Women’s Week: ‘Gender discrimination in education is limiting for female pupils and teachers’

Eleanor O'Dwyer at her Suffolk home. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Eleanor O'Dwyer at her Suffolk home. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Since gaining my Bachelor of Education Honours Degree in 1991, I have taught in primary schools in London and Suffolk from Nursery to Year 6, writes Eleanor O’Dwyer, from Aldringham.

Eleanor O'Dwyer at her Suffolk home. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Eleanor O'Dwyer at her Suffolk home. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

I have two daughters in secondary education, I currently work as a supply teacher and am a caseworker for the National Education Union.

It is in all these roles that I wanted to share my experiences.

I am seeing less encouragement today of part-time and job share situations and women suffer most from this as they often need to take a larger role in childcare.

With a workload today of typically 60 hours a week and the stress caused by narrow performance targets, full-time teaching is not good for family life.


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I felt that pressure and knowing I had little control over meeting those targets as pupil outcomes are as much on social and economic factors as my teaching, I stopped teaching full time so that I could give enough time and energy to my teenage family and to safeguard my health.

I notice too that whilst the vast majority of primary teachers are women, the few men working in primary schools are still more likely to have responsibility for the ‘important’ subjects such as mathematics, English and science.

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Men also talk more about becoming a headteacher than women.

In my work supporting union members I have dealt with cases where female teachers have been told they come across as ’bossy’ or have been labelled ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’ and ’needy’. I have never experienced adjectives like these being used to describe male teachers.

It is interesting too that many academies have very strict uniform where the emphasis seems to focus on the tightness of girl’s trousers and the length of their skirts so they don’t distract the boys.

Unfortunately where there is sexual harassment, pupils who complain suffer further by being teased about reporting it. Too many pupils who suffer sexual harassment therefore say nothing as they want a quiet life.

One of the issues that I think schools will have to tackle more is gender stereotyped language. I think it is important that we challenge adults and children who use phrases like ’man-up’, ‘screams like a girl’, ‘being girly’ and ’boys will be boys’ etc. I hear these phrases regularly in classrooms and think they limit children’s progress in subtle but important ways.

I notice more and more that as education has taken on the practices of industry and schools become academies women are the first to suffer.

In primary schools, more teachers are women and many elements of the profession that help young children thrive cannot be measured.

However now teachers’ pay rises are being decided through narrow data alone, many women are finding it very hard to reconcile their caring role for pupils with just seeing pupils as a vassal to be factory trained to meet a target so they can gain their pay rise.

With austerity cuts to school budgets, female teachers are gradually not seeing their pay rise and many are seeing their competence questioned if they do not change their attitudes and put their targets first in their teaching.

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