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June 6, 2008 / C H Thompson

Feminist perspectives of education

feminist authorsFeminist Sociological Theories of Education

Feminist perspectives focus on gender inequalities in society. Feminist research has revealed the extent of male domination and the ways in which male supremacy has been maintained. From a feminist viewpoint, one of the main roles of education has been to maintain gender inequality.

Gender and education

From the 1960s onwards, feminist sociologists highlighted the following gender inequalities in education.

Gendered language – reflecting wider society, school textbooks (and teachers) tend to use gendered language – ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘man’ and ‘men’ when referring to a person or people. This tends to downgrade women and make them invisible.

Gendered roles – school textbooks have tended to present males and females in traditional gender roles – for example, women as mothers and housewives. This is particularly evident in reading schemes from the 1960s and 1970s.

Gender stereotypes – reading schemes have also tended to present traditional gender stereotypes. For example an analysis of six reading schemes from the 1960s and 1970s found that:

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ boys are presented as more adventurous than girls

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ <!–[endif]–>as physically stronger

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ <!–[endif]–>as having more choices

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ <!–[endif]–>girls are presented as more caring than boys

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ <!–[endif]–>as more interested in domestic matters

  • <!–[if !supportLists]–>¨ <!–[endif]–>as followers rather than leaders

Women in the curriculum – in terms of what’s taught in schools – the curriculum – women tend to be missing, in the background, or in second place. Feminists often argue that women have been ‘hidden from history’ – history has been the subject of men.

Subject choice – traditionally, female students have tended to avoid maths, science and technology. Certain subjects were often seen as ‘boys’ subjects’ and ‘girls’ subjects. Often girls subjects had lower status and lower market value.

Discrimination – there is evidence of discrimination against girls in education simply because of their gender. For example, when the 11-plus exam was introduced in the 1940s, the pass mark was set lower for boys than for girls to make certain there roughly equal numbers of boys and girl sin grammar schools. In other words girls were artificially ‘failed’ so boys could ‘succeed’.

Further and higher education – traditionally the number of female students going on to further and higher education has been lower than for boys. There is evidence that teachers often gave boys more encouragement than girls to go to university (Stanworth, 1983).

Feminist perspectives – an evaluation

Feminist perspectives have been valuable for exposing gender inequality in education. Partly as a result of sociological research, a lot has changed – for example, much of the sexism in reading schemes has now disappeared.

Today, women have overtaken men on most measures of educational attainment. Their grades at GCSE and A level are significantly higher than those of male students. And more women than men are going on to higher education. The concern now is the underachievement of boys rather than discrimination against girls.


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