Bede’s Pupils Bring Gender Equality Discussion Centre Stage

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On Wednesday 16 May, pupils and staff from across the Bede’s community gathered in the Recital Room for a pupil-led discussion on gender equality, organised by Lower Fifth pupil Marie Boyer from Dorter House.

The event featured speeches from pupils and leading professionals, as well as a film of interviews and a Q&A with the panel of speakers.

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Pupils’ speeches

Jaz Wardle began the speeches with a discussion about the stereotypes he experienced in childhood. He said, “When I was growing up I did what every little boy did. I played with my Lego sets, played football with my friends and had fights with my little brother. As the years went on, I found I had more interest in different topics. Just because I am a guy, do I have to like football? Everyone should be accepted for who they are.”

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Marie spoke next, and described the set of events that led to her passion for gender equality. She said, “As a child, I remember my family telling me I was smart, but at the age of 10 I didn’t want to be smart – I wanted to be pretty.

“I've grown up being the only girl amongst two boys. I wanted to be like them, be as strong as them, play football with them and do Maths with them. However, in my previous school I was exposed to an extremely sexist Physics teacher who told myself and my mum during a parent meeting that I could only have a small laboratory, because I would need to take care of my children as it was my role as a woman. I want to prove him and all the people who don't believe in me and in women that I can master Chemistry, Physics and Further Maths, have a laboratory the size I want, and still have children!”

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Next came a call to action from Sofia Covarrubias who invited men to join the feminist movement. She spoke about the negative connotations often associated with the term “feminist” as being too strong and aggressive, and discussed the importance of education in addressing this misinterpretation.

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Julie Taton then delivered a moving speech on behalf of her mother, who lived through the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This tragic event led to the death of between 500,000-1,000,000 people, with 60-70% of the post-genocide population female. Julie said, “This opened the workplace up to Rwandan women, who were not previously educated or had a job outside of the home… We need to step up. War should not be the reason for female empowerment”.

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Vera Cherkashina spoke next about embracing other people’s differences and their individuality. “We are united by our differences,” she said.

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Ellie Bostock-Smith discussed the reason she calls herself a “feminist”, recalling an incident with a male teacher at a previous school who labelled girls “typical females” when giving instructions on how to throw a ball. Ellie questioned him, and was penalised for it by both the teacher and her fellow pupils. “The other girls had fear of losing the respect that they had worked so hard to achieve by taking my side,” she said. “It was through this experience, and thinking about right and wrong in this situation, that led me to learn what sexist behaviour and being a feminist really means.”

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Next came a speech from  Velko Velev who talked about the importance of community. “We need to embrace each other for who we are,” he said. “People should be valued as individuals – our differences are what makes us human.”

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Professionals’ speeches

Marie introduced the next stage of the evening with a short introduction to her “wonderful mum”, Dominique Boyer. Dominique is a lawyer based in Geneva, and Founder and Managing Partner of Les Notaires Unis (United Notaries). She delivered an interesting talk about human and child rights in Switzerland, beginning with the introduction of the League of Nations 26 years ago to the present day. “The organisation began with 51 member states when it began – there are now 193,” Dominique said. However, we still have some way to go – “In Saudi Arabia, for example, one man’s testimony is still worth that of two women in court,” Dominique explained.

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Tori Dixon-Whittle, mother of First Year pupil Holly Bromley and Founder and Director of Vietnam-based consultancy company TDWC, spoke next. Tori spoke about the importance of self-confidence in overcoming challenges, achieving goals and making positive changes in the world. “Equality is about having choice,” she said. “As much as I miss her, I am very proud of Holly for having the confidence to say that she wanted to move from Vietnam and go to a UK boarding school at the age of 13.” Tori then gave seven steps to achieving goals, including realising your vision, thinking outside the box, reframing challenges and building your tribe.

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Next up was a video featuring an insightful interview with Professor Andrew Lloyd, Governor of St Bede’s Trust and Professor of Biomedical Materials at the University of Brighton. Professor Lloyd spoke about the importance of having gender balance in all university subjects, and the actions that University of Brighton is taking to encourage more girls into STEM. “We are losing 50% of our talent by not having girls studying STEM subjects,” he said.

The talks were followed by a Q&A with the speakers, covering a range of subjects reflecting the talks including the “feminist” label, activism, inequality and courage.

The event concluded with a message of thanks from Senior School Headmaster Peter Goodyer, who presented Marie with a copy of The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn. All attendees received tote bags with inspirational quotes to take home.

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Speaking about the event, organiser Marie Boyer said, “I am struck that this idea started with my own thoughts and desire to make a change, and am delighted to have worked alongside several other pupils to raise awareness of the importance of ‘equality matters’ in our school. I have realised that together we can make a change, and together we are unstoppable.”

Mrs Alex Murphy, Housemistress of Dorter House, added, “I am extremely proud of this young pupil, not only for having the courage to speak out and initiate the first whole school pupil-led conference, but also because she has started a ‘movement’ where students from across our school community feel inspired and empowered to share their voice.”

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Questionnaire results

Following the event, Mrs Murphy sent out a questionnaire to girls across the School. Here is a summary of their responses:

Has there been a shift in girls feeling more equal to boys, or do girls still feel they are ‘second best’?

The vast majority felt that the focus on gender equality within the School had helped make them feel equal to boys, with some reporting that they had always felt equal and therefore their feelings hadn’t changed. Some girls felt that there had been genuine change in the School but there were still issues which could be addressed.

How does the media impact on their attitude?

They felt that the media sexualises girls and gives them huge amounts of pressure to be perfect and have perfect relationships. One girl said that natural is “not in” but as she has got older she has learnt to ignore what social media dictates as she now realises that this is not realistic and is instead a fantasy. The majority of the girls say that it has made them lose confidence in their looks and therefore in themselves.

Girls felt that men and boys are portrayed a certain way that implies superiority. Another girl said that social media had the ability to change the way she felt for an entire day.

On the other hand, some pupils said that media is hugely positive and beneficial as they are able to have more awareness of the world. The media educated them on important topics; for example been the centenary anniversary of the Representation of the People Act and the suffragette movement or the recent Times Up movement. 

Some girls said that they had their own opinions which would not be swayed by the media.

Should we be teaching girls they can achieve anything, or educating them about the gender stereotyping and glass ceilings they may face and how to tackle it?

Many of the girls I spoke to thought that it was important to do both things but importantly that boys should be taught about exactly the same issues. Teaching the right values was felt to be important too; self-confidence but also self-realism, and assertiveness skills.  Some girls did feel that it was important to be realistic about the sorts of problems they might encounter later in life though so they can be prepared and think about how to deal with situations.

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