    Also, random rant: maybe they could still teach grammar in schools? I had to take grammar in college because I never got it in K-12. Except obliquely, like learning about semi-colons in typing class, or learning about grammar in foreign language classes.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think the idea of focusing on what we really expect education to do, and what its purpose is, is a fundamental part of this conversation. I think it should probably do some mix of the things you listed, but that gets more difficult to do with an ever-expanding population and changing ideas of what is appropriate at what age as well as changing societal structures.

      I mean, think of all the parenting books that are out there now, and think about them historically. They’re mostly manuals for how and what to teach children, and when to do it, and they’ve changed, in many ways, as our culture has changed.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes. The parenting books. And the reigning theory today will be debunked tomorrow. It can get overwhelming.

        I think the schools have their work cut out for them with just teaching the basics. I see certain teachers and certain schools trying to pull girls into the science and technology. My son’s school has an ITE club for girls. My daughter’s school (Elementary) did not even offer her an opportunity to try out for the Lego Robotics club. (Teacher’s nominate the kids). And I have her teachers telling me she’s one of the smartest in Math and Science. Yet they never considered her for the club. She was sorely disappointed. (If I had known when it was all going down I would have been up there fighting for her).

        My point is, I see some teachers making an effort to pull girls in to these subjects and nurture them and others that are oblivious. Basically right now it’s up to individual schools and teachers to foster an environment for the girls to get involved or even be recognized. And that’s not working. We can’t wait for perceptions to change, otherwise a whole generation will get left in the dust.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes. I probably could’ve been a scientist had I been more encouraged to be. I had a bio professor my freshman year of college who really wanted me to be a bio major, but I’d spent so much of my life being told and thinking that I wasn’t good at that stuff, when really I’d just not been encouraged to do it the same way I’d been encouraged and taught about reading and writing and history. Now those are all important, too, but I wish someone had been better at encouraging and teaching me math and science skills and at showing me their true importance.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Totally agree, though I think in your case, there was more too it than gender. (Not that this isn’t something that affects women more than men – i think that it definitely is the case).

            I came out of high school thinking I was only good at words. Had to drop biology the first time to keep from failing it, and barely got through the college algebra with a D.

            I had an epiphany one night when I was 24 and realized that everything I’d been doing with page layout, advertising percentages, etc. in my newspaper editing job for the last two years was applied geometry. And well, look at some of the crazy things I can do with numbers now.

            My life would’ve been much different if I’d been encouraged to just get over the math difficulty at an early age, and I think part of it was the way math was taught in the classroom at the time, but part of it was purely a matter of cultural influence.


            • See, I made A’s in college algebra and bio 1 and 2, and I did well grade-wise in high school versions of those, too. But I was convinced I wasn’t good at those things, that I was just memorizing for tests (which sometimes I was) but couldn’t apply the information (because sometimes I couldn’t.) It was definitely a gendered response, though it was also the environment we grew up in.

              Liked by 1 person

      • I think some of the problem is that we don’t do a good enough job is flushing away the older ideas when they’ve been replaced – so we end up with this mish-mash of old and new methods, old and new ideas, good and bad ideas, mixed ideologies, people unwilling to change, people too gung-ho about changing…

        The problems are very human. Change is one of the hardest things we come up against, in my experience. For instance, I am helping with a course on Digital Citizenship right now, and it’s so depressing listening to the students (mostly teachers themselves) talking about how there are so many teachers in their schools and districts who are against technology, don’t understand it, don’t endorse it, etc. And worse, really, is administration against technology – so that they have no support/money/training with technology, and so they are unprepared when something like, say, cyberbullying comes up.

        So maybe it’s not the first conversation – maybe it’s the last conversation. How do you (we) actually effect change in something as large and various as the “education system?”


    • I don’t think that our education system in any way prepares people to be responsible voters. I could write a whole thing on that alone. Grammar is virtually non-existent. I was an English Major in college and I never had to take Grammar for my degree! (which I was completely grateful for at the time). I think our education system is about checking boxes and either preparing kids for college or moving others through a dysfunctional system.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I should say, I didn’t take grammar in college because I had – I took it because I felt I needed to, because I had never gotten it in school up to that point.

        And if our point is to prepare kids for college… then why are most kids having to spend the first couple of years still doing fundamentals? Not to disagree with you – I think you’re right. I’m just saying, we’re not even doing that well.

        What we are doing well is moving people through the system.


    • That comment is post-worthy.

      I think you’re onto something. Because really, what IS the purpose of education? I do not think there is a consensus on that – and I don’t think people understand that, here’s a word we’re all using differently.

      So when we talk about education, everyone engaged in the conversation could be talking about a different thing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • For instance, I was surprised by the extent that we’ve been talking about sex education here in the comments. Not that it’s not an incredibly problematic part of our education system – just that it’s not where my mind goes when someone mentions “education.”


  6. I’ve been reading about divorce this week and had some vague thoughts about educational barriers specific to single mothers. I’ll ponder that some more. I don’t really have anything concrete to add that I didn’t already mention on Wednesday, but I wanted to voice my support anyway.


  7. Late and braindead but here!

    Sex ed is definitely important.

    Personal anecdote #1: I read a bajillion Star Trek novels when I was a kid. Once my mom read one I’d particularly liked, and then felt the need to tell me “What Mr. Sulu and that woman were doing in bed… that’s called sex.” My (mental) response was “Um, yeah, I know. Was that really the only thing you noticed about the book?” This started off a longstanding source of frustration in that she zeros in on the (in)appropriateness of sex scenes in media when I don’t really notice them at all, but I digress. The point is, I was already entirely familiar with the concept and process because I’d looked it up on the internet, satisfied my curiosity, and moved on. I’d guess I was ten or eleven, and I don’t think I was scarred by a few technical diagrams and mythbusts.

    Personal anecdote #2: In the movie An Education, the guy suggests the girl use a banana to “get it over with” or some such. I watched the movie with a friend just a few years ago, and she had to ask me how the banana would work. I was too stunned to even be able to explain how virginity works, because I’d looked all that up online years and years and years ago. It was like I’d traveled back in time to when a woman’s husband was supposed to explain to her, and she only heard rumors about sex until then. Not healthy.

    So, yes, somebody please explain virginity to people so I don’t have to, and put reliable information online. I’m not suggesting kids have access to porn or whatever, just reasonable information — I looked things up when I was concerned about them for my own health. So, maybe a site designed to be linked by schools on their home pages or something.

    Also, I may have mentioned this on another thread, but education in basic skills is also really important, so that women can take advantage of opportunities, thus creating more opportunities for themselves and the next generation. Basic financial skills are huge in terms of self-sufficiency, and that training should be available to adults. Also of course education about what constitutes abuse, etc.

    I’ve never experienced the public school system, so I don’t really think in terms of grades or ages, I divide it more into “sex education” (encompassing various age groups but the same general content) and then education to give people skills, jobs, general poverty-alleviation type stuff that would also help improve women’s lives (also encompassing various age groups but the same general content).

    I started this comment saying “I’m here, but I don’t have anything to say,” but I’m deleting that because good gosh I’m rambly today.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I am so glad you comment here. I think what you have to say is so vital. So much has changed in the last 10 (20 if I’m honest) years. I can say what would work with my generation but you always come from a perspective that is a little bit different, and I’m sure more current. I think real life education about basic financial skills is SO important. Our public education system does not address this need at all. What I’m trying to say is that if we want to come up with anything that really makes a difference we need your perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, thanks. I appreciate you saying that. I can’t speak for my entire generation, I just try to extend from my experience and my friends’ along with what I’ve read. So, I’m glad it’s helpful. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I was unable to get online yesterday, but just caught up with all the comments. This education issue is serious. I agree with some of the first comments that breaking it up by age is a good idea. I also want to point out that we build on everything that came before, at each step of our education. By the time some women reach university level, they don’t have the background or credits to move into some areas. I know personally that this happened to me. In the religious home education movement, I believe it is common. Girls fall out of the ranks starting before they even reach high school. While I appreciate everything my parents did for me, I know that science and upper level maths, computers were not stressed in my education. I had no formal science education until college and I’ve seen it happened to other girls as well.

    When it comes to sex education, I agree with suggestions that there should be alternatives to relying on parents to teach it, (though that would be ideal) and schools. Many parents simple can’t bring themselves to do it, or do it responsibly.

    But now I come back to the comment earlier that was made concerning defining the purpose of education. I’d really like to explore that. That could be the building block of everything. Does our system even work for our current social needs?

    Thanks for making me think.

    Liked by 2 people

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