I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote, in collaboration with my colleague and former housemate Sam Franklin, as an undergrad final year student at the University of Brighton. As most scholarly essays do, it had a wonderfully catchy title:

A critical discussion into the role that Physical Education can play in the perpetuation of male and female gender stereotypes, as a result of “benevolence as restraint’” (Larson et al, 2009), the subsequent impact this has on the quality of Physical Education available to all pupils, and ways in which this can be combatted.”

We wrote this for a unit entitled “Sociological trends in PE”, and I don’t mind admitting that it received a pretty stellar mark.

After reading it earlier this week, I began to think about whether the claims we made in the essay are indeed true for the school I currently work in. First, however, it is necessary for me to outline the main themes of the essay:

  • Benevolence as restraint, a term coined by Larson et al, is the idea that having lower expectations of girls in PE inevitably leads to them being held back.
  • The core principles of PE are upheld in masculinity, and if girls are to excel in PE they are essentially having to conform to such masculinity.
  • Boys are expected to automatically demonstrate masculinity, and those that don’t, find it difficult to conform to traditional PE activities, in particular team games.
  • Benevolence as restraint is most common from male PE teachers when teacher female students.
  • Single-sex classes are reinforcing a parity between sex (boy/girl) and gender (masculine/feminine), suggesting all boys should be more inclined to exhibit masculine traits, such as power and aggression, and all girls exhibit feminine traits, such as creativity and grace.

So, following 4 years of being on the front line, do I agree with the claims made above, and do I see them manifesting in my school?

Does benevolence as restraint exist?

A few years ago I remember watching Jamie’s Dream School, a concept devised by Jamie Oliver whereby he gathered an all-star cast of celebrities to teach disaffected students in their subjects of expertise. I thought Daley Thompson, former GB decathlon, was no doubt an inspired choice and an inspirational figure, until I saw him perpetuate one fatal mistake – giving students the choice to do “girls press ups” if you can’t do the full thing.

I have since discovered that Daley has history on this subject, being pulled up on live television for claiming GB heptathlon Katarina Johnson-Thompson “throws like a girl”. Now some may say such comments are harmless, but I disagree wholeheartedly. They perpetuate a stereotype of girls being inferior athletes and are damaging for girls perceptions of physical activity. They also present a difficult situation for the boy who is unable to do a full press up – does that make him more girly? Of course not.

These examples show that implicit language, designed perhaps to “be nice” to girls, in fact can hold them back. I am very careful in my lessons to never refer to a differentiated option, such as kneeling press ups, with a genderised connotation. Instead, I call them assisted press ups. Perhaps Daley should take a leaf out of my book.

Another instance of where I have seen this concept in practice is when students are giving notes requesting no participation in a lesson practically. I must question myself here, because I wonder – am I softer on the girls who give me notes than on the boys? I only teach 1 all girl class (year 10), and the rest of my practical classes are all boys. Potentially, this may be an area where I am perpetuating the notion of benevolence as restraint, and maybe I should be firmer with the girls when giving me notes, because being nice to them in the short term may be harming them in the long term.

Additionally, this is where a phrase crops up that I detest to the core; the notion of “manning up”. It is a phrase used extensively in society, but I really feel more people should challenge it as a derogatory term to women. Are we implying that showing strength and resolve is a characteristic of men? And not showing such resolve makes you less of a man? I’m sure many of my female students will be more than happy to not “man up” if that is the case!

Is benevolence as restraint most visible when teaching students of the opposite sex?

This is a question I have often grappled with, and I not only exploring it from the view of male teacher and female students. What about female teacher and male students? I question whether, when teaching students of the opposite sex, sometimes we hold lower expectations. Do I allow girls to show lower physical activity levels because I expect it? Do female colleagues accept lower levels of organisation and presentation of work from boys because they expect it? I don’t know, and many people reading this may challenge me on that one.

Does my PE curriculum still perpetuate gender stereotypes?

Working in a fairly traditional school, I would say, in many ways, yes. Largely, this is because of the extra-curricular opportunities available through our district, and this in turn influences the design of our curriculum. Boys do rugby in the autumn term, girls do hockey. Boys do football in the spring term, girls do netball. Boys do cricket in the summer term, girls do rounders (all, thankfully, do athletics). Of course we deliver activities to all that transcend this, such as gymnastics to boys, and rugby to girls (although not a great deal), but the core themes of the curriculum are there to see.

Perhaps most interestingly, 3 major sporting successes at my school this term have challenged these stereotypes significantly:

1 – A year 11 boy won “outstanding sportsman” at our district sports awards for representing England U16 hockey. When speaking to others in his year group that attended the awards, I was amazed at their reaction to it. They genuinely looked down on his achievement because they consider hockey to be a minor sport when compared to their male dominated fields of rugby, football and cricket.
2 – Year 7 & 8 girls progressed to the national football final at Wembley stadium. In a sport that girls do a limited amount of on the curriculum, we have potential national champions. I have advocated a much greater presence of girls football in our district for years, but the response I always get is “well something would need to go – hockey or netball?”
3 – A year 7 boy participated in the GB gymnastics championships in Glasgow. Many boys still view gymnastics as a feminine sport, and this has always been something I cannot comprehend. In my lessons, I try very hard to get across to them that gymnasts are, pound for pound, the strongest sports performers in the world. Having such a high level performer in school is helping me with that claim (he smashed his entire class during a wall sit challenge recently, to their amazement).

Should core PE lessons be taught single-sex?

This is something that I still feel benefits more students than not. I once taught a year 8 class on a teaching placement that was all boys, barring 2 girls. The rationale was that being with a group of highly motivated and able boys would stretch and challenge the 2 girls, who were the best female athletes in the year group. In theory a sound move, but all I experienced were low levels of motivation and high levels of discomfort from the 2 girls, who often felt self-conscious and significantly outnumbered.

If we offered boys and girls the chance to mix, I would expect almost all of them would choose to still be in single-sex classes. The few that wouldn’t choose it sadly would go with the flow because of social pressures. This is just something that I think is inevitable in secondary schools, and I’m not sure how we could combat it.

I know many schools teach mix-sex lessons, and I have done in the past, but I believe that more students progress quicker in single-sex groups for most practical activities. Having taught mix-sex rugby to a year 7 class once, it was an absolute waste of time for everyone involved.

What am I going to take from this?

I accept that gender stereotypes exist for a reason, but I feel a large part of the battle we are fighting comes down to our own perceptions and use of language. It is our job as PE teachers to constantly provide opportunities to challenge traditional stereotypes and make students realise that different people have different strengths. Those strengths don’t necessarily have to match the masculine or feminine traits that society tells you divide men and women.

Furthermore, I am genuinely going to look at how I treat girls classes that I teach, and really try to identify whether I am having the same expectations of them as boys classes. I am going to try and demand higher levels of effort, and offer less benevolence when discussing reasons for them not to take part.

If you have any thoughts on the discussions made here, I would love to hear them either on twitter or in the comment box below.