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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.

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game