Some years ago, while teaching in a secondary school, I was greeting students coming in for a crucial public examination. In marched one boy – let’s call him Anthony – a charming young 16-year-old who had preferred to stay away from school for most of the year and whose application to his studies had been less than serious.
‘Have you revised for this?’ I asked him anxiously.
‘Oh no, Miss. But it’s okay, I’m feeling lucky,’ he grinned as he swaggered into the exam room. Of course, he failed the exam.
Believe it or not, this is a story that illustrates the importance of teaching children about the related topics of both gender inequality and the value of female teachers in the global educational world.
Value of genuine knowledge
Anthony had, through no fault of his own, recognised luck and self-confidence as important features of the world he was living in. But, in tandem, he had underestimated the value of genuine knowledge, diligence and pride in a job well done.
Complicated things can’t be achieved by luck and swagger alone. Nor can they be relied on to build the networks, friendships, teams, interests and understandings that we need to thrive.
But if Anthony had underestimated the need for genuine knowledge, I had overestimated it. He understood that swagger and confidence were powerful, gendered tools of social acceptance, and that they signalled male power and achievement. He knew that elite men ooze confidence and bluff like mad. He’d seen it in films and in the antics of the music and sports stars he followed. He’d taken it as a feature, not a bug.
It was to do with being male and being superior. Of course, what he didn’t recognise was the learned expertise of his heroes – the fact that the best tend to work the hardest.
He didn’t recognise this, because people like to pretend it was innate genius rather than hard work that made them achieve great things. Mistakenly, Anthony thought that swagger, self-confidence and an ability to bluff caused success.
A different equation
I am not saying that there aren’t women out there with swagger, self-confidence and the ability to bluff, or that there aren’t men who are diligent, hardworking experts.
However, there is a general tendency in much of a modern boy’s upbringing that’s about making the most of a little. While girls, on the other hand, tend to find themselves having to work a different equation and end up making less from a lot.
If this seems improbable, consider what has long been known among educationists: in formal learning, women outperform men at every level and every age group, from the early years through to GCSEs, IB, A-levels, university admissions and degree classifications.
Even in maths. It happens in every developed country, with few exceptions. And yet in the long run, boys do better in their careers than those same girls.
The very traits that depress boys’ ability to learn at school – overdependence on luck, charm, and bluffing – now enable them to duck and dive to the top at the expense of their less self-confident but more hardworking, diligent and better qualified female counterparts.
Even in the world of education where there are far more women teachers than men, less qualified, less able men are preferred for the top jobs. And in the wider world, traditional social norms tend to reinforce these very traits in men and suppress them in women. As a result, according to estimates, GDP is depressed by 3.9 per cent and infant mortality rates inflate by 9.5 per cent.
This challenge, among others, was part of the reason that attracted me to the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which we teach.
Not only is the IB set up to identify challenges that are reflective of the real world, but it also actively seeks to address them head on.
In every sector, including education, when leaders spend less time on golf courses and more time sweating on the front line, we can face down the challenges our world faces, we can drive positive change grounded in knowledge, self-belief – and even a little charm, too.
Dr Saima Rana is the Principal and CEO of GEMS World Academy – Dubai and Vice President – Education at GEMS Education