Can you identify a moment where you had an epiphany and it changed the way you thought or did something forever?
About 4 years ago, it happened when I was running the precursor to Bespoken and teaching English at a co-ed secondary school.
It was on break-time duty one morning that five of my Year 10 students, girls, approached me to ask if they could do their prepared speeches at lunchtime instead of in class. They told me they didn’t want to do it in front of the boys.
This was when I had my epiphany. I was reading Lean In (Sandberg, 2013) around the time. I’d also read Jennifer Lawrence’s open letter written in response to the revelation that her two male co-stars were paid more than her for The Hunger Games (2012). In her letter, she took responsibility for her part in the situation.
I squared up. My response to these girls would be important. I understood their situation: in a mixed ability class of 27, there were 9 girls dotted amongst 18 boys. Over the course of the academic year, I’d observed that there was a change among these 14-15-year olds.
The boys largely didn’t see the point of English but were sharing ideas and feedback while the girls were saying less and less. I knew from their written work that the girls had a good grasp of the subject, often better; but were becoming less and less willing to speak out. It echoed the experiences of Sandberg and Lawrence.
“Do you believe that you are equal to the boys in the classroom?” They nodded. “Yes, Miss.” They were good at theory.
“And do you believe that in 5 years’ time, you should be earning the same as the boys around you in the classroom?” They nodded more assuredly and said again, “Yes, Miss.” It was a ‘no-brainer’.
“Well, girls, I can let you do your speeches in a lunch break.
“But if you sit back now, if you don’t speak up and out now, when will it stop? You need to decide whether you have an equal voice or not.”
But if you sit back now, if you don’t speak up and out now, when will it stop? You need to decide whether you have an equal voice or not. Do you want to do your speeches in class?”
I had 5 pairs of eyes looking at me. They were thinking. They knew what I was asking. Then, “We’ll do it,” and “yes!” bubbled out of them. They were smiling and looked determined. I think they also knew that this was an important decision.
They did their speeches and they did their best. One girl, who was particularly nervous, looked at the ceiling the entire time to manage her nerves, but she was a champion.
Raising Boys Achievement?
For the previous few years, there was a special slot on Inset Day (the two days back for staff communication and training before pupils return) devoted to Raising Boys Achievement (RBA). Because historically, boys don’t achieve as well as girls. Despite a recession in ’08 and cutbacks in the educational sector, money has been allocated or was in this co-ed school at least, to narrow the gap. At the GCSE level, it’s still in the region of 6.5%, although the gap has narrowed for the first time in 2018.
As of April, nine out of ten women work for a company who pay them less. The pay gap percentage can be divisive and argued but the median of companies who reported at the same time was 9.9%, with the greatest gap at a shocking 88%! If this is the case, why is there a perceived need to raise the academic achievement of boys at the school level? Is it to absurdly try and match the greater earning potential of males retrospectively?
Raising Girls Voices?
I was in conversation with the Head Teacher after the next RBA updates. “What are you doing to raise girls’ voices?” I asked politely. He looked at me blankly. I explained. He obfuscated. I can tell you now – nothing. Nothing will be done because young people speaking up is not measured in League Tables. And it never will be, especially since Michael Gove, in his brief period of running rife as Minister of Education, took Speaking and Listening, which carried 20% of the GCSE mark, to 0% in government schools.
And believe me, if it’s worth nothing, students don’t value it. Let’s keep good public speaking skills as the exclusive turf of Public Schools, shall we? That way government will have even less chance of being representative of its population.
But I suspect the statistics which really reflect ‘Raising Girls Voices’ can be found amongst the mental health issues and anxiety levels that young people, particularly girls, experience in school for the first time and may take into their workplace as young women. You may also be interested in this article from the University of Reading, “Jokers in the Pack:Why Boys are more Aept than Girls at Speaking in Public Settings“, which I was directed to after first publishing this article.
So, here’s my request: I want to start something, taking my skills with my passion to address this and make a difference at the grassroots level. Is this something that resonates with you? Will you help with what you’ve got? I can’t do it alone. Since reconnecting with a dream to do something about it, I shared a one-minute version of this at the SOBN networking breakfast last Wednesday and 5 people have come forward. I shared it at GWP Café Church on Sunday and I have one more. Please get in touch if you want to join an action group to #RaiseGirlsVoices.