Gender Equality for All?

Originally published in the Education 3.0: The Magazine written and produced by the Society for Advancement of Education, Jerusalem and distributed at the SAE’s Education 3.0 Symposium in New York City on November 5, 2019.

We are living in a time of major development regarding gender equality in society. Nevertheless, multiple barriers remain that limit opportunities for people of all genders to succeed and express their individual abilities. The Israeli Institute for Gender Equality in Education, the first of its kind in Israel, promotes gender equity in the education system to the benefit of individuals and society at large.

A great deal has changed since women struggled for the right to vote, and our lives are very different from those of previous generations.  In Israel, as in other western countries, advanced legislation exists in the area of gender equality, women fill positions in the professional and public spheres previously the exclusive domain of men- while men take an increasingly central role in raising children.

These are dramatic changes.  However, despite these changes, societal expectations for behavior to conform to gender stereotypes are still entrenched and influence us from a very young age.

What does this mean with regards to the education system?

Yael Boim-Fein, Founding Director of the Israeli Institute for Gender Equality in Education.

“In the education system, teachers unintentionally treat children differently on the basis of gender,” says Yael Boim-Fein, Founding Director of the Israeli Institute for Gender Equality in Education.  “The educational staff’s different expectations for boys and girls impact their  development, limit their aspirations, shape their self-image and self-confidence, and influence their opportunities for success.

“For example,” Yael explains, “often the attitude towards girls is more protective, so that when a girl answers incorrectly in class, the teacher often says: Don’t worry dear, next time you’ll get it right; while a boy is usually encouraged to try again immediately.  This happens because girls are perceived as more sensitive, more afraid of making mistakes, and they try less, or try only when they are completely sure that they know the correct answer.

“This is a problem because in order to learn and develop you have to dare to make mistakes.  Girls tend to have less confidence in their abilities, they tend to have a greater fear of mathematics and science, and this impacts their achievements and accompanies these girls for many years after they finish school.”

Does this also impact boys or only girls?

“Yes, this definitely impacts boys too,” Yael says. “According to a comprehensive report by the OECD, which also surveyed Israel, boys invest less time on homework assignments, read less in their free time, are more disorganized, are more frequently late to school, and in general have a more negative attitude towards studies which are perceived as something in which girls invest, not boys.

“All this leads to the fact that boys’ achievements in the field of literacy are lower, with boys being disproportionately over-represented among students with the lowest achievements in Israel.  So yes, gender is not just an issue for girls, it also impacts boys greatly.

“For example,” Yael say, “it is considered illegitimate for boys to be interested in humanities subjects, which are considered more suitable for girls.  Moreover, the expression of feelings verbally or visually are discouraged among boys for fear of not living up to society’s view of masculinity.”

Yael emphasizes that “often when we deal with the issue of gender we talk about awareness and sensitivity, but that is not enough.  The important question is how does this awareness manifest in the school routine, where is it presented in the classroom, in the discourse, on the walls, in the class schedule?”

To cope with this challenge, the Society for Advancement of Education (SAE) established the Israeli Institute for Gender Equality in Education.  It’s goal is to develop models and tools to implement practices that promote gender equity, and to provide consultation to local authorities, schools, principals and teachers in the process of implementing these tools and programs.

“When people ask me, what do you mean when you talk about practices,” Institute Director Yael Boim-Fein explains, “I like to give the example of my daughter’s second grade teacher.  My daughter told me that every time the teacher asks a question in class, she makes sure to choose a girl and a boy to answer.  The teacher explained to them that if she doesn’t do that, the girls will be shy and will participate less in the lesson. This is a relatively simple tool to fix the widespread bias in classrooms in which boys spend twice as much time participating as girls. That is, if the teacher does not actively manage the division of time in the classroom, it is almost certain that this bias will persist, and the girls will participate less than the boys.”

What is the Institute’s goal?

Yael explains that “The way to a just and equitable society is through removing gender barriers from the paths of students; barriers that prevent them from doing what is really right for them.  The Institute’s goal is to promote an educational environment in which students of all genders can develop a wide range of talents, succeed and enjoy their successes without fear of failure.  We are not only aiming for justice and equity, but for all of us to succeed personally, to attain high achievements, to develop and actualize abilities, and through the success of individuals, for the entire society to prosper.”

“We focus on implementing systemic change at schools; for if just one teacher works in one area to correct the bias, this is only the beginning.  In order to accomplish change we need to examine all school spaces – the curricula, the discourse between teachers and students, and among the students themselves, the physical space, and look at the gender biases in all of them in order to make change and implement alternative practices.

“We also incorporate evaluation and research, in order to learn these tools in depth and to improve them.  We are working towards creating professional spaces for sharing knowledge, dilemmas and successes among educators who are promoting the topic.”

How do you work with a municipality that wants to make progress on the issue?

Yael explains that the process with a municipality begins with collecting data and examining how the gender gap is expressed in their local context, what data we have and what data we need to gather.  This stage of collecting and analyzing data is important for revealing unconscious bias.  At this stage we examine all aspects of a school, including patterns of participation in study majors, and patterns of discourse and feedback given by teachers to students.

Later on, goals are set and an action plan is built for the school on the basis of the data collected, deciding what to focus on, and how to begin the process.  The action plan focuses on changing practices and discourse, and is accompanied by evaluation to examine its effectiveness.  Thus, gradually, additional practices are added and the change becomes systemic.  Each stage incorporates reflective professional discourse, and the entire process is conducted with professional consultation and facilitation.

Are there not more important, burning issues in the education system than promoting gender equity?

Yael Boim-Fein at SAE’s Education 3.0 Symposium in New York.

Yael Boim-Fein, who encounters this question frequently, explains that, “Whoever wants to lead a successful educational process that helps students choose, develop, excel and prepared for the challenges of our time, needs to make an active effort to minimize the gender barriers that affect student’s expectations, their aspirations, their fears and their self-confidence.

“We cannot assume that good education is also good from a gender perspective,” Yael says.  “Every educational process will be more effective if we take into account that gender bias still prevents us from developing certain aspects.  Students bring gender barriers into the classroom and these barriers do not simply disappear; no matter how innovative and excellent the educational program.”

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