Thursday, July 14, 2011

Young Aussie school children self-segregating by gender - a sign of the times?

I've been visiting Australian government primary schools over a span of many years to drop off and pick up children from school, but this year I have noticed something that I've never noticed before - a class in which the very young students consistently choose to segregate the placement of their school bags out the front of their classroom by sex, with all of the boy's bags on one side, and all of the girl's bags on the other side. I've asked one of the students about this. It is apparently not a policy imposed by the teacher or any adult. It is apparently a reaction by the girls to two boys getting into trouble (with the teacher I presume) for touching or interfering with other students' possessions. I've got to wonder why the girls collectively decided that gender was the relevant feature of the offending behaviour, and why the girls have acted collectively as a gender bloc. It all seems pretty weird to me, and I'm not convinced that adults haven't played a role in this interesting student behaviour.

I look around at Australian society as a whole and I find that sex segregation is an idea that has gone from being regarded as archaic sex discrimination to being regarded as respectable, healthy and pro-social. Some orgnizations have a long history of excluding one sex, others have modernized and no longer exclude, but some newer social organizations have been single-sex from the start. We have the "partner" of the Prime Minister getting publicity as the patron of the "men's sheds movement". It is a mystery to me why anyone would think it a good idea to encourage lonely old widowers to join a social club that excludes potential next wives. We have single-sex organizations such as the CWA being celebrated (one recent example is a TV commerical for Castlemaine ham products) when in the not-distant past they were ridiculed and legally challenged. Some social organizations like the Freemasons continue to exclude one sex, while others like the Scouts have changed with the times and welcome all. We have the Red Hat Society that appears to be for older women only, challenging ageist stereotypes but at the same time giving a free run to gender stereotypes. We have Dads-only playgroups, based on the popular belief that there is something awkward or distasteful about mothers and fathers mixing socially, if they aren't married to each other.

We have Relationships Australia, a counselling organization that is largely funded by government, running workshops about parenting girls for Dads and workshops about parenting boys for Mums, based on the presumption that the psychological difference between the sexes is so enormous that even parents need professional help to understand their own offspring who are at the other side of the gender chasm. Promotional material explains that mothers have a special role in developing nurturing in their sons, and fathers have a special role in developing self-esteem in their daughters, reinforcing the stereotype of the selfless woman and the selfish, self-important man, and the stereotypes of boys who need help with their naturally under-developed sense of empathy, and girls who need help with their naturally under-developed sense of agency, a concept that is sure to amuse many parents of a real teenage daughters.

The idea of services aimed at one sex has thorougly permeated the counselling industry in Australia, from large organizations to the most quacky individual practitioners of pop psychology. Government-funded community health services by and for women only have a long history in Australia, and the long rise in popularity of the idea of gendered psychology has resulted in a range of services open to men only. One example would be the men-only telephone counselling service Mensline Australia. "Men's health" is not just an idea, it is an industry encompassing private counselling, weekend workshops for the troubled, psychiatry, psychotherapy-dressed-up-as-science, services for boys and the authorship of pop psychology books and parenting manuals. "Men's health" services are funded by government and by charities.

Shonks and qualified psychiatrists alike understand that appealing to individuals' gender identity, appealing to gender stereotypes and playing one sex against the other are tricks that grab attention and publicity, and these are ideas that have already captured the imaginations and passions of many people. In Australia in 2011 the stereotypes and the segregation sell the goods (and the services), and anyone who objects to these marketing techniques and sex-based exclusions can be dismissed as an enthusiast of "political correctness". Gender-based marketing in Australia has reached the absurd point at which a product as ordinary and uniform as a dozen eggs is now the subject of feminised packaging in bright pink and girlish graphics with a product name that is also a popular girl's name.

We have Australian churches and high school chaplains organizing single-sex programs and social events for youths and for adults that appear to be, judging by the publicity and some accounts, festivals of gender stereotyping and religious evangelism, making a mockery of the ideas that sexism and religious recruitment have no place in government schools. I've heard of single-sex programs offered by high school chaplains in Australian government schools that go by the names "Bloke" and "Chick" and "Strength" and "Shine". I'm sure you can figure out which are for which gender. Apparently the Strength and Shine programs are the products of the powerful fundamentalist Hillsong church. I don't know a lot about the Bloke and Chick programs, but I've got to suspect that they might be the Hillsong programs renamed to evade the controversy that has become attached to the Hillsong programs. Sex segregation in government public schools and classes has come back into fashion in some Australian states in the last few years, with the advocates citing questionable neuro-psychological research and junk-science pop psychology books to support their cause. I know of one Australian public high school that has organized a class-time single-sex-only activity for its students, and I know of one Australian government primary school in which teachers would routinely use a gender-integrated class seating plan as a form of student punishment.

In Australian society sex-segregation is not limited to the works of "the helping professions" such as teaching and counselling. I think newsagents have always arranged their magazine racks strictly along gender lines. We have always had women's magazines and we now have a free-to-air TV channel (7Mate) marketed explicitly to men. Some sex segregation in Australia is new and some is just lingering old-school sexism that no one bothered to get rid of. For as long as I can remember we have tolerated low entry standards for professions that are thought to be most suitable for women, presumably because we think women are in some way incapable of leaping high hurdles, while traditionally male professions are typically not degraded in this way. You'll need a higher ATAR score to enter an engineering course at uni than a primary-school teaching course, even though both professions have a high level of responsibility. Would I be wrong in assuming that the professions with the higher entry standards also have the higher rates of pay?

I look around and I wonder, how did we get to this point? How did we ever get to such a stupid, stupid place, and I barely noticed as it happened?

I'm old enough to remember that my generation was one of the first in which high school students did not have their personal choice of school subjects compulsorily limited by gender. Some of my high school teachers had still not discarded sexist ideas about the abilities of students, and girls were cautioned about choosing subjects such as physics and chemistry. I feel so sad that Australian society now appears to be happy to step back in time thirty-odd years and throw away the important progress that was made so many years ago. Perhaps the seemingly-innocent young primary school students sorting their cute, brightly-coloured school bags by gender are just adapting themselves to the Australia of the present and the future, a world in which girls wear pink and boys are expected to act up and do well in maths and physics. We can hardly expect those so young to try to overthrow the social order that they were born into. I guess at least there is one advantage to a more sex segregated Australia - their new home won't feel as strange for new Islamic migrants.

P. S. Months later I have noticed that the group of young school students described at the beginning of this piece and others of the same year have also spontaneously gender-segregated the placement of their bags during a school excursion.

P. P. S. See my main article about sex segregation in Australia here:

Link to radio story with comments about the school chaplain program:

Church and state.
10 April 2011
Background Briefing.
ABC Radio National 810am

Link to a Queensland newspaper story about sex segregation in schools:

Grade divide.
by Mary-Rose MacColl
The (Brisbane) Courier Mail.
Q Weekend, February 26-27th 2011 p.18-23.


Ettina said...

It is concerning, I agree, but young children are somewhat naturally sexist. It's part of their development - around 3-4 years old, kids have just recently figured out that gender is a permanent, non-superficial characteristic that divides people, and they tend to think in black and white. It's obvious to them that boys and girls are different in some ways, so they assume boys and girls are different in every way.

It's nothing to panic over, really. But in a non-sexist society, it is a good idea to gently counter this preschool sexism before it becomes entrenched into lifelong attitudes.

Lili Marlene said...

You live in a non-sexist society, Ettina? Where is it please? I think we might like to emigrate.

I agree, its best to counter the trend without making a fuss, which is exactly what the school has done about the kids self-sex-segregation of classroom seating. Its a good school run by good, smart people.