Barbie lives in Barbieland, which for some is a feminist utopia in which women can do anything: be president, have highly professional careers (the entire Supreme Court are female) as well as wear high heels and throw all night parties.
However all is not well in Barbieland: Barbie starts having nightmares and thinking about death, because the people in the real world are sad. So Barbie, accompanied by Ken, visits the real world to find her human family and solve their problems.
In the real world, Barbie is shocked by ‘the patriarchy’. She finds herself subjected to objectification and harassment. When she finds her family, the teenage daughter thinks Barbie is nothing more than a professional bimbo who makes women feel bad about herself.
It turns out this teenage girl is the source of sadness. She has stopped playing with her Barbie dolls because she blames them for men hating women and women hating women.
Ken, on the other hand, feels empowered by ‘the patriarchy. In contrast to his emasculated life on the beach in Barbieland, in the real world He ends up thinking he can do anything just because he is a man. At one point he barges into a hospital thinking he can perform surgery, without any qualifications or experience.
Back in Barbieland Ken changes things. The Supreme Court are demoted to a cheerleading squad, the president ends up serving men drinks. Every night is a ‘boys’ night and every barbie exists just to be ogled for male pleasure.
When Barbie returns she eventually manages to rally the barbies to overthrow their oppressors. Ken and Barbie apologies and the Barbies accept that a new society needs to be established with better rules for kens.
In a hideous postmodern/ commercial twist Barbie meets with the spirit of the Mattel founder. She finds out she is uncertain of her role in the world because there is no set role. The film ends with Barbie returning to the real world: her story carries on ‘evolving’.
At one level this film is a feminist commentary in line with what we might call Bimbo Feminism. This holds that women can embrace femininity and succeed professionally.
It is also a criticism of Patriarchy and especially the manosphere. When Ken returns to Barbieland he convinces the Kens that their rights have been eroded by women. They adopt toxic forms of masculinity in order to reassert their power.
This is also a movie about male as well as female roles. It is about how Kens (men) struggle to cope with increasing female power, many falling back on toxic masculinities.
The movie is also a commentary on the uncertainty of gender identities and how they are open to interpretation.
It also maybe gets us thinking about what use masculinity is at all going forwards: perhaps the future is one of abandoning heteronormativity entirely?
Postmodern feminism criticises the discourse of heteronormativity: gender and sex are fluid!
Postmodern Feminists argue that both men and women need to be liberated from the idea of heteronormativity: the idea that heterosexual male and female gender identities are the norm.
Historically, the idea that there are just two simple binary heterosexual identities comes from men and is one of the ways in which male power over women is maintained, with everything male being linked to the public sphere and everything female being linked to the domestic sphere.
For postmodern feminists, there isn’t a simple divide between biological male = masculine and biological female = feminine. Rather, everything about sex, sexuality and gender identity are fluid, and all gender identities are equally valid.
However, the dominant binary heterosexual male-female discourse makes it difficult for people who don’t ‘fit’ into ‘normal’ gender identities to be themselves, and raising awareness of the oppressive nature of the concept of ‘heteronormativity’ and celebrating gender differences and diversity are two of the main focuses of postmodern feminism.
Postmodern Feminist Philosophy
Postmodern feminism can also be called poststructuralist feminism or ‘cultural turn’ feminism, reflecting the shift away from structural and materialist theories and towards post-structuralism and cultural theories more generally from the mid 1980s onwards.
It was developed mainly by academics in the humanities rather than social science academics or feminist activists and it is much more philosophical than previous feminisms.
Postmodern Feminism is associated with a radical social-constructionist position which holds that there is no reality beyond social construction: discourses (what is discussed) shape the ‘realities’ people experience.
For postmodern feminists discourses are created by powerful groups of males and it is possible to identify and expose male-centred discourses.
Five examples of postmodern feminist thinkers include Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous.
The central focus for these thinkers is the ways in which female ‘subjectivity’ is constrained by textual and cultural forms defined and dominated by men.
One of the main focuses of postmodern feminism was to challenge thinking in dyads such as male-female and challenge the stability of dualistic ways of thinking, which it sees as repressive and to posit instead a liberating condition of the instability of all categories and truth claims.
In the condition of post modern liberation, men and women are free to choose to be a man, woman, gay, straight, trans or anything else, and identities are never fixed, they are fluid, multiple and fragmented.
Postmodern Feminists are especially critical of science’s dominant role in contemporary culture and its drive to fix gender and sex categories, which is seen as oppressive because this limits people’s capacities to shape their own (gender) identities.
Because of its focus on diversity, Postmodern Feminism is critical of Liberal and Marxist Feminist notions that we need to focus on politics for social change, and of Radical Feminism’s claims that there is a universal sisterhood with shared interests. Rather, there are diverse people who each need to be freed from the tyranny of truth so they can decide on how to shape their own gender identities going forwards!
The rest of this post will explore the work of Irigarary, Butler and Harraway in more depth.
Luce Irigaray argues that all that is known in mainstream society and culture about women and sexual desire is known from a male perspective, resulting in a vision of women she calls ‘masculine feminine’.
One of Irigaray’s aims is to overturn this male perspective, so that women are seen in their own terms, or as the ‘feminine female’.
Throughout the history of Western thought, women have been depicted as not-men, as negative entities which are lacking.
Women’s identity and sexuality are represented in this way because of ‘phallogocentrism’ , the patriarchal view of the world expressed in and through language as defined by men, a vision which tries to ‘freeze’ the meaning of ‘female’ and represent it in negative ways.
The task of theory is to liberate women from seeing themselves in such a way, and to realise that their own sexualities have plural dimensions which have the power to change female identities and escape the grip of phallogocentric culture.
Judith Butler claims that there is no such as sex. More specifically, she means that the sex categories of biologically distinct ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not exist in the real world, these categories are just mental constructions, part of language (discourse), but not real.
In other words, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just people who have been labelled ‘men’ and ‘women’ they are not, in reality, biologically distinct from one another. We just think these labels refer to real, distinct entities.
This goes beyond feminist theorising in the 1970s, when feminists such as Ann Oakley generally thought that sex and gender were two different things with biological sex being fixed at birth (male or female) and gender being the cultural norms. we attach to these two sexes (masculine-feminie). For feminist theory in the 1970s, liberation meant changing gender norms, but sex-differences were generally seen as something determined by nature, so not up for discussion.
Butler challenges these earlier feminist ideas , by arguing that the idea that there is a natural biological divide between men and women is also a construction of patriarchy.
For Butler, both sex and gender are not just attributes people ‘have’, they are what people ‘do’. People ‘perform gender’ through what Butler refers to as ‘stylized repetition of acts’ enacted through the most mundane day to day body language, movements and general deportment that when taken together give the impression of a fixed ‘gendered self’.
People become a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ through the acts they perform, they aren’t already a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ at birth.
Feminist criticisms of science
Donna Harraway criticises the patriarchal organisation of science and the gendered categories it produces, which are disseminated through society.
Harraway is critical of the positivist view that science is objective and value free, instead arguing it is a product of capitalism, militarism, colonization and male domination.
Scientific knowledge is no less ideological than other forms of knowledge (or discourse).
Harraway argued that scientific knowledge emerges out of social practices, and is influenced by the backgrounds of scientists, the knowledge created is contingent on them and would be different if constructed by other people in other societies.
She analyses a series of experiments carried out in seventeenth-century England, emphasising that those networks were made up almost entirely of white, European, upper class males, and the male bias within those networks influenced the connection of male to active and female to passive, ideas which have continued to be a central part of patriarchal culture ever since
She also examined how the scientific study of primates was a key development in the political ordering between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’.
However, because science is social in origins, it is not inherently patriarchal, it could potentially be reorganised to assist in female liberation.
Evaluations of Postmodern Feminism
Much of Postmodern Feminism isn’t grounded: it is not based in empirical evidence, rather it is based on freewheeling philosophy.
Deconstructive methods are purely negative, there is little positive about what we should do beyond criticising dominant discourses.
A 44 year old mother of three was sentenced to 24 months in jail on Monday for using abortion pills to abort a foetus at just over 30 weeks, whereas the legal limit for abortions is currently 24 weeks.
She obtained the pills in March 2020 during Lockdown through the ‘pills by post scheme’ and lied to the authorities, saying she was under the 24 week limit. She got found out because she had to call emergency services having taken the pills, and the police were called by medical staff after she arrived in hospital.
She was prosecuted under the 1861 ‘Offences against the person act‘ which outlines a maximum possible life-sentence, but the judge residing stated she’d received the sentence for lying rather than the actual abortion, had she not lied he probably would have given her a non-custodial sentence.
Relevance to A-level sociology
You can apply victimology here. It seems to me that this woman is a victim of unfortunate circumstances and an outdated criminal justice system.
She got pregnant during lockdown, when access to abortion services would have been restricted, and came to a late decision to abort, by which time the only way she could do what she thought was right was to lie to the authorities.
She basically did this under extreme stress in the middle of lockdown with a lack of support, and apparently has suffered huge emotional trauma as a result.
I mean let’s face it: there are no legitimate arguments against this so this isn’t surprising. (Religious arguments aren’t rational thus not legitimate, because if they’re not rational they aren’t arguments, just faith-based opinions.)
There will obviously be a strong Feminist argument for changing the law here so such women can’t be prosecuted, I mean theoretically women can still go to jail for a life sentence for aborting a foetus at 25 weeks, and this is just overt state control over pregnant women’s bodies in modern Britain.
The fact that this law hasn’t been changed is a criticism of Liberal Feminism: clearly here social policy hasn’t been updated in so long that it’s not sufficient to protect such women when they need it!
Hopefully there will be an appeal very soon and this woman will get out of jail much earlier than 12 months (she’s serving half in jail), because her being in jail doesn’t serve any positive functions: not for society, not for her children and not for her.
Possibly the fact that this law hasn’t been updated for so long is because Parliament is still largely a patriarchal institution which is failing to adequately keep up to date with issues of gender justice.
I guess this also a test case for the Functionalist view that media reactions to laws will result in them changing, hopefully this will be the case here sooner rather than later!
A lot of research evidence suggests tech companies and academia are biased against women.
There are number of quantitative and qualitative research studies which show that recruitment and employment practices are biased against women, despite the fact that employers claim to be meritocratic.
In this post I focus on gender bias in tech companies and academia.
Sexism in tech companies
The tech industry is the peak of gender bias in employment, with only 25% of tech company founders saying they weren’t interested in diversity or work-life balance at all, which severely disadvantages women because they are more likely to be have higher loads of domestic responsibilities.
An analysis of 248 performance reviews from a variety of tech companies found that women are a lot more likely to receive negative personality criticism than men.
Women were called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational, and usually told to watch their tone and step back. For the most part men’s personality traits didn’t come up in these reviews, and on the rare occasions they did, they were criticised for not being aggressive enough.
Women make up only 25% of employees in the tech sector and 11% of its executives, and more than 40% of women leave tech companies after 10 years compared to only 17% of men, with women leaving mainly because of ‘workplace conditions’, ‘undermining behaviour from managers’ and ‘a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career’.
One of the possible reasons for gender bias in tech is that the historic recruitment practices are based on male gender stereotypes: the ‘ideal type’ of person who would be good at coding as overwhelmingly male characteristics, so the recruiters think.
For example, any recruitment program involving multiple choice maths tests are male biased, and there is a historic network-bias towards men that helps them get tech jobs.
Historically antisocial people have been stereotypically seen as good coders, which automatically disadvantages women who historically tend to do more social and emotional labour.
Some tech firms also use social data to trace the interests of prospective applicants. In one example, a ‘preference for Manga’ was seen as solid predictor of someone having good coding skills, and it is mainly boys and men who look at Manga sites.
Research has also found that the stronger you believe in meritocracy, the more likely you are to act in a sexist way, which is a particular problem in the tech sector, because tech founders tend to have a very strong belief that they are super meritocratic. In reality, according to the research, they are not meritocratic.
Sexism in Academia
Female students and academics are significantly likely to receive funding or get jobs than men, and where mothers are seen as less competent, being a father can work in a man’s favour.
Studies have shown that double-blind peer-reviewing results in a higher proportion of female articles being accepted for publication, but most journals and conferences do not adopt this practice.
Men self-cite 70% more than women, and citations are a key metric in determining career progression, so this can perpetuate gender inequality in academia.
When it comes to teaching women are asked more often to do undervalued admin work and are more likely to be loaded with extra teaching hours which impacts their ability to do research and get published.
Teaching evaluation forms are biased against females to the extent that it is statistically significant. An analysis of 14 million reviews on ‘RateMyProfessors.com’ found that female professors are more likely to be dubbed as ‘mean’ ‘unfair’ or ‘annoying’ and they more likely to get glib and offensive comments about their appearance.
Female academics also have to do more emotion work than males, as students with emotional problems usually go to female staff not male for help.
There is also a catch 22 situation where women are penalised if they aren’t deemed sufficiently warm and accessible, but if they go too far this way they are criticised for not being authoritative and professional.
Two simple solutions
Firstly, companies need to sex-disaggregate available data to analyse the relative performance of men and women in companies, and then they’d probably find that men and women have equal performance.
Secondly, they need to have gender-blind recruitment practices as these have persistently shown that more women get hired when they are adopted.
The biggest barrier to more gender equality in the workplace is algorithmic recruitment programs which claim to be neutral but actually have a gender bias hard wired into them, as with combing social data.
Signposting and sources
This material is supporting evidence for the view that there is still gender inequality in society, and shows us that Feminism is still relevant today.
The material above was summarised from Perez (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.
Barrie Thorne used observations in two primary schools and theorised that children played an active role in constructing their own gender identities.
Children play an active role in ‘doing gender’ and constructing their own gender identities. Differences in gender identity are developed dynamically as children interacted with several other children and adults throughout their childhoods.
There are not simply two sets of male and female gender roles or identities, there is a much more complex variation: not all boys respond in the same way in the same situations, and neither do girls.
However, despite their active role in the process, children still tend to adopt existing gender roles and thus reproduce gender inequalities.
The material below summarises the work of Barrie Thorne, primarily her 1993 book Gender Play. Thorne was a feminist researcher who developed her interest following her experience of attempting to bring up her own children in a gender neutral way, which didn’t quite work out.
Feminist theory applied to gender socialisation
Thorne argued that gender is not just something we passively receive through socialisation, rather gender is something that we actively do in our day to day activities. There are thus multiple different ways of interpreting and expressing masculinity and femininity, and the construction of gender identities is fluid.
She discusses her theory in the context of wider power relations, particularly those of men, but believes there is no fixed patriarchal structure and emphasised that groups of women can have different interests to others and follows the theory of postmodern and difference feminism.
School organisation and gender relations
Thorne found that some primary school classes were organised by teachers into boys only and girls only tables, but even in those classes where pupils were given freedom of choice, boys tended to sit with boys and girls with girls. So in terms of the organisation of the classroom it was either teachers or pupils who chose to reinforce gender segregation.
Some teachers, but not all, further reinforced gender differences by organising teams for games into boys and girls or having boys and girls lunch queues, and such situations could lead to antagonism or rivalry between the two genders.
However at other times children would work in mixed gender groups and generally got on with it and worked co-operatively when gender was not brought to the fore and made an issue out of.
Peer groups and gender socialisation
At play time children had much more freedom of choice over who they could hang out and interact with and children chose to organise themselves in a gender segregated way.
Friendship groups tended to be either all male or all female and you could visibly see in playgrounds that there were distinct boys and girls games, with boys being in one area and girls another.
Boys tended to take up most of the space in the playground, playing football and baseball while girls tended to play closer to the school buildings and play games such as skipping and hopscotch. Boys also actively excluded girls who wanted to play football and vice versa with girls who wouldn’t allow boys to join in with skipping.
Thorne developed the concept of borderwork to describe the active process of marking out the boundaries between male and female social groups.
One form of borderwork was ‘cross-border chasing’ the most well known form of which was ‘kiss chase’, ‘a ritualised form of provocation‘.
Girls chased boys and tried to kiss them, sometimes wearing lipstick so as to leave a visible mark on their ‘victims’, and boys tried to avoid being kissed to escape the embarrassment. Boys who were caught were teased by other boys complained about getting ‘cooties’, or germs from the girls who kissed them.
The lowest status girls were given the term ‘cootie queen’ to signify that spending too much time chasing boys (and thus being in boys’ territory) was not a good thing, not something that girls should be doing, other than occassionally to annoy boys.
A second form or borderwork was more deliberate cross-gender interrupting of activities, such as boys deliberately stepping on girls skipping ropes to annoy them.
Borderwork served to dramatise the difference between boys and girls, exaggerated the differences between them and reinforced the idea that the two were opposits.
Borderwork also tended to reinforce male power with boys being much more likely to use physical power to disrupt girls games and girls having to chase them off.
Why gender segregation?
Thorn argued that there was no one reason why boys and girls separated themselves along gender lines in school, socialisation alone certainly wasn’t enough to explain the obvious gender segregation, but she highlighted the following:
School playgrounds are crowded environments in which it easy for groups to police behaviour. Because of the relatively high population density it makes it easy for boys and girls to call-out those who don’t conform to their expected gender identities, and, following Foucault, it also means boys and girls are more likely to police their own gendered behaviour because they know they are under constant surveillance by their peers.
Some games in school involved public choosing, and under such circumstances boys tended to select boys and girls to select girls, reinforcing gender segregation. However with handball students tended to just line up behind the team leaders and here there was less gender separation.
Thorne noted that were adults were not present pupils tended to police behaviour along gendered lines more vigorously, but when adults were present, they were more likely to encourage gender mixing.
However some teachers could also reinforce gender segregation by warning boys off going into girls areas in the playground for fear that they might cause disruption.
Overlap between genders
There were plenty of activities in which traditional gender norms were challenged in the school, and there was not a straightforward duality of distinct male and female cultures.
Some games, such as handball, were gender-mixed and there were cases of ‘braver’ boys and girls crossing traditional gender lines to play games, with some boys playing skipping and some girls playing football, for example.
It was especially the more popular boys who could get away with playing girls games without being teased and the stronger girls who could get away with playing boys games and developing a ‘tomboy’ identity.
Thorne’s study challenges simplistic dualism behind early Feminist conceptions of dualistic gender norms, divided simply into masculinity and femininity.
Her concept of ‘doing gender’ reminds us that passive notions of socialisation are not sufficient to explain the very active and animated process through which the taking on of gender roles.
Her in-depth ethnography allows us to trace the subtle differences in interpretations and interactions through which gender identities are constructed.
On the downside she doesn’t really explore the role which structure plays in channelling pupils towards traditional gender identities, even though she makes such a big deal about how active the process of doing gender is.
This material is primarily relevant to the compulsory education module taught as part of first year AQA A-level sociology.
Oakley argued parents socialised passive children into traditional gender roles, but her work is criticised by the newer concept of gendering.
Ann Oakley developed sex-role theory to argue that there are distinct gender roles that come from culture rather than biological differences between men and women.
These roles are learned through childhood and continue on into adulthood and tend to maintain male dominance and female subservience.
Socialisation and Gender Roles
Socialisation shapes the behaviour of boys and girls from a young age, with boys and girls learning that there are certain activities gendered: some ways of acting are appropriate for boys and others for girls. Oakley (1974) argued here are four main processes involved.
Parents start to manipulate their children into gendered identities from the very first days of their lives. For example, girls tend to be ‘cooed to’ and held more tenderly than boys who are more likely to be ‘bounced on the knee’ (albeit gently when they are very young) and hence treated a little more roughly.
Mothers will also pay more attention to a girls appearance, especially bonding through doing her daughter’s hair, and girls will be dressed at least occasionally in more ‘feminine’ dresses while boys will be dressed in more ‘masculine’ clothes.
Gender differences are reinforced through canalisation which involves the direction of boys and girls towards gendered objects, which is most evidence in the different toys available for boys and girls, which tend to reflect stereotypical future male and female roles in society.
Boys will be directed towards toys which encourage manual labour such as Bob the Builder toy tool sets, toy cars and trains which emphasise speed and excitement and even overtly violent toys which encourage aggressive behaviour such as guns.
Girls are more likely to be directed towards more passive toys such as arts and crafts, flower arranging, and those encouraging the house-wife and motherhood role like toy domestic appliances, dolls and prams.
Boys are more likely to be encouraged to engage in adventurous or risky activities, such as camping, climbing, going to adventure playgrounds, and physical sports such as football and rugby.
Boys are also expected to be naughty more than girls, with some parents even think it is more acceptable for boys than for girls to spend time playing football (for example) rather than doing their homework.
Girls are expected to play more of a role doing domestic chores and maybe even caring for younger siblings, and are generally expected to be more passive and less adventurous than girls.
One manifestation of these differences might be that boys are allowed to travel further on their scooters or bikes when out with their parents compared to girls.
Boys are less likely to be told off for being ‘deviant’ than girls while girls are more likely to be cautioned against such behaviours and praised for being good and obedient.
Girls are more likely than boys to be called ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ which may explain why girls are more likely to worry about their appearance in later life compared to boys.
Boys are more likely to called tough or strong: ‘oh my, what a strong boy you are, look how fast you can run’ and so on.
Criticisms of Oakley
Oakley’s work has been very influential within Feminist sociology but she has been criticised for overstating the passive nature of gender socialisation and sex-role theory entirely fails to explain the increasing diversity of gender identities.
Sex-role theory does not explain power differences between men and women. It does not explain WHY it is men who are socialised into dominant positions and women in subordinate positions.
Oakley’s theory is based on the notion that there are clearly differentiated roles for men and women in society, whereas postmodern feminism suggests there is more of a diversity of roles.
It is a very passive theory of socialisation. It assumes that girls and boys simply soak up gender norms from their parents, whereas in reality boys and girls play a more active role in their own socialisation, and there are plenty of children who actively resist being socialised into traditional gender norms.
Gendering refers to an active process of individuals ‘doing gender’ and thus actively creating gender differences. It recognises that individuals play an active role in their own socialisation rather than it being a passive process in which their identities are simply determined by their social environment.
Individuals are influenced by their social environment but they actively engage and interact with it, and some choose to accept dominant gender norms and thus reproduce more traditional gender roles, but others choose to resist and challenge such norms creating a greater diversity of gender identities and changing the social environment.
Three levels of gendering
Harriet Bradley (2007) developed a theory of how gendering works, suggesting that that it operates at three different levels:
The micro level involves individual decisions by men and women
The meso level involves social institutions which rules about the expected behaviour of men and women: such as gendered school uniforms in school and sex-segregation in sports and prisons, for example.
The macro or societal level. The micro and meso level come together to form structural differences in gender norms and roles which are very robust and operate across the whole of society.
Gendering at the these three levels operates to limit the behaviour of most ordinary men and women in day to day life. One example Bradley gives is that men cannot usually choose to wear dresses.
There is always the capacity for individuals to break away from gender norms (gendering is an active process after all), but we tend to see this most in people with power who are removed from the ordinary duties of daily life. Pop stars, for example, are among those most likely to break with traditional gender norms, because they have more freedom to experiment with diverse identities than ordinary people who have to hold down a regular job and look after their children.
This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity option which forms part of the first year A-level Sociology course (AQA specification)
Sources/ fiND OUT MORE
Anne Oakley (1974) The Sociology of Housework
Harriet Bradley (2007) Gender.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
parental and teacher stereotypes combine to reinforce gendered subject images!
Despite gender becoming more fluid in recent decades, students continue to choose subjects aligned to stereotypical, traditional male and female gender identities.
While it is true that subject choice is becoming gradually less gendered, gender stereotypical subject choices are still apparent when we look at the statistics in the 2020s.
For example, 95% of candidates studying Health and Social Care BTEC are female while Computer Science and Engineering are dominated by males.
For a more in-depth dive into gendered subject choices at different levels of education in 2022 please see my post on gender and subject choice.
Explaining gendered differences in subject choice
There are three broad explanations for why boys and girls continue to choose gender stereotypical subjects:
factors external to the school such as socialisation in the family home and peer group pressure.
In school factors such as the gender of the teachers teaching certain subjects and gender stereotypes held by teachers.
Ingrained gendered subject images which is a result of home and school factors.
Socialisation and gendered subject choice
Some research suggests that the gender stereotypes of parents still influence what toys boys and girls and play with, with some parents believing that certain types of toys are only really suitable for boys and girls.
Girls being steered into playing with dolls from an early age may influence their choice to study health and social care later on as teenagers, with its focus on child care.
Similarly, boys being steered towards toy tools and trucks may result in a higher proportion of them choosing to study engineering at university.
More generally, socialisation differences may result in different levels of self-confidence for boys and girls.
The results of laboratory experiments also suggest that men are more likely to enter competitive arenas than women because of higher levels of confidence (Gneezy et al., 2003; Niederle and Vesterlund, 2007).
Colley (1998) found that peer groups often subscribe to gender stereotypes and may encourage girls to choose more traditionally feminine subjects at GCSE and vice-versa for boys.
Teacher Labelling and gendered subject choice
Traditional beliefs about masculinity and femininity may still be held by teachers, lecturers and careers advisors, especially in mixed schools.
Some contemporary sociological research suggests that teachers’ gender stereotypes result in girls being less likely to choose STEM-related choices within high school and beyond ((Lavy and Sand, 2018; Lavy and Meglokonomou, 2019; Terrier, 2020).
There is a gender divide based on the subjects taught by men. Male teachers are more likely to specialise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and PE, whereas women are more likely to teach humanities and languages. A lack of educational role models in STEM and PE can put some girls off taking these subjects. The effect is particularly visible among teenage girls who feel that male PE teachers cannot understand their needs properly (Gender Trust).
The fact that subjects in secondary schools such as English are more likely to be taught by women, and girls may feel more drawn to such subjects because they prefer the discursive style of female teachers. Similarly, subjects which boys are more likely to choose at GCSE and A-level, such as computing and physics, are more likely to be taught my males lower down in secondary schools, and boys might be more drawn to these subjects because of the more matter of fact way they are taught by male teachers.
Colley (1998) notes that girls in single-sex schools are twice as likely to study maths at university. This could be because the cultural pressures to not study maths are less likely to exist in single sex schools
Gendered Subject Images
The combination of external and internal factors above results in subjects becoming gendered: they develop an identity as essentially male or female.
This makes it harder for boys to choose ‘female’ subjects and girls to choose ‘male’ subjects.
Colley believes that the gender-identity of subjects may well shift with curriculum changes. For example the introduction of more technology into music is correlated with more boys choosing to study it.
Conclusions: Why do gendered differences in subject choice persist…?
Boys are more likely to choose traditionally male subjects and vice versa for girls as a combination of home and school factors such as gender stereotyping held by parents and teachers, which affects boys and girls self-concepts which are in turn reinforced by peers.
In a review of the literature Skelton et al (2007) noted that ‘gender stereotyping’ and ‘differential constructions of gender among pupils and teachers’ are probably the most significant factors in explaining gendered differences in subject choice.
It is very difficult to pinpoint one main causal variable for gendered differences in subject choice, the reasons are due to a multitude of factors.
This material has been written primarily for students studying the education option as part of their A-level in sociology.
The most female dominated subjects are performing arts, health and social care and sociology, the most male dominated subjects are computer science and I.T., construction and engineering.
Subject choice in post-16 education remains heavily influenced by gender in 2022.
If we look at the total numbers of students taking A-level and BTEC subjects we find that girls and young women are still more likely to choose subjects which conform to the norms and roles associated with females, such as performing arts and health and social care.Boys and young men on the other hand are more likely to choose subjects which align with traditionally male gender norms and roles such as physics and computing.
However these trends are just generalisations and there are of course exceptions, and the ‘traditional gender-divide’ in subject choice has been reducing over time.
This post explores some of the differences in subject choice by gender in 2021-2022, focusing on A-levels, BTECs, higher education and apprenticeships. (I don’t look at GCSE level or below because students do not have freedom of subject choice until they pass their GCSEs and pursue post-16 education.
Computer Science: 80% of pupils are male
Physics: 75% male
Further Mathematics: 65% male
Design and Technology: 64% male
Economics: 63% male.
The most female dominated subjects at A-level are:
Performing arts: 90% of students are female
English Literature: 78% female
Sociology: 77% female
Art and Design subjections: 75% female
Psychology: 74% female
Spanish and French: 74% female.
Most other subjects have a much more equal gender balance, so are best characterised as gender neutral.
Gender and Subject Choice at BTEC
Subject choices at BTEC also remain heavily gendered in some subjects. For example:
90% of students choosing health and social care are female.
85% of students choosing Information Technology are male.
75% of students choosing Sport BTEC are male.
Business BTEC is more gender neutral with nearer a 60-40 split in favour of males and Applied Science is the most gender neutral subject with almost equal numbers of male and female students in 2022.
The gender divide continues into Higher Education, once again with subjects broadly divided along stereotypical gender lines:
The top five degree subjects for females are:
Subjects allied to medicine
Social Sciences and psychology
Education and Teaching
Design and Creative and Performing Arts.
Five subjects where there are more males studying them than females are:
Engineering and Technology
Gender and Apprenticeships
The traditional gender divide is somewhat apparent when it comes to the types of apprenticeship men and women choose, but it less dramatic than with subject choices at A-Level, BTEC and University.
Females dominate in health and social care and education apprenticeships. Males dominate in construction, manufacturing and transportation. But many apprenticeships are gender neutral such as retail and public administration.
This material is relevant to the gender and subject choice topic within the Education topic of A-level Sociology
You might also like to read this post on why males and females choose different subjects in education.
How have education policies addressed gender differences in society and school?
If we take a longer term historical perspective, education policies have tended to reflect the dominant gender norms within society, and for the most part have served to disadvantage girls in relation to boys.
It wasn’t until Feminism and the 1975 sex discrimination act that research and policy started to address what was then the underachievement of girls.
And since the 1988 Education and the National Curriculum there has been more concern with boys underachievement than girls.
Historical education policies are also very traditional in terms how they deal with gender: they focus exclusively on differences between males and females. There is a serious lack of research on the experiences of LGBTQ pupils in schools and no explicit policy initiatives to improve the experience of LGBTQ pupils.
This post focuses on the history of education policies designed to address gender differences in education from the early 19th century to the 1988 Education Act.
Education and Gender in the 19th and early 20th Centuries
In the 19th Century there was a distinct division between male and female gender roles in society, with men working and women being consigned largely to domestic roles. Women also had no political power as they were not allowed to vote.
In the middle classes women were encouraged to marry at which point they effectively became their husband’s rather than their father’s property, and women were not allowed to divorce.
Education policies for the middle classes reflected these gender power differences. Public and grammar schools were for boys only where boys learned the skills required for politics and/ or work.
Middle class girls were educated at home by governesses, and their education largely consisted of learning the skills to be a lady within society.
The Education Act 1870 made state education free to all pupils irrespective of gender, but the experience of education was gendered, different for males and females, for many years to come.
Even women getting the right to vote in 1918 didn’t do much to change the heavily gendered experience of education
The Tripartite System and Comprehensives
The 1944 Education Act introduced single sex grammar schools, and this introduced a gender divide which benefitted boys because there were more boys grammar schools. Boys thus needed lower 11 plus scores than girls to get into a grammar school.
Some secondary moderns were single sex, but not all, these were more likely to mixed.
The 1965 education act saw the abolition of single sex grammar and secondary modern schools and all pupils were educated in mixed sex comprehensive schools.
However the experience of education still remained very gendered – with girls and boys having different experiences – subjects were often determined by gender stereotypes with girls being pushed into needlework and boys into metalwork, for example!
Education policies designed to address differences in achievement by gender
1970s -80s Feminist inspired research into gender inequalities in schools
From the mid 1970s Feminists started to take an interest in the differential experiences of girls and boys in education, why girls were so much less likely to do hard science subjects and maths, and the underachievement of girls.
Whyte (1975) looked at gender stereotypes in the primary curriculum, finding that the representation of men and women tended to reinforce traditional gender roles.
Sharpe (1976) looked at gender sterotypes in secondary schools and how they encouraged girls to act in feminine ways and develop lower career aspirations.
Spender (1982) researched the marginal position of girls in classrooms, suggesting this reflected their marginal roles in society.
Curriculum Changes in the 1980s
The 1980s saw a few policy initiatives to improve girls underachievement and their low numbers in science subjects.
Girls Into Science (GIST) ran from 1979 to 1983 which investigated the reasons why so few girls were going into science and technology subjects and encouraged teachers to develop strategies to get more girls doing these subjects.
Genderwatch was an initiative which encouraged teachers to monitor gender differences in schools and develop anti discriminatory practices.
The problem with these policies were that while they may have worked for some middle class girls, they were very individualistic, offered very little in the way of real guidance and also provoked a male backlash.
The backlash was partly due to the myth of girls underachievement – despite their low take up of science and maths girls did better in English and Modern Languages at O-level and got better overall O-level Grades at A-C.
Gender and the 1988 Education Act
The 1988 Education Act was not concerned with any kind of equality of educational opportunity, just pure competition.
The publication of GCSE results showed gender differences in achievement more clearly than ever, and from the late 1980s it was clear that girls were outperforming boys in most subjects.
Since the late 1980s both boys and girls have improved in education, with girls generally improving faster than boys, hence the gender policy focus in the 1990s switched to helping boys improve.
There is little specific formal guidance for schools and more than half trans pupils feel like they can’t be themselves in school.
85% of schools report (1) they have seen an increase in the number of pupils identifying as either trans or non-binary, that is pupils identifying as a different gender to that which they were assigned at birth.
Schools have a long, historical tradition of being organised along a simple male-female divide which does not recognise trans identities, the most obvious examples of which include:
gendered school uniforms
gendered sports teams
Some schools are even boys and girls only schools!
Such simplistic traditional gender-divisions are potentially discriminatory against the increasing number of pupils with transgender identities, and this post explores the extent to which policies in schools are adapting to this increasing diversity of gender identities.
Government Policy Guidance on Transgender Children in Schools
The House of Commons Library last published guidance on how schools should support transgender children (2).
The briefing follows the Equality Act of 2010 stating that schools must not discriminate against pupils who are undergoing gender transformation, which doesn’t have to involve physical surgery, so any student transitioning to another gender is protected by law.
However besides this there is little central laying down of rules about what schools should do to support transgender pupils.
For example schools don’t have to provide gender neutral toilets or changing rooms, and they are free to continue with a traditional male-gender divide in P.E lessons.
The uniform restrictions are the most stringent as schools need to provide flexibility to accomodate cultural diversity, so transgender pupils are already covered against discrimination here in most cases.
The Home Secretary Seems to be Transphobic
Yet another generational disconnect that doesn’t help trans pupils is the fact that the current Home Secretary, Suela Braveman (*) comes across as Transphobic.
As far as she is concerned people under 18 cannot obtain a gender recognition certificate and so schools are under no obligation to recognise or support trans children in any way at all (4)
She has explicitly stated that schools don’t have to recognise students by any name other than that assigned at birth, and that they MUST provided single sex toilets, she has also suggested that schools are obliged to out transitioning pupils to their parents if they are not aware of this going on.
(*) I deliberately misspelled her name as she clearly thinks names don’t matter.
Support for Trans Pupils in schools is lacking
The latest survey data on how supported trans pupils feel in school to feel comfortable with their own (rather than birth-assigned) gender identity is from Stonewall in 2017 (3) which found that between one third and two thirds of trans pupils don’t feel supported.
While 75% of trans pupils reported that they were allowed to wear a uniform which fitted in with their identity, this is almost irrelevant as an indicator of discrimination as most schools today have gender-neutral uniform options – that is girls can choose to wear trousers if they want to .
Most shockingly of all one third of transgender pupils reported not being to use their own name in school, which is just about the most basic aspect of one’s individual identity I can think of, which is pretty hard evidence that one third of trans pupils feel like they are being directly discriminated against.
Finally, the majority of trans pupils report not being able to use toilets or changing rooms or feeling comfortable with sports suited to their gender.
I can understand that schools might find it difficult to find sports options that trans pupils feel comfortable with, given that most traditional school sports are spilt along traditional gender lines, and there might be resource restrictions on offering a wider variety of gender neutral options, providing discrete changing rooms and gender neutral toilets are relatively minor changes which could be made quite easily, and clearly by 2017 most schools hadn’t made these changes.
In terms of pupils feeling they can’t use their own name, that strikes me as just an unwillingness on the part of schools to make a very easy adaptation.
However, many schools are very supportive
It’s five years on since Stonewall’s last research on this issue, and even though we have a disconnected ageist and transphobic home secretary many schools do have policies in place which do support trans pupils.
A google search for ‘trans policies in schools’ yields several policy documents from schools which show a clear willingness to put in place mechanisms to make sure trans students feel comfortable, so thankfully many schools are more inclusive than central government!
Clearly when it comes to trans identities schools were lacking in their support for trans pupils in 2017, and central government is not at all supportive, but it will be interesting to see what future research shows on this issue in the coming years – I’m sure there will be more support in place, but we’ll have to wait for more data to know for certain!