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International Women’s Day and male allyship: an opportunity for school leaders and policy makers

Updated: Mar 19, 2022

Social movements throughout history have taught us that it is not enough to simply align ourselves with progessive calls for change - we must actively champion them. In the same way today, it is not enough to be non-sexist, we must be actively anti-sexist. But how can we share this message most effectively with young people?

With International Women’s Day (IWD) just behind us, it is vital that school leaders seize the opportunity to open up the conversation around gender equality in a meaningful and non-tokenistic way. Work in classrooms around the country on 8 March must lead to long-term discussions about how to promote equality.

At the boys’ school where I teach, our work for IWD this year focused on the power of male allies and lessons learned which might be useful to other school leaders going forward. Here are the five key areas which we have found vital to address when working with young men on allyship:

  1. Why does International Women’s Day matter and what is its relevance to young men?

Discussions around gender equality rightfully focus on the situation of women and girls. However, to make meaningful progress, men and boys must be positively engaged in the debate. In turn, this will help to further the equality agenda for women and girls. This is what must guide the education profession moving forward, as we consider how male allies can make a positive impact in speeding up progress on the equality front.

So why celebrate International Women’s Day at all? Last year, students at my school drew inspiration from the @OnThisDayShe project and examined the exclusion of women from recorded history and the challenges faced by women in society throughout the ages..

Many students felt sure that these kinds of issues were relegated to the past. While it is key for teachers to present students with facts that depict the true landscape of gender inequality in society today, we must also recognise that it is a sensitive topic . These facts must be presented with clarity and students need to feel safe and respected - this will allow them to open up and consider different perspectives.

1. Striking the balance: commitment to gender equality while also ensuring that young men don’t feel alienated

It is important to make clear to students that we know that they did not invent the culture of gender inequality in which they find themselves. However, they did inherit it. As bright, educated young people who will one day grow up to lead organisations including companies, teams and schools , we want to help them recognise the importance of gender equality and feel empowered to help to further it.

2. Feminism: addressing the elephant in the room

As teachers, we hope that our pupils will become lifelong learners. To help them with this, we teach them to be critical thinkers, to assess situations and to judge right from wrong. In the context of discussions on gender equality, it is imperative that we introduce the term ‘feminism’ and explain how it links to our school communities.

Unspoken, ‘feminism’ remains the elephant in the room. Every student who has heard the term will have an opinion on what it means. It is likely that the majority will have watched at least one TikTok video which mentions it. In my school, our assembly for International Women’s Day explored ideas on what feminism means shared by our teachers, who were both male and female and represented a range of backgrounds, positions and responsibilities within the school. We found this was a good way to bring the subject to life and challenge assumptions around who feminism is for and what it means.

3. It is not a zero-sum game: looking at the impact of gender inequality and patriarchy on male mental health

Listening to our students, it has been helpful to understand their perceptions of what feminism means for men and boys. Meeting them at this level has shown us that students need the opportunity to explore how gender inequalities affect men as well as women.

Many young men are shaped by the pejorative gendered messaging that they frequently hear growing up, including negative phrases like “You throw like a girl!” or “Don’t let yourself get beaten by a girl!”. Our pastoral lessons this year have looked at how to #BreakTheBias by examining stereotypes about women in sport and how these affect both women and men. Many students are now familiar with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’. At our school, this has opened up productive and meaningful discussions on how gender equality benefits everyone.

Students learned how achieving gender equality is not a zero-sum game. Women gaining more rights, freedoms and professional leadership positions is not about taking those away from men - it is about redressing the balance. This lesson provided the perfect opportunity to open up the discussion about diversity more widely and how those in positions of power and leadership should represent society as a whole.

4. A Call to Action

As a society, we have started to redefine masculinity in a way that is more accepting and less about rigid stereotypes. But there is still a long way to go – and if we are to truly achieve gender equality, men can help to speed up the process.

This is where school leaders have a real opportunity to lead a call to action. At our school, it felt important to focus on positive progress and to look towards the future. The message we left our students with this International Women’s Day was coined by the White Ribbon Campaign: #allmencan. Of course, not all men are sexist. But all men can help to end sexism. And our students can too.

Education professionals must encourage all students to call out sexism and inequality when we see it - we too must question the status quo and be allies in whichever way we can.

The fight for gender equality will be won much faster with the help of male allies. As trite as it sounds, the future is in the hands of our students. We must empower them to use their agency and privilege to be allies.

Schools should view International Women’s Day as a springboard and look for meaningful ways to continue the conversation throughout the academic year, not just annually on 8 March.

On a policy level, the Labour Party must advocate for sustainable and meaningful work on gender equality within education. We need to pave the way and show that positively engaging young men on this issue will help to further the equality agenda for women. The whole process of engaging young men as allies must be done in a positive and proactive fashion.

Katharine Roddy is a secondary school teacher. A UK delegate to the 2021 and 2022 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, she is actively engaged in furthering the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda in education. A member of Cohort 10 of the Fabian Women’s Mentoring Programme, she has written for Tes magazine on gender equality. She holds a BA (Hons) in French and German from Oxford University, and is also the founder and coordinator of the Stockport Type 1 Diabetes Support Network. She tweets @KJ_Roddy.

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