Yet more advice to schools to stop using the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ has been issued, this time from Natasha Devon, a former government mental health adviser. According to Devon it is “important for ‘heteronormative assumption’ not to filter down into language and behaviour in schools.” She explained:
“To give you an example, I never walk into a room in an all girls’ school and say ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ because it is patronising, but also because there might be transgender people in the room. I don’t think it is useful to be constantly reminded of your gender all the time and all the stereotypes that go with it.”
As with all recent ‘gender neutral’ initiatives in schools, we cannot unpick the meaning and potential impact of policies unless we have a clear definition and understanding of the word ‘gender’ as distinct from the word ‘sex.’ When these two words get rolled into one we end up with so-called ‘gender neutral’ policies which have nothing to do with ‘gender’ and everything to do with ‘sex’ – ‘gender neutral’ toilets for example. Toilets have never had a role to play in breaking down gender stereotypes, they are simply an acknowledgment that biological sex differences between boys and girls necessitate privacy for both sexes.
Evidence from Sweden indicates that gender neutral school policies have two positive outcomes: that children are less likely to be bound by stereotypes and boys and girls are more likely to play with each other. However, according to the linked study, children are not “less likely to notice another person’s gender.” It may be markers of gender which provide the clues, but it is a person’s sex we are primed to notice; recognising a person’s sex is so important our ‘primitive’ brains work on automatic to make sure that we do, without any effort from us. This is not a negative outcome of gender neutral policies. It is not biology we want to eradicate but the limiting stereotypes associated with each sex.
What about the evidence for the use of the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’? We are aware of the studies of ‘stereotype threat’ where women’s scores on Maths tests were found to be lower if they were reminded that they were female just before taking the test, for example by ticking a M / F box, although the evidence is not clear in the case of schoolgirls. The question is, would limiting our use of the word ‘girl’ help in this case?
There is no evidence that it would. Any initiatives designed to tackle gender stereotyping depend on the use of the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ otherwise how do we know who those gender stereotypes are being applied to? How do we know which people are expected to be tough and who are the ones expected to be passive?
The words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ do not denote ‘gender’ they denote ‘sex’, boys are young human males and girls are young human females. The words themselves make no judgments. If we uncouple those words from biological reality and redefine them as inner subjective states, it is no longer possible to distinguish between boys and girls or talk about gender stereotyping in any meaningful way.
To use the word ‘girls’ is not patronising. To use the words ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ is not ‘heteronormative.’ The words exist outside our sexualities, our personalities and our ‘gender’, to limit their use is to suggest that these things are inextricably linked and more importantly it passes that message on to children.
Once again the advice has been issued to the Girls Schools Association at their national conference, just as it was last time when it was Gendered Intelligence telling girls’ schools head teachers to limit their use of the word ‘girls.’ Why on earth would you stop using the word ‘girls’ at an all girls’ school? Surely if you want girls to feel good about themselves they should absolutely not be taught that the word itself may be triggering for some people, that it may cause offence? We want girls to feel proud to be girls, not to feel that they have to be careful with the word and tip-toe around it in case using it hurts other people’s feelings.
The only reason to give this advice to the Girls Schools Association is in case there are some girls present who ‘identify’ as boys. In which case, the school is in danger of validating the idea that girls and boys are not young human females and young human males but identities, identities which are invariably informed by the very stereotypes they are purporting to tackle.
As over 70% of adolescents being referred to gender clinics are girls, girls’ schools have a special responsibility to look at what is going on in the world of teenage girls and investigate a little further. Otherwise they risk inadvertently reinforcing the messages girls are imbibing online which are persuading them in the first place that they must be boys if they don’t fit the ‘correct’ gender stereotype – messages from the world of trans and identity politics whose speciality lies in the conflation of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’
Are the girls who are suffering real dysphoria actually asking for this consideration of their feelings? Certainly the other girls will know what is happening: the lesson is that when there are trans people around, we don’t mention the word ‘girl.’ If you don’t know whether there are any trans people present, probably best not to mention it at all, just in case. So girls are trained into giving up their word, to see it as a kind of shape-shifting essence which may dissolve and reform in unexpected places, attached to no definable meaning or tangible reality.
Natasha Devon makes the claim that “ultimately this is beneficial to everyone.” No, it’s not. It is not beneficial to girls to be made to unwittingly collude in severing the connection between ‘girl’ and ‘the female sex’ and thus stripping the word ‘girl’ itself of all meaning.