Teaching individuals gender equality and respect

Dan O’Hare is a Chartered Educational Psychologist working for an English Local Authority and as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol. He currently volunteers with TIGER, a Bristol-based cooperative, mostly delivering workshops in schools.

In my experience as an Educational Psychologist (EP) in the South West of England, you don’t have to look too far to discover the gendered nature of a school. Pupils still walk ‘boy-girl, boy-girl’, teachers deliver instructions to groups of children based on their assumed gender – ‘Can all the boys stand up’. In meetings I’ve heard ‘Boys will be boys’ or ‘She’s a typical little girl’, as if such descriptions provide a definitive answer to why a young person might be behaving in any particular way. Curriculums are often restricted based on gender, perhaps most notably PE curriculums. If you’re pursuing vocational studies? Then expect a careers focus on carpentry, mechanics, beauty and health, and childcare… no guessing what is aimed at who!

Having also worked as a youth worker with a LGBTQ+ youth group before training to be an EP, I was acutely aware of the range of negative impacts that gender norms, stereotypes and gendered violence can have on children and young people who may not identify with the standard ‘boy-girl’ binary.

At the time of joining TIGER, many schools I worked with through my EP role seemed unaware of how pervasive and insidious assumptions and norms about gender were within classrooms, playgrounds and indeed curriculum materials. As an EP, schools often want you to ‘solve a problem’ they have, and a significant proportion of time in schools can be spent on individual casework. There is often little time available to support schools on a journey of enhancing their understanding of gender equality and respect.

Yet, the need to think about issues of gender equality is evident in figures from a range of sources (incuding the Girls’ Atittude Surveys from Girlguiding, the Department for Education, and Samaritans). 81 per cent of girls aged 11-21 say they have experienced or seen some form of sexism. 70 per cent of girls have reported experiences of sexual harassment at school or college. 87 per cent thought they were judged more for their looks than their ability or skills. As for boys, they make up 78 per cent of permanent exclusions from schools, and men are over three times as likely to take their own lives as women.  

TIGER’s view is that by talking about gender, sexism, discrimination and mutual respect from a young age, we might contribute in a small way to changing these figures.

Conscious incompetence
On joining the coop, I experienced a sense of anxiety about what I might be able to bring to the group; a sense of conscious incompetence. Here were highly passionate, incredibly knowledgeable activists and educators who could identify a gendered assumption in a sentence quicker than you can say ‘blue or pink?’ I was also explicitly aware of my status as a cis white guy, and all the privilege that has brought me throughout my life – a lot of it probably hidden to me.

The group had already established relationships with a number of schools in Bristol and delivered workshops on topics such as ‘Gender in the media’, ‘Sexist Bullying’ and ‘Porn and consent’. Underpinning all of these workshops is the aim of challenging and critiquing general and ‘common sense’ narratives about gender; challenging structures, rather than reproducing them. It was the first time I had worked with a cooperative. This organisational structure represents TIGER’s ‘values in action’, with a focus on power dynamics, critical dialogue, democratic working, and reflexivity. That’s a way of working that is appealing and familiar to many EPs.

Expertise in schools systems
After a short time volunteering with TIGER it was clear that an EP’s substantial level of expertise regarding school systems would be a useful addition to the existing skill set. This represented the first significant contribution I was able to make to the group – sharing my knowledge and understanding of current legislation, policy and guidance on areas such as The Equalities Act, The Children and Families Bill, The SEND Code of Practice, The Human Rights Act, The National Curriculum and Ofsted Inspection Frameworks. Further, we were able to begin to consider the best ‘point of entry’ for TIGER in schools.

In the early stages of TIGER’s work, most connections with schools were established via a particularly keen and interested member of staff. While this ensured a friendly welcome, it often meant very little ‘buy-in’ from senior members of school staff and little access to funding. EP understanding of school roles and responsibilities was a valuable contribution to TIGER as we discussed the various priorities that Special Educational Needs Coordinators or Pastoral Leads might have. We were also able to critically consider how the work of TIGER fits with the wider agenda of promoting children’s wellbeing.

Reactive approaches to children who experience mental health difficulties receive a lot of attention, and there is less focus on work that can be done to actively promote wellbeing – this is where we decided TIGER has something key to offer. We have long argued that we must challenge the societal and structural inequalities shown to lead to mental health difficulties. Framing TIGER’s work as an approach schools can adopt to promote wellbeing was therefore an exciting opportunity.

Using theory to enhance and simplify
Schools are complex environments with complex issues. Teachers don’t have a lot of time. So the second substantial contribution I was able to make was to support my colleagues in developing a structured, simplified offer to schools, grounded in Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems. This theory identifies a number of interactional systems that influence how an individual grows and develops e.g. from home and school environments (microsystems) through to political or economic systems (macrosystems). It was clear that TIGER’s work had much to contribute not only at the level of individual children but also at the level of whole school or whole local authority. Organising the complex work of TIGER along these system-level ‘categories’ provided a clear structure for the activities that we carry out and helped to shape our understanding of what we were doing, why, and for who. The microsystem level could include training and awareness raising for teaching staff and sports coaches, alongside parent workshops. The ‘individual child’ level saw workshops for young people, a Gender Equality Ambassador scheme, and participatory and inclusive work, by young people, often influencing TIGER policy.

The introduction of a theoretical framework to help structure the work of the cooperative supported our thinking about other local and national priorities and initiatives. This has led to a current focus on self-image, resilience, children’s wellbeing, empowerment and autonomy. Although broad topics, they are distinctly psychological. TIGER’s work focuses specifically on how gender interacts with, intersects or impacts on all of these issues for young people.  

Problem-solving together
Key to the effectiveness of my work with TIGER has been the application of consultation skills. It’s a ‘joint-problem solving’ approach where neither the ‘consultee’ or the ‘consultant’ have power over the other; the expertise of all involved is pooled to determine an appropriate course of action in a ‘problem situation’.

Many of the members of TIGER are incredibly passionate about the work that we do and I noticed early on that new ideas or plans were being generated at a rate faster than existing practices were honed and refined. I think it’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that ‘solutions’ to different school or society-wide issues were being developed so rapidly is because many of the cooperative members see the work of TIGER as professional, but also personal and political. This means that there is never a lack of motivation or energy, but early on there wasn’t always a clear idea as to what problem the latest solution was solving.

The process of problem identification has been a key role for me throughout my time at TIGER. Using discursive strategies such as empathy, deep listening, questioning, wondering, challenging, focusing and summarising (Nolan & Moreland, 2014) has supported TIGER members to develop new insights about their work. By slowing down and developing a shared understanding of the problem at hand and a shared language with which to discuss the ‘problem’, our work has become more focused and perhaps more relevant for schools.  

Looking ahead
And so what next? Over the past two years my work with TIGER has become increasingly ‘indirect’ – working primarily with those staff who dedicate the majority of their time to the cooperative. Working in this way with the people most concerned with change is familiar ground for an EP, and it was a shift prompted by the needs and suggestions of other cooperative members. They were clear that they valued the ‘objectivity’ of someone who is not involved in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day TIGER work. Several coop members commented that the working relationship has allowed them to spot unhelpful patterns in their work with schools and indeed within the cooperative, meaning that steps could be taken to improve what we do.

As policy, legislation and attitudes around gender shift, TIGER will need to be increasingly flexible and adaptive to meet the needs of children, young people, and teachers. Two important factors that seem guaranteed to influence the work of TIGER are the new Sex and Relationships curriculum, and the shift in thinking away from the dominant ‘within-person’ understanding of children’s mental health and wellbeing. These contextual changes are already being considered by TIGER and have prompted discussions about whether our vision, as it stands, is still relevant, and whether we have clear aims for the future.

Returning to the ‘E-word’ (eek!), us educational psychologists have expertise in organisational change management. Morgan (2016) demonstrated that we can support change within organisations by using particular tools to develop a sense of ownership, control and a commitment to action. One of these tools is the Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope (PATH) process (Pearpoint et al., 1995) – a team approach that supports people to identify and begin to plan their way towards a preferred future. Introducing this process to TIGER, to act as a starting point for our next stage of change, is what I hope to contribute in the short term. PATH is an open, democratic, transparent, messy and dynamic process and so would seem pretty fitting for an innovative, not-for-profit cooperative that aims to create sustainable and sustained change in school systems and cultures.

So is it having an effect? Is TIGER promoting gender equality and respect? It seems like it. Students, parents and teachers alike have reported that TIGER’s work has opened up the possibility for sensitive conversations about difficult topics that might not have otherwise been addressed at school. It’s this opportunity for dialogue which seems to be most valued. In the current climate, an opportunity to understand others’ beliefs, values and opinions from a position of mutual respect is and can only be a positive thing.

- Dr Dan O’Hare is an educational psychologist and DECP Committee Member @edpsydan

[email protected]

Key sources

Tiger: http://www.tigerbristol.co.uk/
Dr Dan O’Hare: https://edpsy.org.uk/

Note: This article is part of a special collection.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: experiments by nature and design. London: Harvard University Press.

Department for Education (DfE). (2018). Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England: 2016 to 2017 National Tables. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa...

Girlguiding. (2013). Girls Attitude Survey 2013: What girls say about equality for girls. Retrieved from https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-...

Girlguiding (2015). Girls’ Attitude Survey 2015. Retrieved from https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-...

Morgan, G. (2016). Organisational change: a solution focused approach. Educational Psychology in Practice, 32 (2), 133-144.

Nolan, A., & Moreland, N. (2014). The process of psychological consultation. Educational Psychology in Practice, 30 (1), 63–77.

Pearpoint, J., O’Brien, J., & Forest, M. (1995). PATH: A workbook for planning positive possible futures. Toronto: Inclusion Press.

Samaritans. (2018). Suicide statistics report: latest statistics for the UK and Republic of Ireland. Surrey: C. Simms & E. Scowcroft. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber