Gender and equity
Writing, lifelong learning and gender equity
Tony Dickenson teacher, lifelong learner and writer reflects on gender and equity. How should we be encouraging boys to understand the obstacles that girls face every day?
Writing and teaching
A central aspect of the IB programme, aimed at both students and teachers, is the promotion of lifelong learning. As far as I am concerned, my version of lifelong learning is all about writing fiction and in early 2023 my third novel, HOYDEN (a boisterous girl) will be published.
My ideas for this and my two previous novels, Tumbling in Bethnal Green (2015) and Puffin Boy (2019) are rooted in what I do in the classroom as an English teacher. Indeed, the origins of much of my writing have emerged from classroom discussion over the years. This latest novel focuses on how from early in their lives, girls instinctively recognise obstacles they must clear – obstacles that boys don’t even know exist.
Boys, girls and the obstacles they face
These observations prompted me to investigate that part of the human experience that neither I nor any other man will ever know or feel: how women and girls manage to navigate their lives. In doing so, I came to realise how many systems, including education, contribute to the imbalance in what girls have to deal with compared to boys. My main area of focus, however, is the law, and how it’s inextricably linked to the life chances of us all.
Gender and the perception of obstacles
For me, it’s important that boys learn early in their lives about these obstacles their female classmates face daily and understand that they, too, along with the girls, have a responsibility to address matters of levelling up systems and institutions that hinder equality. Arguably, the English classroom is the perfect place for preparation for such a formidable task. By reading and discussing fine literature, students explore praiseworthy human qualities such as being kind, caring, and tolerant and through robust discussion and debate, they learn about the damaging consequences of exclusion. In the process they equip themselves with the knowledge and confidence to challenge it.
I believe my novel can offer a starting point for such an undertaking and while its subject matter will appeal easily to women and girls, my hope is that boys will read it, not only to learn about (gender) equality, but to understand that issues affecting women and girls, ultimately, affect them too.
When these boys assume positions of influence as adults, if they are in tune with issues important to women, they won’t think twice about seeking and seeing value in their advice and expertise which will surely benefit us all.
Writing fiction and the IB Learner Profile Traits
Another aspect central to the IB programme are Learner Profile Traits, admirable qualities we teachers hope to instil in students. I often refer to these traits in class when analysing characters, but I also used them as a benchmark for shaping characters (and institutions) in the novel. I did much of the editing during the pandemic, listening to frequent news updates on calls from organisations pleading with government for more resources to help at-risk women confined in homes with violent men. Regrettably, these calls went largely ignored. Women had to fend for themselves and what followed were disturbing accounts of many women abused by men, some murdered, a stark reality central to discussion in the novel. This is what I believe to be the tragic result of what can happen to women and girls who are side-lined.
Writing and classic literature
A couple of books I was reading/teaching as I was writing the novel certainly influenced its direction. Forced to make a most difficult, life-changing decision, I like to think that Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House helped create Stella, my main character. In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee created my literary hero, Atticus Finch, a man exemplary in character with an astute understanding of a sense of duty to all members of his community, a concept I comment on frequently throughout the novel. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a most impressive autobiography, provided me with a new hero in Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in Maryland in the 19th century, he shrewdly escaped barbaric beginnings to become a prominent abolitionist. What struck me most about this impressive man is not solely a discerning intellect, but his sense of obligation to support other marginalised groups, simultaneously campaigning for women’s emancipation as he embarked on his own global campaign to abolish slavery. His passion, his rationale, his words really moved me, so much so, I use a passage from his writing as the epigraph for the novel, his feelings aligning perfectly with my aims.
Men must do better
Despite my praise for these exceptional men, they appear to be the exception rather than the norm. However, their code of conduct provided a counterpoint to my criticism of those men bent on maintaining control over the lives of women and girls. As such, with my teacher hat on, if I were to write a comment on our collective report as men, simply put, it would read we must do better. For all of human history we’ve had it really good.
In fact, we’ve had it all. For millennia, mothers, sisters and daughters have dutifully served up for us delicious meals we have been happy to consume. They have never wanted to control us. They have never been a threat. For them, such ideas are plain silly. Yet today, far and wide, men continue to try and control women. This must stop. It’s time for change. The table at which we enjoy our meals is enormous: there’s room for everyone. Have them pull up a chair. It’s time for us to listen to their stories.
Tony Dickenson is a teacher of IB first language English in London. He attended Georgia State University in Atlanta, graduating with degrees in English Literature and Applied Linguistics. His interests include the study of Latin languages and discovering new parts of London, the city in which he lives.
He can be contacted on email@example.com