A class of equals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am

Are Hong Kong's youngest students receiving the best possible preparation for the future? Research on gender and learning reveals that discrimination begins early. Yet, relatively little has been done to address gender inequality in our schools. In 2001, the High Court ruled in a landmark case that the government's gender quotas in co-educational secondary schools were unlawful according to the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. A decade later, we are still struggling to eradicate the pernicious effects of sexism in the classroom.

Gender stereotypes continue to manifest themselves in more subtle but no less harmful ways.

In research conducted in several Chinese-language kindergartens here, we observed interactions between teachers and pupils, and among the four-year-old children themselves. The good news is that we saw plenty of positive interaction between teachers and children, which bodes well for engaged learning.

However, we did not expect to find such significant differences in teachers' behaviour towards boys and girls. Teachers interacted almost twice as much with boys than they did with girls, although more of the teacher interactions with girls were positive. Boys, in contrast, experienced more negative interactions since they tended to act up or challenge the teacher more frequently than girls. The girls' more compliant behaviour may have led to them receiving less attention from the teacher.

These findings underscore the importance of thinking creatively and critically about pedagogy that engages 'restless learners' of both genders and that rewards thoughtful, respectful participation rather than just compliance.

Moreover, teachers are still too reliant on gender labels - using the terms 'boys' and 'girls' almost 60 times within a three-hour session. A playful context of competition was often used to motivate the children to segregate themselves by gender quickly. While gender segregation is appropriate during toilet time, should it have occurred in other teaching and learning activities like music or computer sessions?

In all fairness, the children received similar instructions and used the same equipment and teaching materials in their gender-segregated groups. However, such routines may establish early patterns of segregation that are artificial in daily life where boys and girls must learn to work together.

Teachers may also unwittingly perpetuate harmful gender stereotyping, in the name of preserving traditional cultural mores, by granting privileges to boys. Research shows that children may internalise unfair practices such as the 'boys first rule'. This is harmful to all. Not only are girls unjustly treated, boys may develop a sense of entitlement that jeopardises their ability to become team players in society. Favouritism erodes civility in civil society.

Hong Kong must address this issue, for the sake of our teachers and students. Teachers deserve best-practice training and support in creating an environment of gender equality in the classroom. Moreover, gender education should be included in the curriculum for students, beginning in the kindergarten years. Kindergarten teachers should be aware that certain types of behaviour reinforcement unfairly privileges boys - often to their long-term detriment - while perpetuating undesirable gender stereotypes and inequity for both girls and boys.

Teachers should avoid segregating boys from girls in kindergartens for the purpose of convenience, desist from micromanaging the classroom behaviour of boys, and be aware of the gender values and stereotypes they uphold.

Small but significant changes in the education policy will allow us to reverse the grave repercussions that gender stereotypes have wrought on our society. Gender inequality during the early years burdens us all.

Eve Chen received a PhD in Education from the University of Hong Kong under the advisement of Professor Nirmala Rao. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation