There is so much to love about the new guidelines on sexist language that are to be circulated to schools. Firstly, the Telegraph is furious, which is always a good sign.
Their piece helpfully includes a panel explaining the type of phrases which should no longer be considered acceptable in schools.
Now, would anyone like to mount a case for the defence? Can anyone seriously claim that anything like this should be considered acceptable in schools, from teachers or students? Thought not. I’m not saying anyone caught muttering such words should be instantly packed off to the Andrea Dworkin Memorial Feminist Gulag for reprogramming, but a quick “Oi, none of that language here, please” would certainly be in order.
What is most gratifying in that panel, however, is the inclusion of the phrase ‘man up’ which is a particular bugbear of mine. It not only polices masculine gender norms in a very restrictive and damaging way (no surprise to see the wonderful mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM tweeting their praise this morning), the phrase also serves to exclude women and girls from certain levels of attainment.
Buried within all the coverage, however, was another detail that made me briefly punch the air in appreciation. These guidelines were originally produced by the Institute of Physics as part of their drive to get more girls involved in STEM subjects. The institute has quite correctly adopted a more holistic approach than the ‘paint the laboratories pink’ strategy which sometimes permeates this issue. It was a quote in the Huffington Post that really caught my admiration.
Dame Barbara Stocking, who is chairing the event, said: “We know we have a problem with gender stereotyping of subjects in schools.
“This is particularly an issue for girls in maths, physics and engineering, boys in modern foreign languages and a general under-performance in GCSE grades.”
IOP president Professor Roy Sambles said: “The low uptake of physics among girls has been a long-standing concern of ours and a problem that we’ve been trying to deal with for some time.
“But we’ve found that it’s not a job we can do completely by ourselves and that there’s a lot in common between the low numbers of girls taking physics and similar gender imbalances in other subjects.”
The logic here is so obvious and important that it is astonishing it is so rarely spelled out. The under-representation of girls in STEM is a precise corollary of the under-representation of boys in other subjects. In this (rare) instance, gender politics actually is a zero sum game. In blunt terms, if boys feel marginalised and excluded from subjects like languages, humanities and the arts, where else is for them to go but to STEM? If girls feel marginalised and excluded from STEM, of course they will end up over-represented in other subjects.
You don’t need a GCSE in maths (or physics) to work that one out, but it does seem beyond the intellectual reach of some of those devising educational policy. Well done to the Institute of Physics for cottoning on.