A recent reflection by a friend while discussing equality resonated with me, as it related to a high school experience and fueled my belief that our K-12 system is still not doing its part in the area of un-gendering society.
The story was about her friend, Beth, who was poised to graduate in 1970 and pursue a career in the sciences. She was a bright young woman who outperformed all of her classmates both in marks and in dedication to planning a career path.
So when the Golden Achievement Award for Science was given to a male classmate who did not have the academic standing that Beth had, she felt compelled to challenge the teacher’s decision. His answer back to her when she asked why she was not given the award was, we all know you will go on to have babies, whereas Brad will have to support his family and, therefore, the intent of the award will be better served by giving it to a male student.
Characteristic thinking for that time.
Today, the B.C. government structured our province’s first gender balanced cabinet, which was also done by the new federal government – both indicating great strides for women.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that gender balance is important, and I agree with it, and government opting for a gender-balanced cabinet does send a powerful message to women, especially young ones.
However, like government often does, it is skirting around the edges, as opposed to tackling real change.
The reason why government has to prop up gender balance is because it’s not ensuring actions are taken to adjust it naturally within our systems.
Government needs to go after the societal structures — namely the education system — that continue to retain practices that embed the misguided beliefs about male and female capabilities.
And unless we insist that government address this issue within the education system, we will continue to have a society that is heavily weighted on the side of men, who continue to dominate the selection pools that affords advancement to leadership roles.
So if government truly wants to level the playing field, it needs to turn its sights on the education system and make critical changes to it, so that within any field there are naturally developed, gender-balanced selection pools of qualified candidates.
Consider this: why do we continue the practice of separating boys and girls in physical education classes once they are in high school? At the age of 12 and 13, they are still growing and have the ability to train to any level of fitness put before them. Yet we retain the assumption of female weakness and continue to train girls to a lower expectation than that of boys.
Looking over the proposed new B.C. education curriculum, it misses the mark on the goal of un-gendering society. This is disappointing considering the curriculum review was an exhaustive process tasked with revising education to ensure graduates were leaving equipped with the skills to face the challenges of our global society and its emerging economies.
So it boggles me how something as important as gender equity would have been lost in the equation.
Women’s studies are there, but they are lightweight in content and are relegated to the elective course section within the higher grades. This does not make sense. How are we going to achieve an un-gendered attitude towards employment and advancement opportunities when our own education system is not taking a sledge hammer to the path that supported gender disparity?
Oh, I know they say that targeted male/female course offerings no longer exist and every career path is open to both sexes — women can be welders and men can be nurses. Yet, to actually get that to be the accepted norm, we have to break down the social construct within our society that dissuades boys from considering nursing and girls from considering welding.
And we will only do that by de-constructing structures that re-enforce false barriers placed on both sexes.
Education needs to include mandatory curriculum that covers women and gender studies — for all sexes — as well as a full exploration of our history and how it has propelled us to the beliefs that we presently still hold about the roles of the sexes within our culture.
Further, government needs to look closely at the preparation program for teachers to ensure that they are equipped with the tools and attitudes so that classrooms are truly teaching and modelling un-gendered attitudes.
Right now, we are doing to men what was done to women in terms of job opportunities, and, as a feminist, that is not an outcome that I envisioned.
I agree that white, middle-class men have had the world by the tail for a long time and drastic measures need to be taken, but offering token placements to women without tackling the institutions that reinforce the existing norms will continue to delay achieving equality and the benefits of such to our society.
Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillour,
constituency assistant and current
citizen of the year.