Dangerous opportunities

Jeremy Ludowyke examines the gender equity debate in education.

The national Gender Equity Conference, held in Canberra last February may prove to be a critical moment in the politics of gender issues in education. The conference was organised by a Commonwealth Taskforce established last year by the state and territory Ministers of Education, in part due to concerns that the National Action Plan for the Education of Girls, was not inclusive of the educational needs of boys. Gender Equity is a relatively new term in educational circles used to describe the shift towards consideration of the impact of gender upon the educational and life experiences of both boys and girls. Most state education systems have moved towards a gender equity approach over the last two years, however this shift has been a controversial one. The now familiar catchcry "What about the boys?" has attracted a rag tag team of supporters within the men's movement as elsewhere. The over representation of anti-feminist voices in the public arena has been seized upon and sensationalised by the media as a new "gender war". This has in turn fuelled existing preconceptions that the growing attention to men and boyswork in education is evidence of a "backlash" mentality, and consequent suspicion of any initiative that involves working with boys in schools.

Media coverage

Against this backdrop, the media pre-coverage of the first national Gender Equity Conference was less than hopeful. Articles such as "Academic accuses feminists of bias against schoolboys" (The Australian, 2 February 95) quoted Dr Peter West's claim that female experts on gender are "not equipped" to develop an education strategy based on understanding masculinity, and described gender equity as a minefield where "most men who dare to support boy's programs preface their comments with pro-feminist avowals to avoid flak from feminist educators defending hard won gains for girls".

Equally contentious has been the progress of the NSW Inquiry into Boys' Education with some of its recommendations treading the delicate balancing act of creating separate Boys' and Girls' programs underneath a gender equity banner. The spectre of the discordant, if not competing, directions such programs might take has fuelled existing concerns that the push for gender equity could be misused as yet another means of diverting limited attention and resources away from the needs of women and girls.

The Conference was a combination of "think tank" and political lobbyfest with delegates in the main being senior officers from the various Departments of Education, or teacher and parent organisations, and an impressive swathe of leading academics. The over thirty conference sessions were loosely gathered around the priority areas of the National Action Plan. Pre-conference criticism that neither the National Action Plan nor the Conference could adequately address the educational needs of boys was not reflected in the diverse range of presentations, including:

  • Meeting the needs of girls and boys in Australian schools
  • Boys and girls and the cost of gendered behaviour
  • Reaching for consensus on gender equity in NSW
  • Designing and evaluating programs for boys within a gender equity strategy
  • Health issues and the construction of gender
  • Learning difficulties and the construction of gender
  • Homophobia: implications for mainstream policy and practice

Boys and the Action Plan

Criticism that the National Action Plan excludes consideration of the educational needs of boys, has been used to support a demand for a separate Boys' Strategy, rather than a unified gender equity approach. The Gender Equity Taskforce, the body responsible for monitoring the Action Plan already includes amongst its objectives:

  • To report on programs currently in place which primarily support the education of boys.
  • To facilitate state & territory collaboration in addressing the educational disadvantages of boys.

In fact the genesis of the term "What about the boys?" is drawn from Listening to Girls, the 1991 research upon which the Action Plan was based. The Action Plan will be evaluated and revised next year, and the direction of the conference indicates that it will also move towards a gender equity approach. National education agreements are rare, as education is a state domain. The Action Plan has been a durable success story, and continues to represent the best platform for action on gender reform in education.

A key point of the Conference was the distribution of the NSW Department of School Education response to the Inquiry into Boys' Education (the O'Doherty Report). The Department has moved away from some of the recommendations which would have seen the creation of separate Girls' and Boys' Equity bureaucracies and programs. The Department's consultation paper calls for more feedback on this issue, and it will be interesting to see if, in its final form, the response follows the lead of other states which have recognised the advantages of a unified rather than separatist approach to gender equity.

Building a better system

the dangers of a fruitless descent into an oppositional and competitive posturing around "boys versus girls" was largely avoided. As Eva Cox succinctly described the challenge; too much energy has been expended upon a self defeating competition for victim status, whereas if we are now recognising that the education system serves neither girls or boys particularly well, we should be setting about the construction of a better system. It is unlikely that the goodwill of the conference will mean an end to competing "boys versus girls" claims, nor to the public and media impression of a gender war. In this regard, it was a shame that Peter West, whose media antics had done much to cast a dark shadow across the positive possibilities of the conference, did not speak to those concerns at the conference itself. I hope his silence was attentive listening.

I find for example, his claim that "female experts are not equipped" to understand masculinity very alarming. It seems to indicate some proprietorial claim by men to a superior understanding of masculinity. In the past, masculinity has for most men been an invisibility. It was the assumed gender, in the sense of being so subsumed into the social fabric as to go unquestioned. The automatic assumptions of masculinity are now increasingly contested and confronted. It has largely been the critical gaze of feminism that has exposed it to public view, especially to the view of men.

On the other hand, masculinity has been anything but invisible to women. Their lives are significantly circumscribed and compromised by the daily oppressive experience of the dominant versions of masculinity. For four centuries feminist thought has been the theoretical and political voice of that experience. The critique of masculinity has been central to feminist theory, and we owe most of our current understanding of gender to that lived experience and discourse.

Shifting problems

now, the political and cultural positioning of masculinity is shifting. Masculinity has become the Emperor's new clothes and is increasingly the problematised gender. Dominant constructions of masculinity are being laid bare to contestation. There is the possibility of change, of alternatives. The recognition of and responsibility for this challenge should be the central issues. The challenges of a shift to gender equity will generate what Dr. Jane Kenway has called countless "dangerous opportunities". They are dangerous in the sense that for women in education it amounts to a preparedness to open up the domains of action that Equal Opportunity programs in school have legitimated.

As an example of one such "opportunity" the Inquiry into Boys' Education has recommended a broader approach to sex-based violence in schools, recognising that much boy to boy violence, such as bullying, bound up as it is, with the brutal acting out of dominant notions of masculinity, is in fact a form of gendered violence. But what priority, attention and resourcing should it attract in comparison to programs addressing sexual harassment? A political caution needs to be added here. Schools do not exist within a socio-political vacuum, but operate within a society which automatically and often invisibly privileges men in most domains, particularly those associated with power, status and wealth. It is far from a level playing field out there. There is a danger that gender equity programs may adopt a simplistic egalitarian approach which ignores this power imbalance. Programs that will not produce positive outcomes for girls will also serve to perpetuate these existing inequalities. 


Rather than an oppositional competition between boys and girls initiatives for limited resources, gender equity offers the opportunity of negotiating common concerns which take into account the significant imbalances of power that currently exist between men and women. We might find such agreement around statements such as: The violent and disruptive behaviour of boys is rarely in their educational best interests, and certainly not in the educational interests of girls. Or more generally: Masculinity, as commonly constructed, is an oppressive order, that rarely is in the interests of women and girls, and is advantageous to men in some areas and disadvantageous to them in others.

For too long we have clung politically to thinking about gender relations in terms of binary oppositions. Boys versus girls, men versus women. As Connell has put it , "Since gender is a system of social relations, it is unlikely that reform will progress very far without action at both ends of the relationship."

Perhaps we should start to think of Gender Equity in terms of what could be called the dialectics of gender relations which admits to both the push/pull tensions of separation and interdependency as well as the differential of power, yet allows for the possibilities of common advantage.

Gender Equity exists as a brave new world of dangerous opportunities. If it is to fulfil its positive promise it will need to be rescued from potential mis-appropriation by an anti-feminist backlash, or dilution into a simplistic egalitarianism.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(3), Spring 1995. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995