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Month: June 2010

Sustaining our work

I am often asked by schools for suggested follow-up activities they can do to sustain the girls’ interest and enthusiasm for the work Enlighten Education ignites when we run our programs. I thought it timely to share some best-practice approaches.

Positive representations of women
Positive representations of women

Mater Dei Catholic College in Wagga Wagga recently ran a full-day Butterfly Effect program for their Year 9 students. The program also served as a “train the trainer” session for selected Year 11 students who would be acting as mentors for their younger sisters in the months to come. One of the first activities the girls all engaged in after our session was the completion of art projects that deconstructed media images of women; they were asked to find representations of women that they found helpful and positive, and to identify those that they felt perpetuated negative self-image in women.

Questions the girls were asked to consider as part of this process included:

1. What part of the body does the image centre on and why?

2. Is this an accurate representation of how real women look? Why or why not?

3. In what ways do these images impact on young women and girls?

4. What is the possible effect of these images on young men?

Kellyville High School adopted a similar peer-support concept for their Year 8 students with their “Sellerbrating Sisterhood” initiative. A full day was set aside three weeks after our program; this timing coincides with the completion of the 21-day positive self-talk challenge Enlighten leaves girls with. The girls were then introduced to their Year 11 “Big Sisters”, who all completed our course in 2009. Together, the students debriefed and participated in a series of extension activities, which included the formulation of a group action plan to avoid “toxic talk”, the identification of support networks girls can access both within the school and wider community, the creation of a “girls only” space within the school, and the setting up of an internal mail system where the Year 8 “enlightened” students could correspond with their Big Sisters.

In previous blog posts I have shared ideas that would also make excellent follow-ups:

Do you have any activities you’d like to share?

Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar

The following is a reprint of an article written by Rachel Power for the June 2010 issue of the magazine published by the Australian Education Union (Victorian Branch). It is reprinted here with their permission. It may also be downloaded in its original format as a PDF to share with colleagues: News_4_feminism

Boys’ struggles in the classroom have dominated education policy for a decade. But it has it been at the expense of girls? Rachel Power investigates the return of feminism in education.

BOYS have been the focus of attention when it comes to literacy and gender issues in recent times. Meanwhile, girls have been “silently imploding”, educator Danielle Miller warns.

“Boys tend to explode, and so they draw lots of attention to themselves,” she says. “Girls implode. The statistics on eating disorders, binge drinking and self harm are starting to filter through now and I think this has put girls back on the radar big time.”

Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education and a former secondary teacher, is one of a number of women in education attempting to address some of these issues.

AEU women’s officer Barb Jennings agrees that the recent focus on boys’ failure to thrive in the classroom has led to a paucity of resources for programs and strategies directed at girls.

The exception is the issue of girls and body image, which has gained increasing attention. A 2008 AEU survey of female members found over 90% indicating they were either “very concerned” or “moderately concerned” about girls and women with body image difficulties, eating disorders, self esteem concerns or who were self-harming.

High numbers reported the issues as prevalent in their own school communities and at all levels of schooling, even preschool.

Miller is deeply concerned about the sexualisa- tion of children in the media and its impact on their mental health.

For young women, the ultimate glass ceiling has become the bedroom mirror, she says.

“Behind the facade of success — academically, socially and on the sporting field — our girls are in trouble. Girls exist in a subtle, insidious world created by marketing hype, peer pressure and unrealistic self-expectation, and it is poisoning them at a most vulnerable age.”

Since 2003, the national Enlighten Education program has gone from having “three or four clients to literally hundreds” — mainly secondary schools looking for a way to address body image and self-esteem issues and enhance outcomes among their female students.

Miller says parents and teachers are increasingly aware that the “sexed-up lifestyle” being marketed to children is having a devastating impact — on all young people, but girls in particular.

She wants to give girls the tools to critically evaluate the messages that bombard them every day and develop ways of responding intelligently and objectively. Enlighten Education delivers workshops for girls on everything from time management and coping with stress, to safe partying and maintaining positive friendships.

Among those contacting Enlighten Education for help are schools confronting a rise in inappropriate behaviour among their female students, with several reporting that Mondays are spent “cleaning up the carnage” of what happened on the weekend.

Welfare officer Fiona Isles was one such client, seeking a strategy for dealing with bitchy behaviour among female students in her region. “There were concerns from teaching staff about the types of behaviour they were seeing, particularly exclusion [of peers],” says Fiona, former wellbeing officer for the Portland Education Network. “It’s mainly in the playground, but of course that filters back in to the classroom.”

Enlighten Education offered what she wanted: a program that would help the students develop conflict resolution skills, as well as celebrate what it means to be a girl. Over the past three years, 180 Grade 6 girls from the town’s three main primary schools and the shire’s smaller rural schools have come together to take part.

“There was a lot to organise and some schools were less receptive than others about the whole ‘girls’ thing’,” Fiona says. “But to see the girls so receptive and willing to listen and share their thoughts was so brilliant.”

Its success has reinforced her belief in the need for programs that nurture girls and create a bond between them, without the pressure to “show off” for the boys, she says.

Fiona has since devised a program called “Power Girls” for her Grade 3/4 students at Baimbridge College in Hamilton, based on resources gathered while working for the Education Department.

“We ask them to develop their own image of what a Power Girl would be,” she says. “Girls can be passive and worried about hurting someone’s feelings. So we teach them how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to stand up for themselves and have a voice.”

The “F” word

Other educators are taking it one step further and introducing their students to the “F” word.

Teacher Anna Treasure’s “intuition” told her that the female students at Point Cook Secondary College were “starved” of information about feminism.

With the Year 12s away on a special study camp, and “teachers throwing up a whole lot of ideas for workshops they wanted to do”, Anna took the opportunity to trial a women’s studies program with small groups of Year 10/11 girls over three days.

The school’s 2009 student opinion survey had shown a negative self-perception among the Year 11 girls when it came to the differences between themselves and their male peers.

Anna says today’s celebrity-obsessed culture is pronounced at Point Cook, in an isolated corner of Melbourne’s west.

“It’s a new school in a new area — there’s nothing else here — so the playground becomes a kind of theatre, with everyone on show.”

While students study health and sexuality — and sometimes look at texts from a feminist perspective as part of English lessons — there is no dedicated gender studies program at the school.

In fact, South Australia is now the only state that offers Women’s Studies among its Year 12 elective subjects.

Anna drew on various resources to create her program but “pre-empted all of this (by saying) how much I love men,” she says. “I have five brothers, and male colleagues and a partner who are all great.”

She used psychologist Martin Seligman’s three primary conditions for happiness — feeling that you can “be yourself”; fulfilling work; and a strong relationship with a significant other — as a starting point to look at why each of these prerequisites was compromised for women of previous generations.

She also used material from the Miss G project, a Canadian gender studies organisation, to create a multiple-choice quiz and a timeline exercise. “When they had to work out which events happened a long time ago and what happened more recently, they flipped out!” Anna says. “They couldn’t believe that homosexuality was still considered a disease until the 1990s, or that pay disparity still exists.”

Her final activity was to present the girls with two images, one of a woman in a full-length burqha and one of women in a beauty pageant, and ask them to discuss “who was more free”.

She says the girls developed a whole new sense of history and their place in it. “So when they arc up about doing their work, it’s now in the context of women’s struggle for equal education!”

Where to for feminism?

Author Monica Dux isn’t worried that your average teenage girl is still wary of describing herself as a feminist.

How to give young women a new way of using the term was the central motive for her latest book, The Great Feminist Denial, co-authored with Zora Simic.

“I don’t think a 17-year-old girl needs to be calling herself a feminist,” says Dux. “If you educate 14–17 year old girls that ‘This is feminism’, it’s like leading a horse to water. Many of the challenges that will sharpen their sense of gender injustice still lie ahead.”

She believes that feminism has in many ways been the victim of its own success. “It’s easy to see how the marrying of the sexual revolution and increasing body obsession has diluted empower- ment messages and created this fallout of ‘raunch culture’.”

But if young women are given a sense of their legacy, they will be more likely to recognise the value of feminism later in life, she says.

“A feminist consciousness is often there; it’s just having an opportunity to articulate it. If you don’t have that awareness, when you come to certain moments in your life where you think something’s wrong or unequal, you’re not going to identify with feminism.”

When surveying young women, Dux and Simic found that most were alienated from feminism by distorted stereotypes created by its detractors, such as former PM John Howard. That makes it all the more important that feminist history now be part of the national curriculum, says Dux. “It is really important to educate young people about the massive impact that feminists have had on so many aspects of our lives — culturally, socially and politically. It’s not a marginal aspect of history; it’s about the way we all work and live.”

PB240014Girl Power

Enlighten Education is also urging girls to reclaim the feminist tag with its newest workshop, “Real Girl Power”.

Miller finds that while girls initially feel disconnected from feminism, their attitudes change once they realise there is diversity of appearance and opinion within the women’s movement.

“We need to bring it to this generation in a way that’s more palatable. They can still like fashion and boys; they can still shave their legs and be a feminist.” She says the media never portrays feminism in a positive light, so educators

have to demystify feminism and make it relevant. “The adolescent female brain is driven by emotion and impulse,” says Miller.

“You have to make them see that it matters; make them passionate about it. They get really charged up once they become informed about the history of feminism and the battles still being fought.”

Dux agrees: “We’ve just got to start claiming back the label, and I think standing up and arguing against all the misconceptions about feminists and feminism is one of the keys to achieving this.”

Women in sport hit the grass ceiling

Ms Broderick and I.
Ms Broderick and I.

The following was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 21st 2010. It is shared  here as a guest blog post with the permission of the author Elizabeth Broderick, the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It is an edited version of a speech she gave at the 5th IWG World Conference on Women and Sport.

Despite what many politicians might think, the talk in town isn’t the new resources tax or the coming federal election – it’s actually next week’s State of Origin and who will win the men’s FIFA World Cup in June.

We are ”sports mad”, ”a sporting nation”, ”a nation of sportsmen”. As the Observer’s chief sport writer, Kevin Mitchell, recently remarked about Australia, ”In a country generally blessed with sunshine, sport dominates nearly everything: news bulletins, pub discussions, the timing of weddings and holidays, the standing of politicians.”

The accomplishments of our male and female athletes are extraordinary. At the Beijing Olympics, women made up 45 per cent of Australia’s team and won more than half of our gold medals.

But unfortunately, the achievements of sports women are often invisible. On the data available, the coverage of women’s sport accounts for just 2 per cent of total sports broadcasting on television, 1.4 per cent on radio and 10.7 per cent of total sports reporting in newspapers.

The participation of women in sport at all levels is marked by division and discrimination that is reinforced by negative gender stereotypes. Strict gender segregation marks all levels of sport and elite, professional sport remains the unquestioned domain of men.

When the Associated Press named its top 10 female athletes of 2009, two were racehorses.

And disturbingly, professional sport in Australia has been plagued by allegations of sexual violence and harassment of women by high-profile sportsmen.

While outrage about these allegations may be immediate, it appears to be transitory – it seems the value of these players to the game quickly outweighs their ”transgressions” or ”misconduct”.

Gender stereotypes pervade all levels of sport and these are created and reinforced through the different ways that men and women are able – or even permitted – to participate in sport. This difference creates a profound power imbalance that lies at the heart of all forms of discrimination against women, including violence.

It is for this reason that identifying and addressing these negative stereotypes is crucial. These stereotypes foster a belief that women’s role in sport is an inferior and subordinate one – that women are merely fans, the support team or perhaps most visible when looking ”sexy” and ”alluring” at the awards dinner.

Of course, as we all know, this doesn’t mean that women are not participating in sport, as players, administrators, officials and spectators. A quick survey of the crowd at Homebush or the MCG or any suburban sporting field will show you that.

Women’s participation in sport reflects the issues women face more broadly in society. When we talk about women in sport, we often raise the same issues as when we talk about women in the workplace: pay equity; women in leadership positions; discrimination on the grounds of sex; the celebration of a male ideal and the marginalisation of women as the physically weaker and the caring sex.

Engaging women of all ages in sport is an end in itself. The United Nations has said that, combined with the emotional, psychological and medical benefits that are associated with participation in sport, participation also enables girls and women to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem, enjoy freedom of expression and acquire valuable skills in negotiation, management and decision-making.

But, as sportswomen and men and human rights advocates, we should not lose sight of the power of sport to act as a catalyst for challenging gender stereotypes and violence against women, and as an important vehicle to achieve gender equality.

Nowhere is this more true than in a country such as ours. The wide Australian sports arena provides a significant opportunity to reach out to young boys and men on attitudes about women. The participation of boys and men in sport – from their roles as athletes to fans to organisational leaders and the positioning of sport within the national imagination – means sport has the potential to be a powerful forum for dialogue and change.

There are increasing examples of sporting clubs creating a range of programs to do just that – from the under 5s to the professional teams – and I am hopeful these will contribute to the more positive and balanced participation of young women and men at all levels in the future.

Many commentators have also drawn the link between violence against women by sportsmen and the lack of women in visible positions of sports leadership and governance.

Indeed, it is my view that increasing the representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions is critical to raising the status of women and gender equality.

Recently, I have been looking at these structures in corporate Australia, but it is just as clear that we seem to have the same problem when it comes to women’s leadership in sport.

A research study conducted by Johanna Adriaanse, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, shows that only 21 per cent of board directors of national sport organisations in Australia are women. Just over 20 per cent of national sport organisations have no women directors at all. Those with no women directors include Australian Rugby League, Australian Rugby Union and Cricket Australia – some of our most iconic sports. As one woman put it to me, we have our own grass ceiling.

The International Working Group on Women and Sport, which is meeting in Sydney today, has suggested that it should be a condition of funding grants to national sporting bodies in Australia that they increase the representation of women on their boards. It is truly time that we took such decisive and effective action.

After all, everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in sport and to be recognised for their achievements. Just this week, at the Twenty20 World Cup cricket finals in Barbados, the loss by the Australian men’s team generated far more media coverage than the women’s thrilling victory over New Zealand. I rest my case.

A Conversation with Germaine Greer*

IMG_1118[1]Enlighten Education sponsored the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasian Biennial Conference, which was held last weekend on site at Ascham School, one of our long-term clients. I always enjoy these events as so many of our client schools are members of the Alliance and it is a delight reconnecting with all the educators we have developed such strong relationships with. This year’s conference was particularly inspiring as there was a stellar line-up of speakers including Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Cheryl Kernot, Dale Spender, Andrew Martin and Germaine Greer.

Television host Andrew Denton once described Greer as  “not so much a human being as a force”. I had expected her to be formidable and challenging, and she delivered. With a view to keeping the conversation alive, I want to share some of the points she made and pose some questions her sessions raised, which I believe are well worth wider discussion. Please, join in, either by commenting here or by taking these questions back to your staff rooms to discuss as a faculty. I have aimed my questions at educators, but they could be easily adapted and discussed amongst parent groups.

The Glass Ceiling

There is a current trend towards affirmative action policies that Greer does not believe will work. She fears that rather than truly addressing imbalances in power, they will only set up inexperienced women — who may not understand how the boys’ club that is “the corporation” works — as “cannon fodder”. She argues that this is what happened in England when the 1997 general election saw more women elected to the House of Commons than ever, yet many of the new female MPs grew disillusioned with the lifestyle of an MP. Nine of the so-called “Blair Babes” either chose not to stand or lost their seats in the 2001 general election. She also questioned why so many women seem to be opting out of leadership “just as they are most likely to be catapulted to the top due to affirmative action”.

Instead of playing a “numbers game”, Greer suggested we need to redesign democracy and build models of power that are more horizontal and truly inclusive.
What changes do you believe are necessary in order to encourage increased female participation at the leadership level?   

Greer expressed concern that girls, particularly in girls’ schools, are primed to take on leadership roles but then when they leave school, they are faced with systematic boys’ club rules that limit them. She fears there is a risk girls will feel guilty and internalise their inability to break through the glass ceiling.
Do you agree?  

Educating  Girls

Greer believes young women  judge each other more than men do. “Boys are more emotionally committed to each other,” she said.
Is this your experience in working with young women? If so, how can this be challenged?  

Greer believes girls are far more anxious as students and fear making mistakes: “I say to my students, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t agree with what you say, I just want you to have something to say!'” She talked about there being a “defect” in their self-confidence. Greer made the point that “as an economic driver, women’s insecurities are a billion-dollar business” and cited the cosmetic and diet industries as examples of this. She believes schools should “liberate the voice” of girls. 
Does the fear of failure paralyse girls? If so, how can we create classrooms that encourage risk-taking?  

Greer lamented the trend towards raunch culture and overt sexuality as a type of liberation. She referred to the sexualisation of children as “generalised paedophilia”.  She believes grown women are not visible enough in our culture: “We rarely see grown-up women who take up space.”
If girls cannot be what they cannot see, is it more important than ever to seek out healthy alternative role models? How have you managed to achieve this at your school?

*Apologies to Ms Greer if I have inadvertently taken anything she said out of context. Do I sound anxious about making a mistake? Yes, when it comes to Germaine Greer, I am! She left clutching a copy of my book, The Butterfly Effect. I lay awake the next night fearing that it might arrive back in the mail covered in red pen corrections — but Ms Greer, at least I have dared to find my voice!

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