Let’s get one thing clear: I am a feminist.
I am a feminist who embraces the name. I wave my purple, green, and white flag proudly. However, this year I will not be marking International Women’s Day with any of my classes.
If you haven’t heard of it before (and more on that point later!) then I can tell you that IWD, held annually on March 8th, is a global day supposed to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is also supposed to act as a call to action to promote gender parity. It first started over 100 years ago, with the very first event held in 1911.
I believe it is every teachers responsibility to tackle prejudice and promote understanding, all while still teaching English grammar and vocabulary, and so in the past I have created special lessons for this day, looking at and celebrating female inventors, politicians, artists, and writers from around the globe. I’ve always enjoyed sharing some of my ‘sheroines’ and my favourite people from ‘herstory’ (2 new English words for you there!).
However, the theme of this year’s event is #ChooseToChallenge. And I am choosing to challenge IWD itself.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the concept of “otherness”. I don’t want to get too academic here, but otherness is basically how society can make the point of view of one particular group invisible, while also stereotyping that group and considering it as different, or not the norm.
IWD certainly combats the first part of that idea. It tries to put the viewpoints and perspectives of women into the spotlight. So far, so good!
But does it also stereotype women?
Women are not one voice. My experience as a white, educated British woman is not that of the middle-eastern Muslim women I used to teach in Egypt, or the female refugees from other countries, for example, who have come to the British Council for the free classes we offer. Can one day, one event, and one lesson celebrating that event, allow all our voices to be heard?
Does it not, perhaps, also contribute to signalling my gender as different, not the norm, and therefore ‘other’? This same argument could also apply to other events and days, like Pride Month, or Black History Month. By giving us a “day” (or week or month) is society really just reaffirming that women don’t have parity the rest of the time?
I am actively making the move to what is sometimes called an “embedded diversity curriculum”.
I am trying to be more conscious of how the materials I bring to class show women and their role in society, and represent multiple viewpoints and perspectives throughout the year. I am trying to ensure my lessons present strong female role models from all walks of life on a regular basis, not just on March 8th. A colleague and I run a book club for lycée students and we have ensured the books we assign feature female protagonists and authors equally with male (believe me, that was difficult - which only emphasizes how much this work is needed!).
I’m also trying to recognise my own unconscious biases (even as a feminist I still have them) and how they might show up in my classes. Did you know that, on average, teachers interact in class with boys more often than girls by, according to some studies, a margin of up to 30%? When boys call out (which they do 8 times more often than girls), teachers are likely to listen to what they have to say. When girls call out, teachers are more likely to ignore their answer and just remind them to raise their hand. Have you ever noticed this happening in your English class?
So should we abolish International Women's Day?
Here I return to the fact that for some of you reading this blog, this will be the first time you have heard about it. As the IWD website tells us “According to the World Economic Forum, sadly none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children. Gender parity will not be attained for almost a century.”. There is still awareness to be raised, and International Women’s Day is a great way of doing that. We still need it. However, it’s only a starting point to a much longer journey, and there is much more work to be done.
And so, in a year where the IWD theme is #ChooseToChallenge, here is my challenge to anyone who may be reading this: