Post 361.

Basketballers like Kobe Bryant become larger than life icons even for those who don’t  follow the sport or its athletes. At school, Ziya had an assignment on basketball requiring her to draw a court, map the positions, and profile a player. She got in the car talking about Kobe Bryant. I was certain that she had no idea who he was, but he was a name that she sensed was popular among the children, so she had a personality to describe that carried pop cultural cool.

Does it have to be a male player, I asked. No, it doesn’t, she responded tentatively, like thought of any other kind never occurred to her. Will any of the children focus on women basketballers, I ventured. No, she said, definitively, as if horrified. I think you should focus on players in the WNBA, I volleyed back, launching, as feminist mothers do, into a whole explanation of why.

I’m always concerned about androcentrism – or male-centredness – in children’s hidden curriculum. For the little class gazette which Zi and her classmates started, we had repeated conversations about why the sports section shouldn’t only focus on men’s football leagues. Your whole editorial team, both boys and girls, should make reporting inclusive and fair, and not let women in sports be less visible or valued, I’d encourage her.

In an age with Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, news about women in sport reports on athletic excellence, worth knowing by all. That boys don’t instinctively know this and that girls have to be pressed into even raising it tells us much about gender socialisation and its early normalising of gender inequality.

Tears burst out at my suggestion of profiling a woman basketball player. Kobe Bryant, she insisted, everyone else will be doing players like him. You can’t have a class where no students choose any women at all, I persisted. Why does it have to be me, she wailed. You have a responsibility, I said, we all do.

After so many readings of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’, where she could see how so many women scientists, architects, inventors, athletes and activists are never taught to us, appear to not have made the vastly significant impacts they did, and seem to never have existed at all, this was a moment bringing home how knowledge matters.

Tears and quarrelling from the backseat. The teacher wouldn’t allow it. No other children would have women players. No one would know her player. Everyone would say she is weird. They would make fun of her. She was terrified of being different and not fitting in.

You’re a lioness, not a sheep, I said. I’m an amoeba floating in the ocean, she grumped, a reference to a different rant I have about being too passive, becoming dominated and bullied, and understanding her capacity to control what happens to her.  Every time she protested, I made baa-ing sounds. I said all I am hearing is sheep. You are a lioness. Roar. The baa-ing made her laugh despite her hysterics.

At home, we looked up women basketball players. Just look, I said, then you can do Kobe Bryant, it’s fine. As we searched, she discovered how many of these women have amazing stories, how they are as ambitious about winning as they are about being team players, and how many won Olympic gold medals. One of them is only five feet six inches and her team boasted about her playing like she’s 6’5. Ziya’s tiny and that caught her eye. It was like a world of inconceivable achievement opened up for the first time.

Then, as a cool evening breeze circled around us, she quietly chose a player and copied her biography. No fuss. No self-doubt. No fear about being weird. I’m proud of you, I said.

We have a similar struggle with adult media. It shows why norms are so hard to change, why those pursuing change are derided for being the odd and difficult ones, why girls are so likely to conform and boys so likely to consider gender equality a struggle which isn’t theirs, for nowhere are men under-represented in sports, politics or business nor is their over-representation even noticed.

Some may think that nine years old is too young to confront these issues, but these issues are already socialising children before they have the capacity to recognise they should resist. In the end, it wasn’t Kobe. It was Dawn Staley. Zi coolly finished her homework like a small, tentative roar.

Post 291.

Minister of Education Anthony Garcia needs extra lessons on what not to say about the SEA examination.

Last week, he found it important to note, “The student who placed first in this exam, in other words the student who scored the highest, was a male student…For some time we have been noticing that our girls have been outperforming the boys where first place is concerned…From the fact that a boy was able to top the exam, it seems as though our male students have improved.”

These statements reflect appalling and invalid assumptions.

Traditionally, families didn’t invest in girls’ education because girls were expected to marry, be helpmates and be financially provided for by boys. Boys were expected to have access to better paid employment, be able to invest more in their careers, and to exercise leadership and authority in spheres of work more greatly associated with or dominated by men.

That changed over the last decades. We began to think of girls and boys as human beings with an equal right to educational achievement and economic independence. Reforms also significantly reduced gender stereotyping in school content even if it continued to rule the hidden curriculum of girls’ and boys’ socialization.

Are boys’ struggling against beliefs in their natural role of caring for children and greater economic dependence? What’s the basis for emphasizing a boy ‘topping’ girls in the SEA examination? What historical inequality or entrenched sexist ideals are boys overcoming that we want to highlight?

Shouldn’t we also consider the significance of one boy doing better than all the other boys? Does it only matter that he dominated the girls? Why does that matter at all?

Public response to girls doing well in education has been moral panic about emasculation. From girls’ success emerged baseless opinion about women teachers’ inability to be role models for or competent teachers of boys. This insultingly assumes that women cannot be role models for all human beings, and that there is something wrong with boys seeing such adult humans worthy of emulation.

‘Single mothers’ were also wrongly blamed. Greater poverty and absence of fatherly sharing of care and costs are factors, but blaming boys’ exam ranking on resilient mothers managing many challenges again shortcuts to emasculation as the issue.

Is it that boys must have dominant manhood enforced in order to do well? And, if so, what are the implications for girls, who will grow up in a society where, despite their educational successes, about 35 000 women will experience male partner violence in a twelve-month period. Are we prepared to pit boys and girls against each other whatever the costs?

‘The war on boys!’ was a backlash slogan which positioned girls’ beating books as an attack on masculinity itself. As if boys didn’t have a long history of reading, as if school had not always involved hours of sitting still, as if boys and not girls needed more play and active learning, and as if the demands of subordinated styles of teaching were not bad for all children. This view misdiagnoses current schooling as biased toward girls. At the same time, it is unable to explain how boys can still do well.

Panic also extended to blaming girls for doing too well or being too distracting. More than UWI Principal thought it cool to slight thousands of graduating women students by highlighting, not their historical and hard won success, but their apparent ‘outperforming’ of boys, and the expectation that they take on additional responsibility for helping male peers do well. Our message to girls is that their pursuit of power, capability and achievement should not intimidate boys and men, nor threaten the ‘natural’ balance of patriarchy.

Boys’ educational improvements are necessary, but what do they have to do with girls? Should girls not aim for first place? What, besides a moment of youthful resurgent male domination, is being celebrated here?

When we rate girls’ successes in terms of what they mean for boys, we continue to position males as the standard by which females’ lives are understood. This is called androcentrism. It refers to thinking that continually centres men and boys, and protection of manhood as obsessive priorities. Boyhood and girlhood are wholly irrelevant to children’s achievements unless these ideals in some way hold them back.

Headlines should focus on the urgent national concern of thousands of girls and boys whom schooling fails. For them, violence, mental health, learning challenges, class inequality and gender provide more complex explanation for SEA success and failure.