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International Women’s Day: Equal Access to Meaningful Education

Yes, yet another post from me on International Women’s Day!

Gender Across Borders, the phenomenal blog where I write a monthly column on gender, sexuality, and law, is asking readers to blog today about the UN’s official IWD theme and answer the question: “What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?”

I’d like to take on the question of equal education, because it’s something that’s directly relevant to my life, and I’d like to look at a somewhat less-blogged-about facet of the problem.  There are tons of great blog posts about how to solve the problems of women having no access to schooling, or less access to schooling than men, or less access to particular disciplines.  These are the basic problems and we can’t go anywhere until we solve them.  But I’d like to look at the next step, based on some of my own experiences.

If we look at education in terms of the simple question, do men and women both have a chance to go to school and perform well, I honestly don’t have much to talk about.  I was lucky enough to live in an area where going to school was a given, and I never really noticed gender-based discrimination in school.  I graduated from college and law school with honors and awards.  But equal access is not that simple.  Equal access also means:

  • Access to a broad range of concentrations and skills. When you think about education, you have to think about who writes the curricula and who decides what classes are taught.  I had no access to women’s studies, queer studies, sociology, anthropology, development studies, cultural studies, Black studies, native studies, or Latino/a studies courses before college.  Many women don’t have access to much more basic classes in math, science, or computer skills.  Certain skills also may be easier to learn for men after formal studies–networking, business skills, and public speaking might be more commonly transferred in “boys’ clubs,” whereas women area at a disadvantage when these skills aren’t taught in school.
  • Access to different ways of thinking within an area of study. Within the courses I did take in high school and college, I rarely had a chance to explore differing perspectives.  Feminist perspectives were never brought up in school, nor were POC perspectives.  I read few authors from the Global South.  Disability was rarely mentioned.  Queer perspectives, including non-binary ideas of gender, were never discussed.  History, literature, civics, etc. were taught from the perspective of dead white guys.  Alternative methods of teaching, study, and expression were also discouraged.  Poetry is a valid form of communication.  So is song.  So is activism.  So is art.  So is digital media.
  • Being treated as a subject, not an object. The education I received tended to subtly place students as objects, not subjects of their learning.  Sometimes, this was general–learning was received, not participatory in many cases.  But other times it was felt more strongly by certain groups in the classroom.  White, straight, male views were presented as “mainstream.”  Unique ideas were not discussed and debated in the classroom.  If not objectified, minorities were marginalized and made invisible–queer people, for example, did not appear in the books I read.  Relationships were assumed to be heterosexual.  Everyone was assumed to have a gender.  And yes, the male pronoun was often used to refer to doctors, lawyers, and politicians.
  • Presenting a diverse picture of womanhood. I was thinking about my American literature course in 11th grade, and though we had a really phenomenal teacher, I can only recall three female authors that we read in that class.  Two of those were white, one was Black.  We didn’t read any Native American, Asian American, queer, or Latino/a authors in that class.  Just as “man” is understood to mean “white man” in mainstream academics, so too is “woman” understood to mean “middle class white woman.”  Nor were alternative pictures of womanhood really presented.  The concept of “femininity” was never challenged.
  • Basic resources and support outside the classroom. This is something I was lucky enough to have in my own experience, but I want to mention it because I think that many women do have access to education, but are hampered in their academic performance by poverty, by lack of mentorship or support after school, by difficulties in getting healthy meals or enough sleep, by the need to work while going to school.  Female poverty, young motherhood, and many governments’ absolute failure to support their citizens must be addressed if education is to be effective.
  • Focus on barriers that affect women disproportionately. Equal access is impossible when boys are socialized to harass, coerce, and rape women.  Equal access is impossible when youth who transgress gender norms are threatened, terrorized, and beaten in their schools and communities.  Equal access is impossible when pregnant teenagers are ignored and written off, and when young women are denied access to comprehensive sex education, contraception, reproductive health services, and abortion.  Sex education is an issue regardless of gender, but the lack disproportionately harms those who are able to bear children because of the stigma against pregnant teens and the practical challenge that these teenagers face.  It also disproportionately harms women and queer people in general because no sex education means no education in consent, no education against harassment, and no education in respecting gender and sexual minorities.  Members of these groups live in fear and find it difficult to learn as a direct result of this lack.
  • Creating safe spaces and providing mentors. I have heard of some really amazing projects in a number of cities that provide safe spaces for young women and for particular groups such as girls of color, immigrant girls, and queer kids and adolescents.  We need more of these, and we need them in every locality, in every country.  Most young women I know have never experienced a safe space.  I have been in one once, and I ended up crying from both joy and relief.  Such spaces and groups act as a refuge for kids and teens who feel ostracized.  While boys are encouraged to group around their talents as athletes, girls’ groups tend to focus on frivolity.  This grossly underestimates the ability of girls as thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creative forces.  Similarly, adults need to step in as mentors to young women, providing positive role models where there have typically been none.
  • Not using gender as a factor in how students are taught and socialized. My final point speaks to my own experience as a person outside of the gender binary, and to a long and ongoing struggle to find myself in a binary world.  The question posed to us was about women, but I think that equal access goes beyond that.  It gets at the heart of a huge problem–the way we are socialized into two genders, as men and women, according to cultural norms, early in our education, and then taught as men and women for the rest of our lives.  Not only are women harmed by being taught in a different way from men, but we are all harmed by the way we are labeled as men or women and then shoved into an educational box.  We can talk about how education privileges male forms of communication, but it also teaches us those forms from an early age, and teaches them as male-appropriate.  This is a disservice to the immense creativity, ingenuity, and diversity of the human race.