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date: 24 March 2018

Gender, Girls, and Schooling

Summary and Keywords

The schooling of girls has, across different times and places, often been a matter of heated public debate. From the 1800s to the present, contentious issues such as the purpose of girls’ education, curriculum content, and the meanings given to girls’ bodies within educational sites have led to varying discussions, opinions, and policies. At the center of these debates are the questions of how gender is understood; how it is used in a given place and time in the division of labor, the economy, and the family; and how it is assumed that young girls and women should be instructed for eventually taking up the positions deemed appropriate for their time and place. It is impossible, however, to simply talk about girls’ schooling as if this refers to a singular group of people. Differences in class, race, ethnicity, region, citizenship, sexuality, and other characteristics shape both the contours of the debate and the experience of schooling. Thus, any discussion of the issue of gender, girls, and schooling needs to take an intersectional approach—one that takes into consideration the ways in which identity categories work together within and across differences to produce experience, identity, and meaning.

Currently, the question of girls’ education finds its strongest articulation in relation to the Global South. International organizations and major corporations alike have used their platforms to advance the cause of educating girls in the interests of national and global development. This has proved to have consequences that do not always take into account the complexity of girls’ lives in their local contexts. Issues of gendered inequalities in the Global North are sometimes mistakenly assumed to have been resolved, things of the past. However, girls in schools continue to face issues such as sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and discrimination. As a result, their issues are often misunderstood or marginalized within school communities.

Keywords: girls, gender, equality, feminism, schooling, hidden curriculum, mean girls, millennial goals, girl effect


Gender equality in education is on the global public agenda in ways that are unpreceded in any other time in history. Currently, the name most closely associated with this cause is that of Malala Yousafzai, a young woman from the Swat Valley of Pakistan. In October 2012, at the age of 14, she was shot by a Taliban gunman on a school bus in a failed effort to silence her activism on the issue of girls’ rights to an education. While she was well known locally prior to the shooting due to her protests over the Taliban’s attempts to ban girls from attending school, the attempt on her life catapulted her and the global cause of girls’ education onto the international stage. After a long recovery from her injuries, Yousafzai has continued to advocate on behalf of all young people’s right to education, becoming in 2014 the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

While Malala Yousafzai has become the face of an international movement for girls’ education in the Global South, the widespread interest in her impressive accomplishments was preceded by a series of initiatives that began in the 1990s by organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO, major corporations such as Nike, and small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs (David, 2016; Unterhalter, 2007). Equality in education, including for gender, were also central to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations (UN) in 2000. Although these goals were supposed to be met by 2015, according to UNESCO’s 2012 World Atlas, they remained unrealized. Despite this failure, the atlas outlined in broad strokes that over the last four decades, there has been enormous growth in educational opportunities and literacy levels throughout the world. The gains were particularly striking among girls in terms of access, retention, and progression from primary to secondary levels and beyond. The maps and tables in the atlas showed the development of gender parity at all levels of education—preprimary, primary, secondary, and tertiary—and revealed that these developments are shaped by factors such as national wealth, geographic location, and field of study (David, 2016).

On one level, the relatively recent global interest in girls’ education is celebrated by feminists, who have long been organizing and demanding international recognition for the educational rights of girls. On another level, though, as Elaine Unterhalter suggests, the newfound interest in girls’ education by the constellation of organizations that includes the World Bank and major corporations raises some challenging questions: “What purpose is being signaled in visionary statements which highlight the need for heightened international concern with the education of girls? What notions of citizenship do they utilize?” (Unterhalter, 2007, p. 87).

A partial answer to these questions lies in an influential 1995 World Bank document entitled Priorities and Strategies for Education. In it, the foundation was laid for many programs, policies, and projects that followed, which envision education as a means of increasing productivity, reducing fertility, and becoming better future mothers. The concept of the girl effect (also the name of a campaign by the Nike Foundation and United Nations Foundation) positions girls as the untapped resource of the developing world, who, with the right investment, will ultimately lift their communities out of poverty. These powerful discourses promoted girls’ education as a potential boost to the global economy (Spivak, 2002; Walters, 2016).

Girls’ education is thus closely tied to economic development and creating pathways for the success of globalization. The concern for feminists is that girls and their education are seen solely in these terms. Other features of the promise of education and the potential of girls’ lives, such as human rights, personal autonomy and fulfillment, the love of learning, identity exploration, creating an informed and engaged citizenry, preparedness for participating in public life, and supporting knowledge production and creating knowledge producers, are all ignored. As Switzer, Bent, and Endsley (2016, p. 38) argue, the problem with the way that programs and policies engage in the “girl effect” discourse is that not only are the multifaceted possibilities of education erased, but also girls’ lives are reduced to human capital indicators of development. The complexities of girls’ lives, ambitions, and challenges are flattened into merely their economic potential, in the interests of global capitalism. Furthermore, in these programs and policies, understandings of gender are essentialized into a binary between girls and boys, disregarding the intersectionalities of other social locations such as race, sexuality, ethnicity, and ability. The social construction and nuances of gendered and sexual difference are not analyzed, and there is only a limited discussion of cultural and social differences in definitions of gender and sexuality (David, 2016, p. 51).

The effects of these limitations are that this education policy promotion often fails to take into account and address the intricacies of the relationships between education and gender relations. Specifically, as feminist researchers have discussed, it is important to recognize that there may be “gendered relations of power in cultural, economic, and political domains that are not easily rectified through schooling” (DeJaeghere & Varvus, 2011, p. viii). While schooling clearly creates more options for girls, attending school also may entail danger and vulnerability in some contexts.

While the “girl effect” discourse ties girls’ education to a straightforward route to economic development, researchers have shown that changing gendered social relations by schooling girls is not guaranteed. For example, Switzer et al. (2016, p. 45) use Switzer’s research with the Maasi people of Kenya to show that schoolgirls face an “empowerment paradox,” in which education is presented to them as the surest path to legible personhood and the purported “power” of visibility, yet attending school also creates new versions of persistent vulnerabilities that expose them to gender discrimination and violence precisely because of their status as schoolgirls. The researchers argue that schoolgirls growing up in poverty may become sexual targets because they often need the money or material goods that their “boyfriends” offer to secure their access to education. As such, the “dis/empowerment” that they feel as potential and actual victims of violence threatens the access to agency that schooling promises but may not be able to deliver. This contradiction, they suggest, challenges the “girl effect” logic that schools are inherently safe spaces that protect schoolgirls from gendered abuse and violence (2016, p. 46).

Research in the South African context provides corroborating evidence for this notion (Bhana, 2010; de Lange & Mitchell, 2014). Many forms of violence, especially gender-based violence, in South Africa are pervasive in and around schools, particularly in rural areas, and must be understood as the legacy of colonization and the former apartheid regime. This includes physical and sexual assault, rape, and harassment perpetrated by male classmates and teachers. As de Lange and Mitchell (2014) state, from the 2001 Human Rights Watch report “Scared at School”: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African School Report to the more recent “School-Based Violence Report: An Overview of School-based Violence in South Africa and School Violence in South Africa: Results of the 2012 National School Violence Study (Burton & Leoschut, 2013), the magnitude of gender-based violence in South African schools has been well documented.

Thus, the “girl effect” discourse and the policies and programs that it engenders are limited by their promotion of a specific kind of empowerment, defined within a neoliberal globalization in which girls’ human rights take a back seat to their economic potentiality, and in which the value of education itself is understood in only very limited ways. Moreover, the on-the-ground school conditions in local contexts and ongoing gendered inequalities remain unaddressed by this discourse.

In order to further understand the limits of this perspective on education and its relationship to girls and girlhood, I turn now to the historical development of this relationship in Western contexts. It is, of course, beyond the scope of this one article to address all the historical periods, national and geographic contexts, diverse communities within nations, and issues researched within the rapidly growing field of gender and education. What I have tried to do here is provide a sampling of histories, regions, communities, and issues that touch on some of the central issues in the field.

Historical Perspectives on Girls, Gender, and Schooling

Women and girls have fought a long and difficult campaign to gain access to education. Working against them was a recurrent theme, noticeable in both 19th- and 20th-century discourses on women’s education, that the workings of the female mind were in conflict with the workings of the female body. Academic work was seen as sapping girls’ energy from their reproductive organs and thus endangering their so-called natural destiny as wives and mothers (Delamont & Duffin, 1978). Class differences were also significant in how 19th-century girls’ education was conceived. While the main purpose of female education was thought to be for motherhood and domesticity, there were class dimensions. In Britain, education was framed according to the skills, knowledge, and accomplishments thought necessary for adult life. For middle- and upper-class Victorian girls, household management were skills needed for the “lady” of the house, as well as learning “accomplishments” (piano-playing, etiquette) to prepare them for the social settings of the drawing room and parlor. Working-class girls needed to know how to do household chores such as laundry, cooking, sewing, and cleaning (Weiner, 1994).

Throughout the 19th century, education and schooling were considered optional for girls, and Weiner suggests that two perspectives predominated. The first and most popular view was that women were different from (and inferior) to men, not only biologically but socially, intellectually, and psychologically. In this view, girls whose families opted to educate them needed to provide an education that was different from boys—one related specifically to their inferior roles in society. The second view (held by most feminists of the period) was that if girls and women were educated equally with boys and men, they would be able to take up positions in the public sphere as the social and intellectual equals of men (Weiner, 1994).

In the Canadian context, public education in the 1800s was coeducational from the start. However, that principle, according to historians, was not about equality as much as for financial reasons. To have enough attendance to field a public school, it was necessary to enroll as many students as possible (Gaskell, McLaren, & Novogrodsky, 1989). Furthermore, the principle of coeducation was often under threat. For example, in 1865 in the province of Ontario, the first and highly influential superintendent Egerton Ryerson saw the exclusion of girls as a necessary step in the development of that province’s education system. He proposed to stop admitting girls to grammar schools and to the study of Latin. The grammar-school inspector of the time, George Paxton Young, agreed and argued the case as follows: “There is a very considerable diversity between the mind of a girl and that of a boy; and it would be rash to conclude that, as a matter of course, the appliances which are best adapted for bringing the faculties of reflection and taste to their perfection in one must the best also in the case of the other . . . they (girls) are not studying Latin with any definite object. . . . There is a danger of grown up girls suffering as respects the formation of their moral character, from attending school with grown up boys” (Prentice & Houston, 1975, p. 31).

The history of young women’s admission to higher education and professional training was even more fraught than that of access to lower schooling. Universities everywhere were considered “a male sphere, a place of serious learning that fitted men for positions in the public world. Women’s entrance into the university was considered unnatural, both for the institution and for women. Higher education was considered at best irrelevant and more likely detrimental to women’s future roles as wives and mothers” (Marks & Gaffield, 1986, p. 14).

Change has come incrementally, after much organizing by feminists. Education and schooling have been the focus of feminist activism, politics, research, and journalism because feminists have understood schools as one of the sites that hold out hope for progressive change. However, as an institutional structure, education also has often been resistant to positive change. As a state-organized institution, education, like other forms of state policy, has been suffused with sexist, classist, racist, and colonial assumptions about the needs and potential of students, their families, and their communities. In an era of globalization, legitimated by neoliberal ideologies, new relationships between democracy, education, training, and girls’ lives are being forged (Arnot, 2002; Brine, 1999). Moreover, as Brine writes, we are in the midst of a major technological revolution in which the ubiquitous impact of new technology has been felt globally (1999, p. 10).

These impacts, as well as the effects of globalization, frame contemporary education provision and understanding of what education means in the lives of young people. For some girls, this has meant new opportunities to enter education, and thereafter the labor market is placed in a stronger position than ever before. For others, however, especially working-class, racialized, and disabled girls, these developments have led to further insecurity and marginalization (Gonick, 2003). Under neoliberalism, any failures are organized to fall not on the system that recreates inequalities of opportunity, but on the individuals who were never positioned to be “winners” in the system. As Stephen Ball (1994b) describes it, any policy failures, including education, are blamed on the specific individuals, who are then met with derision and pathologization. Beverley Skeggs (1997, p. 37) recounts her research with a group of working-class young women:

They had already been classified as academic failures when I met them. Along with unemployment this was experienced at an immediate intimate level. They blamed themselves for the lack of jobs and their lack of interest in schooling.

Looking at the history of the relationship between gender and education policies reveals the deep and abiding connections between education, the economy, and labor. However, as Weiner argues (1994, p. 48), in a democracy, education has never been concerned with only supplying the needs of the economy or ensuring effective socialization; it also has strong traditions of preparing for citizenship, extending possibilities for learning, rectifying inequalities, and promoting social progress. The histories, experiences, and challenges of girls’ rights to education vary depending on the national context, and notions of what constitutes an appropriate education for girls and for boys have differed over time and place.

Yet the idea of biological difference remains a fixture within education discourse, and it is currently seeing a resurgence. Feminist researchers question the usefulness and effectiveness of biological explanations. After undertaking a review of the literature concerning gender and achievement, Francis and Skelton (2005) conclude that classroom strategies based on notions of gendered learning styles and innate sex differences are not only lacking a basis in research, but also are shown to be ineffectual over a decade of application. They argue that the only explanation based on substantive research is the social constructionist thesis that young people’s gender constructions encourage them to adopt particular behaviors, some of which are less conducive to learning, or to identification with particular subject areas, than others. There is, of course, a historical basis for how these patterns of behavior and identifications have come to be organized. We can trace this history by examining the ways in which feminists working in education have sought to create change.

Feminist Organizing for Change

While feminists organizing in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on girls’ access to education, the second wave of feminism, beginning in the 1960s, brought a new surge of organizing around a series of concerns facing girls in school. It is important to underline that change was brought about due to a strong feminist social movement, as many of the successful changes are seen as inevitable today (Leonard, 2000, p. 181). In the U.S. context, the introduction and enactment of Title IX in 1972 created the legal infrastructure to end discriminatory practices in federally funded schools and on university campuses. Prior to its enactment, there were huge discrepancies in how scholarships and funding were allocated, with boys and men being systemically favored over women and girls. This was particularly egregious when it came to spending on athletic budgets, where male teams received the vast majority of funding, resources, and access to space. The legislation also applies to nonsporting activities, including all educational activities, school bands, and clubs, as well as the provision of health care in schools and on college campuses. It protects pregnant and parenting students from discrimination and ensures their rights to participation in any activity. And it also is supposed to create school environments that are free of sexual harassment and assault. In 2014 and 2016, Title IX was used to ensure protection from sex-based discrimination for transgender students. The guidelines, issued by the U.S. Department of Education, outline that public schools are mandated to treat transgender students in a manner consistent with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

Other initiatives took on school curricula. For example, a major effort was made to uncover and eliminate sexism and racism in children’s books and school texts. In the United States, this work started in the mid-1960s, and in the United Kingdom a decade later (Adler, 2000). The methods for detecting and revealing sexism were based on enumerating male and female characters and so-called male and female activities. The results—whether in picture books (Children’s Rights Workshop, 1976), science books (Walford, 1981), math books (Northam, 1982), dictionaries (Schram, 1979), or readers (Stones, 1981)—were basically the same: girls and women were underrepresented and misrepresented, and people of color were largely missing altogether. Almost all the images of girls and women were domestic, while male characters were shown in a far wider range of activities and locations (Lobban, 1977).

The concern was that since children’s early reading experiences in school have an impact on their sense of selves and their possible futures, these books showing girls and women in such limited roles (if at all) were tools for transmitting patriarchal ideologies that constrained women’s roles to the domestic sphere. Commenting on the lessons found in these texts about femininity and girls’ and women’s roles, Dixon (1977, p. 32) ironically asks, “Why, if it’s ‘natural’ for girls to be like that, is so much time and effort spent on forcing them? What’s natural doesn’t have to be taught, surely?” For other researchers, rectifying the numbers of images and kinds of representations of women and girls does not go far enough. Valerie Walkerdine (1984) points out that the assumption that widening and “correcting” texts will change stereotyped thinking assumes a rationalist reader and does not sufficiently deal with desire and the psychic relations created between texts and their readers. Davies (1994), study that involved reading feminist picture books to Australian preschoolers, illustrates just how early the desire and expectation of particular storylines are taken up by young children. Despite decidedly feminist stories of princesses who do not end up marrying princes, the children read this familiar ending into the stories that are being read to them. Moreover, they resist the storyline that renders the princess rather than the prince as the hero of the story.

In the 1980s, feminists also turned their attention to curriculum development, particularly around encouraging girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. For example, the Girls into Science and Technology Project was an action research project in the United Kingdom that tried to create opportunities for girls to study in areas that had always been classed as “male” subjects. As Kelly (1985, p. 139) writes, the main obstacles encountered by the project was of trying to work with the largely male teachers, who were not sympathetic with the goals of the project:

The main drawback . . . was that, by and large, the teachers did not see girls’ under-representation as a problem. Nor were they willing to re-examine their own values. Most teachers readily agreed that equality was important, but thought that it already existed, and that any residual differences between girls and boys were genetic. Since they did not accept that there was any sex-stereotyping in their classrooms, many teachers did not see the problem as theirs, and did not feel motivated to search for solutions.

It is clear that educational access and changes to the curriculum are only partial solutions for creating change. However, if educational change is slow, then change aimed at attitudes tends to be even slower. Sociologists of education use the idea of the “hidden curriculum” to convey the concept that there are social messages that are often transmitted in schools but most definitely are not part of the formal curriculum. These are often subtle, covert, and somewhat intangible processes that at times may work against the official social and policy ideals of equity. Throughout the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, it was the main paradigm for the sociology of gender and education. The research, often small-scale, empirical, qualitative, and observation-based, produced work sensitive to nuance and group dynamics between teachers and students, as well as between students. It was able to show how far practice and behavior diverged from the rhetoric of equal opportunity, and identified how pervasive gender bullying and sexual harassment are in schools and colleges.

The American Association of University Women’s 1992 report How Schools Short Change Girls and David and Myra Sadker’s 1994 book Failing at Fairness: How American’s Schools Cheat Girls were both extremely influential in drawing attention to the ongoing disadvantages that girls faced in schools. Texts written for a popular readership, such as the best-selling School Girls (1994) by Peggy Orenstein and Reviving Ophelia (1994) by Mary Pipher, focused on the psychological damage and educational neglect facing girls in U.S. schools. Although these books have been critiqued for their seemingly exclusive focus on white, middle-class girls, they have played an important role in drawing public attention to the ongoing concerns about inequitable gendered practices in education.

The Sadkers’ book, for example, drew on 20 years of research to show the hidden curriculum at work. Using classroom observations, they showed that teachers were more likely to call on boys than on girls, and thus girls took up less public speaking time; that when girls did speak, they were encouraged to speak quietly; that girls did not get the same kind of support as boys in areas such as math and science; girls got fewer and lower-quality comments from teachers; and girls were expected to defer to boys and to cede access to classroom computers. Computers, while ubiquitous today, were novel at the time. The Sadkers recognized that while teachers and school administrators were often unaware of how they were contributing to reproducing gendered inequalities, the effect was nonetheless damaging to girls’ sense of self, their test results, and their professional orientation. The hidden curriculum was contributing to an environment that created disadvantages for girls’ education and futures.

The notion of the hidden curriculum also contains an element of social class. An abundance of research shows that the school curriculum is organized around middle-class values and norms, creating a disjuncture between school and family life for working-class students. Within schools, the unspoken expectation is that normative femininities are middle class, creating a difficult terrain for working-class girls to negotiate. Walkerdine, Lucy, and Melody (2001) caution that for working-class girls, achieving in school may involve some complex negotiations over learning the rules of the hidden curriculum and mediating between the expectations of home and school. This may take the form of outright resistance or more subtle forms of rebellion. For some girls (such as those living as wards of the state), the interrelationship between home and school is even more fractured, which will clearly have an impact on schooling. According to Emma Renold, along with the usual challenges of schooling, these girls bring an affective economy of loss, difference, and fragmentation (2010, p. 84).

What this research demonstrates is the endurance and persistence of inequality and the need for both macro- and micro-approaches to creating and supporting change.

Girls’ Success in Education

Recently, reports show that although girls remain disadvantaged in terms of access to education in many countries and regions, they tend to persist and perform at higher rates than boys once they do make it into the education system (UNESCO, 2012, p. 9). A new gender gap is said to exist in Western schooling contexts—one that favors girls. Girls are outdoing boys on test scores, are achieving in traditionally “male” curriculum areas such as technical subjects, and are more likely to enroll in university programs (Arnot, David, & Weiner, 1999; David, 2016). However, these achievements have not necessarily translated into economic and social improvements in employment, access to the highest echelons of political or social life, or equal pay, among other issues (Kenway, Willis, Blackmore, & Rennie, 1998). Moreover, there is also a need for a more nuanced accounting, not only of which girls are succeeding and which boys are struggling, but also the wider political context in which this is happening. Jessica Ringrose (2006) suggests that this is “a new seductive narrative” of girls’ educational success, premised on two overlapping discourses: “What about the boys?” and “girl power.” While the former claims that feminist interventions to level the playing field in school have feminized the education system, wreaking havoc on boys’ ability to do well, the latter claims that girls now have the power to do, be, and have anything they want.

Both of these discourses, feminist researchers argue, are faulty. The first creates a zero sum game where girls’ success can happen only at boys’ expense (Weaver-Hightower, 2003). The “What about the boys?” question assumes that girls do not warrant further educational concern. It does not take into account the diversity among girls, the diversity among boys, their educational achievements, experiences, and needs, and also has extended beyond unawareness into actual projecting blame on girls and feminists for boys’ apparent underperformance (Francis & Skelton, 2005). Francis (2010) noted that in the United Kingdom, girls are almost entirely absent from media and policy debates, except where they are depicted as the beneficiaries of apparent feminization of schooling and of equal opportunities policies that are assumed to have favored them at boys’ expense.

In their Canadian-based study, Pomerantz and Raby (2011, p. 550) found that girls who succeed in school are assumed to achieve without struggle, with their rise to the top seen as straightforward and uncomplicated by inequity. There is also a significant amount of feminist research that questions the notion of feminization of schooling (Epstein, Ellwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998; Elwood, 2005; Francis & Skelton, 2005; Ivinson & Murphy, 2007) and demonstrates the ongoing issues of sexual difference and sexism that girls experience in the classroom, playground, and beyond (Francis, 2010; Renold, 2005; Ringrose, 2013).

Feminist research shows that the notion of girls’ achievement as universally better than that of boys does not bear out when the variables of social class, race, and ethnicity are factored in. When these complexities are included in the analysis, the results show that not all girls are achieving and not all boys are struggling. Moreover, as Francis (2010) suggests, the policy focus on boys’ achievement is further marginalizing these girls. As an example of how complex the picture is, we can turn to Farzana Shain’s (2010) research on Asian girls’ achievement in the United Kingdom. She found the reality to be quite varied, with statistics showing that Indian girls from more middle-class backgrounds outperform working-class Pakistani and Bangladeshi girls. Foster (2000) concurred, showing that in the United Kingdom, social class and race, along with gender, are important variables in considering achievement. In her study, African-Caribbean and Asian males from professional and intermediate economic backgrounds outperformed girls in their social class, whereas white girls from these economic backgrounds scored approximately an average of 2 points higher than boys. However, in looking at the achievement levels of working-class students, a different picture emerges. Here, Asian males have the highest average exam scores; next are white males; and last of all are black girls (Foster, 2000, p. 194).

Social Issues and Identity in Schools

Beyond academic performance, girls face enduring social and identity issues in their schools. Even girls who achieve the highest grades may experience success as illusive or troubling (Walkerdine et al., 2001); they are often viewed as possessing the “wrong sort of femininity” for success, being too sexy or not sexy enough; and they are either too loud or too silent, too working class, or hardworking rather than brilliant. Various feminist researchers have highlighted a specific tension for girls between academic and social success, given the powerful association of female academic attainment with asexuality. Walkerdine (1990) discussed how this discursive production draws on gendered binaries that locate rationality, reason, and mind as masculine, and irrationality, emotion, and body as feminine. She maintains that for girls to see themselves as and become academically successful, they had to identify with a (masculine) Other.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that various second wave feminist studies of schoolgirls in the 1980s found that to maintain their heterosexual attractiveness, girls played down their academic abilities (Gaskell, 1992). There is evidence from more contemporary work that constructions of girlhood have broadened somewhat and, at least for some girls, now incorporate more positive views of academic achievement than in the past. There are, however, continuing restraints that affect girls in different ways depending on their social locations and identities. The tension between academic success and heterosexual attractiveness for girls continues to play out, perhaps in varying ways. Shain (2010) demonstrated, for example, that dominant characterizations of Asian girls in the United Kingdom as quiet, passive, and demure resonate to some extent with idealized and desexualized middle-class femininity. However, she argued, Asian girls are still often seen as Other in terms of academic success because of the assumption that cultural constraints prevent them from fully realizing their academic potential. Asian family life is also often associated with strong educational values, encouraging hard work and studiousness. Yet when Asian girls do not succeed, it is this same tight discipline that is cited, viewing pathology frameworks as placing a burden on girls to conform to family pressures surrounding such traditions as arranged marriages.

For some high-achieving girls, an investment in an aesthetic performance of hyperfemininity is one strategy used to maintain their feminine identities. As Angela McRobbie (2009) argued, there has been an intensification of focus on the feminine body, such that no aspect of physical appearance can be left unattended to. Manicures, pedicures, teeth whitening, cosmetic fillers for lips, and fixes for facial lines and wrinkles have become norms of feminine grooming, along with a toned, fit body. McRobbie argued that the successful young woman must now employ this hyperfemininity as a permit for entering domains previously dominated by boys and men, as it is only by these tactics that she is assured of remaining sexually desirable (2009, p. 67).

Within schools, this requirement has led to conflictual relationships among girls, where they sexually regulate and shame one another (Tolman, 2002; Lamb, 2002). The practice of “slut shaming,” a recently popularized phenomenon, can be understood, at least partially, as a way in which girls regulate each other’s sexual reputations. Labelling someone as a “slut” often has little to do with her actual sexual activity; rather, it is a way of regulating the very narrow tightrope between the requirement for girls to be sexy, but not too sexy (Gonick, 2003). Often, this regulation takes place on online sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and then it spills over into school life. As Jessica Ringrose (2010) found in her study of British girls’ online identities, the intensified sexualization of the bodies of girls online has a direct relationship to their real-life experiences and relationships at school. Moreover, there is little in the curriculum, whether it be sex education or media literacy, that helps to guide young people through the gendered and sexualized meaning and power dynamics imbued in online representations of girls’ bodies.

Sexualized and Racialized Harassment in Schools

While girls’ sexual regulation of each other is clearly a serious matter, the sexual harassment of girls by boys in schools is an often overlooked phenomenon. The more generic term bullying often obscures the gendered and sexualized dynamics of peer-on-peer aggression and turns the conversation away from the experiences of girls and toward that of boys (Stein, 2007). This obstruction is also seen in policy. For example, during the 2005–2006 school year, the term sexual harassment was removed from the New York City Department of Education Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention Measures (Smith, Van Deven, & Huppuch, 2011). Smith and her collaborators’ research in a New York school focused on girls sharing their experiences at school, which included being propositioned in the hallway and in classrooms, having male students touching their bodies without permission, and people spreading rumors about their sexuality or sexual experiences. One girl who participated in the research said, “A guy came up behind me while I was bending down, imitating sex acts.” Another student, said that her “breast size is the topic of discussion on a daily basis.” Another said, “It is nearly impossible to learn or even go to school when you are forced to avoid peers because of your fear of getting slapped/grabbed on the butt and breast or someone screaming ‘suck my d***’ at you” (Smith et al., 2011, p. 72).

Research shows a lack of understanding about sexual harassment, its causes, and its effects. Kenway et al. 1998 found in Australian schools that sex-based harassment is very common, and that students, teachers, and the administration viewed harassment as a rite of passage for boys, signifying the belief that

[t]hose who harass are incapable of controlling their sexuality, either because it is a testosterone problem or because they are slow developers lacking in confidence, immature and therefore victims of maturation . . . the essentialist aggression-nurturance dualism within this discourse absolves many boys from responsibility for the aggression since “boys will be boys.” It also demands that girls take responsibility for dealing with and understanding that aggression since “girls should be girls”. (pp. 108–109)

Joanne Smith and her collaborators (2011) found a similar lack of understanding in their U.S.-based study. They encountered teachers who told them that it was girls’ fault they were being harassed by the boys, and if they didn’t want the boys to act like that, then they should stop taunting them by acting so aggressively. They said that “the teachers wrote off sexual harassment as the girls’ being the products of bad parenting, and the boys ‘just acting like boys’” (Smith et al., 2011, p. 62).

The “boys will be boys” excuse serves not only to minimize the effects of sexual harassment on girls, but also to give more regard to boys’ own understanding of events. Rahimi and Liston (2011) wrote that in their U.S.-based study, it was common among teachers to dismiss sexual harassment because the boy doing the harassing does not see it as harassment, implying that the boy’s perspective should be the indicator of whether the behavior should be accepted. Meanwhile, girls’ perceptions are often discredited or represented as mistaken. Other teachers in their study suggested that girls “let” sexual harassment happen, and that boys are not responsible for their actions.

For girls marginalized by racism, homophobia, or transphobia, experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence can be even more acute than for other girls, but they also can often be masked. The American Association of University Women Hostile Hallways 2001 report revealed that black girls self-reported more instances of harassment, such as “being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way, having their clothes pulled at, or being forced to kiss” (p. 34). The study suggests, however, that much of the sexual harassment of girls of color goes unreported and unresolved, often because it is viewed as warranted or expected. Similarly, girls of color are less likely to be perceived as victims of harassment because the hypersexualized image imposed on people of color serves to silence the discourse surrounding sexual violence, abuse, and harassment (Martinez, 1998; Rahimi & Liston, 2011). Racialized girls are also more likely to be subjected to verbal abuse, with terms such as “paki” and “black bitch” being routinely employed. For Muslim girls, there is even more abuse, with insults such as “terrorist” and “suicide bomber” (Shain, 2010). Despite official policies supporting equal opportunity, school relationships continue to be fraught with tension, such that regardless of their academic potential, black girls often experience school in ways that are more conflictual and less positive than their peers (Foster, 2000, p. 197).

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students, sexual harassment plays out in some particularly virulent ways, often including violence. In her study about the experiences of LGBTQ youth in schools, Wyss (2004) reported that whereas only 9% of youth who identify as heterosexual reported experiences of violence at school, 50% of LGBTQ-identified youth named harassment and violence as regular features of their life in school. Researchers suggest that often the harassment and bullying is about regulating nongender-conforming bodies. For example, a report by Human Rights Watch (2001) found that it is lesbians who identify as, or are perceived to be, “butch” who are punished the most for violating gender norms. Transsexual youth push the boundaries of gender nonconformity, which exposes them to more harassment and violence (GLSEN, 2009). Girls perceive this harassment not only as an invasion of privacy, but also as an implicit threat of sexual violence. Transsexual youth reported being explicitly threatened by “guys who wanted to have sex with me and [. . .] tried to force themselves on me” (Wyss, 2004, p. 717). Others reported being raped, sometimes more than once:

[The boys would] drag me into the bathroom and like humiliate me and try to find out what I was . . . I was totally like sexually assaulted by them . . . People talk about how they were harassed in high school. And what they mean is they got raped . . . . And it is bad to have things yelled at you because what that carries with is the threat of something happening to you that is worse, you know? And it is humiliating to get yelled at and looked and stared at and spit at. All of these things that happened to me at that school. (pp. 717–718)

Unfortunately, the necessary school responses to these issues are often lacking. Many teachers’ and other school staff’s misunderstandings of or refusal to recognize what sexualized and racialized harassment is, as well as its effects, leaves girls and transyouth to navigate this dangerous terrain by themselves. For example, one study showed that less than half of LGBTQ students who had been harassed or assaulted reported the incident to school staff (GLSEN, 2009). Without adequate support, the response of LGBTQ youth is often to skip school or drop out altogether. As a girl interviewed by Human Rights Watch (2001) said, “we know not to say anything . . . it’s like, unless you’ve been raped the administration doesn’t want to know about it. They’ll just say you’re lying” (p. 52).

Mean Girls

While stories of sexualized and racialized harassment are not usually given widespread attention, stories about bullying are central to contemporary narratives about schooling in Western countries. These stories circulate widely as the subjects of social media campaigns, television talk shows, documentaries, Hollywood blockbusters, and other traditional and online media. In recent times, a particular version of bullying has captured the imaginations of many—the “mean girl” phenomenon. These stories of girls’ meanness or relational aggression have become so ubiquitous as to be understood as part of what Ringrose and Renold (2010) have called “the normative cruelties” of girlhood (p. 573). However, feminist researchers have also produced compelling research problematizing how these stories represent girls, girlhood, and school experience.

The term relational aggression was coined by psychologists Nicki Crick and Jennifer Grotpeter (1995) to challenge the widely held notion that women, unlike men, were not aggressive. As conceived by Crick and Grotpeter (1995), relational aggression is a uniquely feminine form of aggression that uses relationships to hurt and psychologically injure peers and includes behaviors such as excluding a person from a peer group, spreading rumors, and posting derogatory messages on social media. This research claims that aggression is a site of difference between boys and girls: while boys are aggressive in physical, direct ways, girls are aggressive in indirect and relational ways. However, as Jessica Ringrose (2006) outlined, Crick’s later work expanded the scope of these claims, positing that in adolescence and adulthood, females actually may be more aggressive than males. This subsequent work positions male direct or physical aggression as normative and healthy and female indirect aggression as repressed and aberrant. Relational aggression was also linked in Crick’s work to antisocial behavior, a predictor of a girl’s future engagement in illegal activities. Originally oriented toward adolescent girls, the concept of relational aggression has expanded its reach to encompass both younger girls (Gonick, 2004) and adult women (Dellasega, 2005), taking the shape of an inherently female trait, often explained within an essentialized, biological, and even evolutionary framework.

From what began as a feminist-inspired challenge to male-biased science on aggression, Ringrose (2006, p. 411) argued that “we find a developmental literature on girls’ relational aggression that constitutes a near total objectification of the girl for whom gender-differentiated behavior is invented through scales that pathologize subjects via their approximation to relational aggression.” Many other feminist researchers have also critiqued the behavioral psychological approach to understanding bullying and the “mean girl” phenomenon (Bethune & Gonick, 2016; Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2008; Gonick, 2004) due to the ways in which it obscures the social contexts and power relationships within which bullying occurs.

Jessica Ringrose (2006, p. 407) noted that much of the “mean girl” literature works to mask how much of the concern and controversy over indirect and relational aggression is primarily about white, middle-class girls. She suggested that the universalization and normalization of girl meanness elides complex differences among girls and vastly different familial, community, and educational contexts under which femininity, aggression, and violence are constituted and regulated.

Bethune and Gonick (2016) linked this contradiction to the emergence of the “mean girl” phenomenon within a political, social, and educational climate that is increasingly characterized by neoliberal values and beliefs, with an emphasis on individualism, personal responsibility, and choice. Thus, the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts of girls’ lives are ignored, and the problem is confined to the private world of the individual girl, her parents, or her therapist (if any) for resolution. Interestingly, at the same time as choice and responsibility are mobilized as concepts for understanding mean girls, the phenomenon itself is explained using essentializing, biological notions that create a gender binary of male and female forms of aggression.

The “mean girl” literature uniformly represents girlhood as a time of crisis, with the greatest danger coming from girls’ own friends and girl culture. In doing so, it fails to acknowledge the much higher statistical proportion of girls who are subject to unwanted touching and sexualized bullying by boys, as outlined in the previous section. In the process, girls and girlhood are vilified, their expressions of aggression are rendered pathological, competition is espoused as the only affective register of friendship, and the relationship between girls and meanness is rendered the central concern for schools. Clearly, this perspective limits the way that girls and girlhood are conceived. A wider lens might allow alternative interpretations of the phenomenon. For example, in looking at the school experiences of girls under state care, Emma Renold (2010) showed how their aggressions (which she calls warrior femininities) are disavowed and out of place, both within the context of schooling and the embodiment of the normative girl-pupil/child. She suggests that rather than seeing these girls’ aggression as deviant or pathological, such conflict may be understood as a survival practice in a world of uncertainty and trauma.

A whole industry has been created around the “mean girl” phenomenon for parents, teachers, and schools (Bethune & Gonick, 2016). It has become the dominant way in which girls’ conflict and aggression are understood. However, it offers only a very simplified version of girls’ conflict and obfuscates the range of experiences of girlhood, girls’ relationships to schooling, and forms that aggression might take. The danger is that reducing the complexities of girls’ social relationships to one explanation does nothing to support girls in resolving their differences.


In a time when the goals of gender equity are sometimes assumed to have already been met in the West, it is clear that important work remains to be done. Progress has been made, but it is not linear. In other words, improvement in some areas, such as curriculum, textbooks, access to resources, and policy, does not mean that other areas have made the same kinds of progress or that new issues are not constantly arising. And it also does not mean that progress can never be reversed. For example, we have seen many instances where biological explanations of gender differences have been creeping back into education discourse. This is apparent in the discussion about “mean girls” as an inherent trait of femaleness rather than a learned behavior, as well as the discussion of gendered learning styles, which makes the unfounded assumption that learning is gender specific. Such an approach does not break down gender binaries or create more expansive opportunities for all students. Rather, a return to biological explanations reinforces strict and narrow understandings of gender, limiting how we might think about gender and its relationship to schooling.

As we have seen, new technologies and social media have produced new challenges for education, including blurring the boundaries between home and school. Students’ online interactions often spill over into and out of school-based relationships, so teachers, schools, and administrators cannot turn a blind eye to how these interactions may be creating the conditions for a hostile and unsafe school environment for some.

Girls’ education in the Global South is often erroneously seen as the one area where equity issues remain unresolved. As has been discussed in this article, feminists support this important work, but they also are raising questions about the ways in which girls in the Global South are often positioned in these projects. The studies are critiqued for their limited focus on global economic interests and the reduction of notions of citizenship to these interests. What is obscured is a notion of education as offering girls a route to exploration, expression, participation, and resistance in an increasingly connected world. These are goals and values of education that are no less relevant for girls living in the Global North.

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