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Allowing 'boys to be boys' won't bridge the GCSE gender gap

Celebrating an archaic idea of masculinity won't help solve the problem of boys underperforming at school.

British schools need to spend more time celebrating the traditional masculine roles that men were “born to do,” Tory MP Karl McCartney suggested in a recent speech in parliament.  As a mother of school-age boys, I’m troubled by this. Does my sons’ school offer lessons in manliness? If not, how can I be sure they won’t mistakenly end up doing things women are “born to do,” such as hoovering, ironing and remembering to send birthday cards?

Not only that, but how can I be sure that girls – any girls, I don’t care which – won’t get better exam results than my brilliant boys? This stuff keeps me awake at night (this, and fuming over white male MPs standing up in parliament to complain about the “shrill equal pay brigade,” but best not to dwell on that now).

There’s a long history of boys underperforming, by which we mean “not doing as well as girls.” The assumption is that boys should naturally be doing as well as their female contemporaries. This is not an idea of equality we apply in all fields. We do not, for instance, talk about women “underperforming” at sports. We do not insist that men have no innate physical advantage (something that would be quite obvious were the Olympic 100m sprint to be replaced with competitive menstrual bleeding or breastmilk squirting). Yet we refuse to accept that girls could just be better at certain academic subjects. Of course not. There must be something wrong with the way these subjects are being taught.

There have been many explanations offered for girls’ unfair educational advantages. Coursework has been pandering to plodding, diligent girls, denying boys the chance to show off their sheer brilliance in a high-pressure exam environment. The alleged dumbing down of GCSEs has been making our boys, these natural geniuses, too bored to concentrate, whereas our dull, compliant girls have thrived when it comes to ticking boxes, memorising facts and answering facile multiple-choice questions. It has been argued that girls “mature more quickly” than boys, meaning that early streaming has benefited girls who would otherwise have been overtaken by boys a few years down the line (it is important to note here that “maturing” means different things for boys and girls. When girls “mature” early, they do not become a mass of raging hormones, but sensible, boring mini-adults. When boys “mature,” the poor things are subject to all sorts of aggressive urges and carnal desires for which teachers, who are predominantly female and hence not human beings boys can respect, are failing to make allowances). Even sitting down in a classroom environment has been claimed to disadvantage boys, who apparently need to be allowed to walk around. Then, on top of all that, there’s just feminism. Yes, bloody feminism. The political movement for the liberation of half the human race really messes with a lad’s GCSE English prospects.

Poor, poor boys. Honestly, when you look at the overall picture – girls told not to study in case it caused their wombs to wither, universities which first refused to admit women and then, once they’d accepted them, refused to award them actual degrees, 11-plus pass marks which were set lower for boys to ensure girls did not outnumber them, clothing companies still portraying little boys as “scholars” and little girls as “social butterflies” – it’s pretty clear that no one’s ever had to struggle the way boys are struggling today. Girls may have had to fight – and in many parts of the world are still fighting – to get an education at all, but it’s easier for them because they’re girls. Girls can adapt to systems that were set up for others. You can’t ask the same of boys.

We mustn’t, argues McCartney, “try and make boys into something they are not.” Boys will be boys: “They need to know it is okay to be masculine, and that masculinity is the equal of femininity. It is a positive thing to like cars, engines, building sites, getting your hands dirty and playing sport.”

See? If only we had an education system that was more appreciative of slugs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, everything would be fine.

Which brings us, as most sexist arguments do, back to the idea of the male default. According to McCartney “we must not shy away, at any level, from celebrating what traditional male or masculine roles are; they are what we as males were born to do.” If a system does not work for women, women must change. If a system does not work for men, the system must change. If the system works for neither, the system must change to benefit men and women must adapt. The trouble is, as soon as women do adapt, men once again claim the system favours women and needs to change again. Indeed, women’s ability to adapt to changes which seek to “even up the balance” will be presented as a further unfair advantage.

In The End of Men (predicted in 2012, sadly still not forthcoming) the author Hanna Rosin uses the image of Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man:

“Plastic Woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. […] If a space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. […] Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same.”

It does not seem to cross Rosin’s mind that this refusal to change is a symptom, not an underminer, of male privilege. Performing “superhuman feats of flexibility” is not evidence of some innate advantage; on the contrary, it’s a response to disadvantage. Men will not budge up and make room for women, so we have to change shape to fit in whatever spaces we can.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that being born without a vagina should necessarily make you any worse at school. Even though girls in UK schools were outperforming boys before the introduction of GCSEs – and even though a recent study indicated that girls do better than boys at school even in countries with relatively low gender equality – I think we should give boys the benefit of the doubt. It might not be that having a penis rather than a uterus makes you rubbish at learning. Personally, I think the problem is not how we’re teaching maths or English to boys, nor even their ridiculous appendages, but how we’re teaching them to be male.

Female socialisation gets a bad rap – and sure, being taught to be submissive and obedient isn’t ideal if the other half of the population is taught to be dominant and aggressive – but there are some benefits. Indeed, let’s look at the end product here: human beings who are not only considerably less violent, more empathetic and more likely to take care of others, but who even live longer and do better at school. If it wasn’t for the low status, exploitation and constant threat of sexual violence (that is, if it wasn’t for the patriarchy), womanhood might just be the best thing ever.

When McCartney says “masculinity is the equal of femininity,” I say “no, it isn’t.” Masculinity is the behaviour of the male ruling class and it is measurably worse – for everyone — than the behaviour of the female subjugated class. Boys do not need to be taught to “celebrate” masculinity. They need to be taught to be more like the girls who are outperforming them. They need to be taught that it is okay to be flexible, open to change, to adapt, to listen, to care, to actually sit on their arses and pay attention when a teacher – male or female – is talking to them rather than be told they have a God-given right to roam the classroom because they have a penis. They need to be “made into something they are not” – someone who knows more, gives more, is more – because that should be what an education is about. It is not an award given in honour of one’s innate superior qualities. How can a child learn if he is told from the day he is born he is already fully formed, his destiny already mapped out? How can a child be open to change when he is told he is made of cardboard?

To that extent, girls are in a privileged position. Forced to be open and receptive – treated as hollow vessels, or mirrors to reflect the male ego – they do at least learn to receive and absorb. They allow ideas inside them, ideas that change who they are, and that is what allows them to progress as human beings. Imagine if boys could be taught to do the same. Imagine if the same patience, kindness and empathy was expected of them. Even if this did little to change the GCSE gender gap, just think of how it would change the world.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.