‘My students don’t care that I am a woman teaching a ‘male’ subject – I wish other people would follow their example’
I recently taught a PSHE lesson to a year 8 group on the assumptions we make about people. I started with the word "Australian" – students said common judgements were that they would say "g'day", wear cork hats, like beer, wear shorts, have barbecues all the time and be good at rugby. Then we moved on to "American" – apparently they like burgers, are very loud, wear baseball caps, and have the Disney logo on their clothes (I'm not sure where that idea came from).
Then I tried a more challenging topic: what about "feminist"? What does that word make you think? Feminists are angry, I was told, they have hairy legs and armpits, and they hate men.
But that's not what it means to me. A feminist is someone who advocates social, political, legal and economic rights for women, equal to those of men. That's me. I think everyone is equal to everyone else. Being a feminist means that I believe people should be able to do the job that best suits their character, no matter what their gender.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. I teach a very male-orientated subject: design technology and engineering (DTE).
At university I was the only female in my class and one of just two on my course. My lecturer didn't like me, as he made clear when he told me that "the only thing you have contributed to this course is your smile, which is a pretty one". I decided not to use him for a reference after that. He seemed to feel that women couldn't and shouldn't teach DTE – that the bandsaws and welding equipment were not for us. I had no role models to look up to or talk this through with: all my lecturers were male and all the DT teachers in my life had been male.
Things are changing, slowly. When I first started teaching, most of my groups were all male. Now my GCSE and A-level classes are made up of about five boys to each girl. My school has two male teachers and two female teachers for the subject. But while it can feel like we have made great strides in moving towards gender equality, only one in three MPs in the UK is female, and men in the UK still earn 19% more than women.
Subtle – and not-so-subtle – sexism is still alive and well, as my students were forced to learn when we visited a local factory on a class trip. One of the employees made a joke under his breath: "Close your legs dear, I am screwing." It was unclear to whom it was directed, although I was the only female adult around with a mixed class of students.
All of my students (boys and girls) looked him in stunned silence and then at his boss, who did nothing. Then they looked at me. I wish I could say that I came up with some clever response, but I didn't. I was shocked that this attitude was still going strong and that the boss was oblivious to the message it was sending to my young students.
The bus journey home was interesting. It wasn't a debate because everyone agreed with each other – we concluded that this man's comments were outdated and rude. I asked my students if they listened to me less because I am a woman teaching a "male" subject. Their scrunched faces gave me the answer. They don't think about it. I am their DTE teacher. It's as simple as that.
Our students need positive role models – women and men who are who they are, and don't judge each other by stereotypes. I am happy, confident and comfortable being a woman – one who teaches DTE. People can call me bossy or demanding but I see these as good traits. I also am comfortable asking for help from others and I don't see this as a weakness. I am a role model.