Chapter 2


Gender Issues in the Australian Education System

by Jess Quinn and Sarah Rose


Why should girls be learn’d and wise?
Books only serve to spoil their eyes.
The studious eye but faintly twinkles
And reading paves the way to wrinkles.


John Trumbull, 1890s


 The history of gender equity in education has shown us that the education system and educational policies existed within a patriarchal system that privileged male education over female education. The development of Christianity throughout Europe led to the establishment of convent schools to educate women in reading and writing, but these were essentially established to ensure proper behaviour (i.e. sexual purity) in girls and young women. While some of these convents worked hard to educate women, by the 17th century these declined, due to the suspicion among men that educated women would be dangerous to the “stability of society” 1 . This sentiment continued throughout the eighteenth century, where Rousseau argued that intellectual pursuits were not suited to women’s weak temperaments. He further argued that “the patriarchal condition is a natural precondition for modern society, and is founded on a woman’s acceptance of her subservience to man. Sustained education for women is impractical, unwise and detrimental to social stability” 2.

            In the early nineteenth century, education was a means of success in both public and professional life for middle-class boys, who were educated ‘for the world’. Middle-class girls however, were educated ‘for the drawing-room’ and the education they received was social, rather than intellectual (Dryhouse, 1981, p 44).

            Throughout the 20th century feminists picked up the issue of gender inequity in education. Those who fought for equal education for girls did so through a discourse of social justice – that all girls and boys deserved equal access and participation within the education system. These notions of equal access and participation for all young people meant that governments were forced to adopt policies promoting gender equity in schools.


Since the 1970s there have been many national and state policies and reports related to the education of girls, such as:

•  Girls, School and Society (Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1975);

•  The National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools (Commonwealth Schools Commission, 1987);

•  The National Action Plan for the Education of Girls (Australian Education Council, 1993);

•  Boys: Getting it right; Report on the inquiry into the education of boys was released by the Federal Government in October 2002 (Commonwealth Standing Committee of Education and Training (2002). This report takes from guidelines introduced in 1997: Gender Equity: A Framework for Australian Schools (MCEETYA, 1997).

            There is concern among many educational experts regarding the shift from a more equitable discussion about boys and girls, to a focus on boys in education. Connell is concerned that the current argument will lead to a “competing victims syndrome and debate over which sex is treated worse in the classroom” (in Yallop, 2002). Connell states that “to the extent the current debate has been shifted back into a boys vs girls framework, it is damaging to education. Gender equity policy discussion has already moved beyond this dichotomous thinking, but it seems some commentators on the issue haven’t caught up…It doesn’t reflect what all educators want, which is a good education for both boys and girls” (Connell quoted in Yallop, 2002). The following will explore the current status of gender equity in education, and if the shift in focus to boys in education is warranted.


Retention rates across Australia in 2000 show that 78.5% of girls and 66.4% of boys make it to Year 12 3. While high achievers of both sexes are likely to have equal performance levels, average girls are more likely to outperform average boys. Girls are far ahead of boys in the area of literacy, and are going onto university in greater numbers4. Discipline issues, such as suspension and expulsion are more likely to involve boys than girls (Commonwealth Standing Committee of Education and Training, 2002). Overall, girls perform better than boys in schools, and this has been the case for one hundred years (Victorian Government Submission to the Federal Government Inquiry into the Education of Boys, 2002).

            It is important to note however, that gender cannot be looked at in isolation. If we were to take the above statistics and look at them not only in terms of gender but socio-economic status also, a slightly different picture emerges. Teese et al. (1995) note that the differences in gender “become sharper the more socially disadvantaged their parents…the real question is not whether girls as a group or boys as a group are more disadvantaged but which girls and which boys?” (Teese et al., 1995, p. 109).

            Looking at the above statistics, it is perhaps easy to understand the need to focus on boys in education. However, the fact that girls are more successful than boys at school does not mean that they are likely to be more successful in life. Teese et al. (1995) argues that “the fact that girls now use school more than boys does not signify that they gain more from their studies or are more successful. School completion is not in itself a measure of progress” (Teese et al., 1995, p. 3). If education is an entry point into the employment market, then it would seem that girls should be ahead of boys here as well. However, girls are less likely to achieve success in the employment market, despite increased success in education. The Victorian Government submission to the Federal Government Inquiry into Schools (2002) states that:

“If a comparison is made of the success experienced by boys and girls after leaving school, a very different picture emerges. Leaving school early has been found to be more detrimental to girls than it is to boys. The average weekly earnings of young males are higher than the average weekly earnings of young females. Many women remain in low-paid jobs with little or no prospect of advancement to the most senior positions, and women still only earn 66 per cent of the male wage”.  (Federal Government Inquiry into Schools, 2002)

            So why is it that girls are not translating their educational success into employment success? The Victorian Submission into the Federal Governments Inquiry into Education of Boys in Australian Schools looks at the breakdown of recipients of the Premiers Awards for 2000. Despite the fact that the winners included 139 girls and 96 boys, boys dominated the curriculum areas of Mathematics (10 winners all male), Economics (5 winners all male), Systems and Technology (5 winners - 4 male and 1 female), Literature (6 winners were 4 male and 2 female), Chemistry (6 winners - 4 male and 2 female), and Physics (5 winners - 3 male and 2 female). The submission also shows that girls dominated the subject areas of Dance, Drama, Contemporary Society, Music, Technological Design, and Texts and Traditions.

            Because of the narrow focus on boys in English, which has not taken into account their success and participation in other subject areas, Hayes argues that:

“it is rarely stated that girls continue to underparticipate in mathematics and the physical sciences, that boys continue to enjoy greater vocational security through the curriculum because of the increased participation in high stakes subjects or that boys participate in vocational education and training programs in greater numbers to girls.”            (Hayes, 2001).

            To understand why such gender segmentation occurs in the curriculum, it is necessary to look at a wider societal context of gender construction. Collins et al. (2000) highlight several explanations as to why this occurs. A common argument is that girls and boys are living up to the gendered expectations placed upon them in society through the choices they make in the curriculum. These expectations state that “girls make choices on the basis of interest and personal and social relevance while boys are more influenced by utilitarian considerations” (Collins et al., 2000, p. 85). Furthermore, girls are more likely to choose subjects out of perceived social or cultural relevance as well as enjoyment, whilst boys are more likely to choose subjects which will deliver ‘vocational dividends’ at the expense of other skills (Collins et al., 2000, p. 85).

            Tools of exclusion operate as a barrier to both boys and girls. The notions of masculinity and femininity place a subtle yet significant influence on the choices which young people make, and the ways in which they construct their lives. Gender stereotyping begins very early in life, and by the time children start school, they are very much separated by their differences. Boys and girls are learning very early on in life the behaviours and attributes that ‘belong’ to each gender, and are using these constructed ideals to create futures for themselves. The Australian Council for Educational Research and Ainley et al. (1998) have conducted research on the social development of young Australians (Collins et al., 2000). Research has found that already in Year 5, some boys have learned that “being concerned about others is not their sphere of duty” (Collins et al., 2000, p. 86). Additionally boys in Year 5 on average rate community well-being as much less important that girls. This gap between boys and girls widens by Year 10 (Collins et al., 2000).

            As teachers and role models, we have both the responsibility and the ability to challenge traditional notions of gender and encourage our students to move beyond these stereotypes, particularly in schools. Collins et al., argue that:

“education has the potential to challenge the identification of certain types of knowledge and work with any one particular social grouping. It also has the potential to encourage students to consider the full range of work possibilities without feeling or being constrained by their gender or other aspects of the background. The role of education must surely be strongly to encourage girls and boys to see themselves as agents in constructing their own futures. The message that ‘your gender, race and class do not control your destiny’ is absolutely central if they are to construct their futures differently’ (Collins et al., 2000, p. 86).

Much of what has been discussed within a gender equity framework has been to do with the socially constructed nature of gender. One issue that is a physical reality for many girls, is that of pregnancy. Whilst there is a hope that one day the education system will provide equal access and success for girls and boys, the issue of pregnancy will always exist. The following section focuses on how to address the disadvantages that pregnant and parenting girls are faced with in the education system, and how to provide special attention to redress this disadvantage.

Pregnant and Parenting

Most school-aged girls who decide to pursue a pregnancy rarely ever complete their secondary schooling. Littlejohn (1996, p. 13) believes that while pregnancy may not be given as the reason why many young girls leave school early, those who do often have concealed pregnancies. The consequences for young mothers who do not complete their schooling is that their future prospects become bleak due to limited education. The likelihood is that these young women will struggle to obtain employment and become reliant on government welfare and community housing. Furthermore, the consequence found by the Education Department of South Australia (cited in Littlejohn, 1996, p. 14) was that young mothers are likely to live in poverty for most of their adult lives. For this reason we have a responsibility as beginning teachers to help rectify the low retention rates of pregnant and parenting students and prevent the growth of an underclass of single mothers that have been excluded from our education system.

            What makes this explicit need to develop policies for pregnant and parenting female students even more concerning, is the astounding number of girls who face this situation. In Australia, thousands of female students become pregnant each year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms that for women aged 15 to 19 years the birth rate was 21 per 1000 females in 1999 (cited in Boulden, 2000, p. 9). Correspondingly, the Association of Women Educators (cited in Boulden, 2000 p. 7) claims that more than 12,000 women below the age of 19 years give birth each year. However, it is unknown how many of these girls are still at school when they become pregnant.

            In addition, there are many teenage pregnancies that do not result in a birth and it is impossible to know the actual number of school-aged females who become pregnant and experience a miscarriage, stillbirth, spontaneous abortion, or choose to terminate. Littlejohn (1996, p. 11) speculates from the Medicare data she collected that there are as many terminations as there are births each year. Therefore, it is likely that as many as 25,000 teenage women become pregnant each year in Australia.

            Thus, we must begin to look at the ways in which pregnant and parenting girls are excluded, and changes that need to be made to include them. The following suggests ways that beginning and student teachers can influence policy development, eg. retention policies to ensure that pregnant and parenting females complete their education; developing practices which are supportive of the needs of pregnant and parenting girls; and encouraging a change in attitudes towards pregnant and parenting female students. Firstly, however, we must consider policies that currently exist.

What are the current policies?

The Association of Women Educators (cited in Boulden, 2000) claims that Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the only state education systems without a policy associated with student pregnancy. Nevertheless, little comfort can be found in the knowledge that this leaves five states with retention policies, when it is the Northern Territory that has the highest birth rate to teenage women (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000). Above and beyond this, policies that do exist in the other states are ineffective to say the least!

            Victoria’s policy, for example, asserts that schools are encouraged to modify the curriculum if necessary and provide ongoing support either through internal or external services. While, Victoria’s policy does preserve the right for pregnant and parenting students to continue with their schooling, it is remarkably ambiguous in both the language used and the course of actions that are recommended. Words such as ‘encouraged to’ and ‘if necessary’ imply that schools may or may not need to employ inclusive policies. Also, the policy does not outline specific guidelines that describe how schools can change their syllabus and services to include or support pregnant girls.

            Likewise, anti-discrimination laws in Victoria ensure that educational organisations cannot discriminate against or harass a person on the grounds of pregnancy. However, anti-discrimination policies alone do not provide sufficient support and Victoria is yet to create a policy that actively supports continued education for pregnant and parenting girls. Removing barriers such as rigid timetabling; restrictions on uniforms; and addressing belittling attitudes, are active strategies a school should adopt to support pregnant and parenting students.

            Sadly, this is often not the case and this was all too obvious when a prestigious school in Melbourne confessed that they did not want to be associated with the stigma a pregnant teenager endures (recorded from telephone interview, 2002). Similarly, when the Australian Education Union (AEU) contacted a number of Education departments to discuss their policies regarding pregnant students, they found that:

“The AEU believes that Education departments and schools may be in breach of Anti-Discrimination legislation … in failing to action strategies to ensure retention and support of school age pregnant woman and parents.”  (AEU, 1999, p. 22).

            Essentially, the AEU recognises that many educational organisations are ignoring their duty to remove the barriers a young girl will face while trying to balance the act of pregnancy or motherhood, and/or their studies.

Why do many schools ignore the need for policies?

Orenstein (1994, p. 56) argues that educators and parents believe they are protecting young girls by exacerbating their vulnerability and by discouraging them to explore their sexuality, by instilling fear of victimisation, of pregnancy, of disease. While popular television shows, such as Sex in the City, encourage girls to explore their sexual desires, our education system fills girls with a sense of shame for expressing sexuality. Orenstein writes that we ‘consciously infuse’ girls with guilt for acting on their sexual urges by labelling them as ‘sluts’ if they do so. It is difficult for adults to allow girls to unleash their sexuality and so we ignore it, with the result that educators begin to assume that many girls are asexual: they do not participate in sexual activities. Once this perception of asexual girls is created, schools no longer see the relevance of developing policies associated with sexuality, including policies for pregnant and parenting young girls.

            The problem of educators and parents assuming that many girls are asexual is exacerbated because this has become an assumption based on differences in social class perceptions. Teese (1998) maintains that there is a huge gulf between the aspirations of high school and private school students, and between lower and middle classes’ students. However, there is also a wide range of assumptions that are attached to the students of each social class. Johanna Wyn (2000, p. 265) explores these class assumptions and relates them to notions of sexuality when she discuses the middle and upper class’ identity construction of ‘clever girls’. She believes that females from higher socio-economic groups are expected to excel in studies and pursue careers. Therefore, these girls are perceived to be ‘asexual’ to the extent that educators and parents ignore their sexuality and instead, place pressure on these girls to be ‘academically successful.’ It is often assumed that these girls will not risk being sexually active, because to fall pregnant would be the ultimate failure. Consequently, the pressure placed on girls to go to university results in their increased usage of contraception, or ultimately, if pregnancy does occur, the decision to terminate. Thus, there is perceived to be limited need for policies regarding pregnant and parenting girls from the middle or upper classes.

            On the contrary, Wyn (2000, p. 265) writes that lower class girls and minority groups such as indigenous females, are often considered to be delinquent.  Heaven (2001, p. 176) argues that this assumption has been created because lower class teenage mothers are likely to have a history of truancy and rebellion. As a result, these girls are pushed away from academic success and towards a domesticated lifestyle where a high value is placed on the notions of motherhood. Another assumption that is made about lower class and indigenous females is that they are easy and ‘sexual.’

            Heaven (2001, p. 176) found that teenage mothers are more likely to have parents with relatively low levels of formal education and who come from lower socio-economic families. These parents are therefore, less likely to be concerned with their teenagers’ education and will be more open to their daughter’s sexuality, with the result that lower class girls are at a higher risk of falling pregnant than upper or middle class females. Furthermore, studies show young woman in lower socio-economic areas are more likely to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term (Clark, 1985 as cited in Littlejohn, 1996).

            Littlejohn (1996, p. 12) acknowledges that there is an acceptance of early childbearing within lower class families and termination of a pregnancy may be viewed as the less acceptable option. Terminating a pregnancy may also be deemed as unacceptable for cultural reasons, for example amongst indigenous women. This may help to explain information published by the Public Health Division of the Department of Human Services (Victoria) stating that Aboriginal teenagers are five times more likely to give birth than non-Aboriginal teenage women. Evidently, it is often young females from lower socio-economic conditions, including indigenous teenage women that choose to continue with a pregnancy. Regrettably, our society places judgements upon these girls; we automatically assume that they will not pursue their education once they have given birth, and so we ignore the need to develop comprehensive policies and programs, or to remove barriers, in order to retain or support pregnant and parenting females.

            While many schools fail to have comprehensive policies to include pregnant and parenting students, there are some schools that go out of their way to accommodate these pregnant and parenting girls. The case study (found in textbox) provides an excellent example of innovative policies a Victorian school has implemented. This school has a clear intent to commit to including pregnant and parenting girls in education and regards it as their job to adapt and respond to students’ needs rather than asking students to adapt and fit the school’s requirements.

What should teachers and schools do?

Every school should adopt policies that offer pregnant and parenting girls:

•  Access to maternity leave;

•  Flexibility in their timetabling and curriculum;

•       Encouragement to continue with their schooling;

•  Non-judgemental attitudes and the elimination of harassment;

•  Support services that are internal, such as establishing a young mum’s group;

•  Access to external support services, such as welfare agencies and health services.

            The AEU (1999, p. 4) reasons that policy implementation associated with pregnant and parenting students does not require a huge reshuffling of a school’s current policy or curriculum. Furthermore, the implementation of the above policies will be of no financial expense to a school. However, it does require a little understanding of the competing roles placed on a student who also has the burden of motherhood to balance.

            For schools and teachers who are unsure of the available support for pregnant and parenting females, contacting the Association of Women Educators is a reliable starting point (website: ). This Association has produced a publication called, Present Pregnant and Proud (Boulden, 2000), which is a fantastic resource for any school modifying their policy to be inclusive of pregnant and parenting students (Present Pregnant and Proud can be ordered from the Association’s website).

Case Study

A community school in the Geelong region of Victoria embraces the challenge of trying to support and retain pregnant and parenting females. While there is no formal policy, the welfare officer claims that the school aims to create an accepting environment where these females can resume studies. It’s all about attitude and ensuring that these girls feel comfortable continuing their studies while they are pregnant or after they have given birth.

The school understands that flexibility is a key issue for pregnant and parenting students. If these students can’t make classes because they have been up all night attending a baby, experience morning sickness or need to care for a sick child, then that’s okay. The girls are encouraged to come to what they can, when they can. What's more, it is not uncommon to see a girl pushing a stroller through the school premises because if a girl has no option except to bring her baby to class, what else can she do? While it is not preferred that students have their babies with them in class, it is expected that this will occasionally happen.

The school employs a welfare officer, a youth worker and a nurse who is trained in mothercraft, as support agents for pregnant and parenting students and is a valuable link between the school and these girls. The school has developed a Young Mum’s Group, which has been devised to cover issues such as antenatal health care, baby care, and to ensure that these young women are prepared for what lies ahead. More than anything, this Young Mum’s Group allows girls to realise that they are not alone in their situation. Regular excursions are arranged for the Young Mum’s Group to attend, for example, the community nurse, prenatal/parenting classes or maternity units at the local hospital.

The school endeavours to keep track of any student who leaves due to a pregnancy or to give birth. While most pregnant and parenting females do have some time out from their studies, the school firmly believes that if they keep in contact with these pupils they can persuade them to come back. Equally accommodating, it is assumed that class teachers and beginning teachers embrace an attitude of acceptance … in fact the staff are so accepting of pregnant and parenting students that there are plans to build a child care centre on the school grounds!

What practices can beginning teachers apply?

Beginning teachers can work with staff and students to create whole school practices and an ethos to support pregnant and parenting females throughout their education. However, there are many individual practices that a beginning teacher can also employ such as:

•  Making occasional phone calls to new mothers or pregnant girls who are on leave. This will enable you to build understanding relationships with these girls and help them to feel less isolated from their peers and schools;

•  Working with staff and students to contest the negative stereotypes of young mothers in your community and school;

•  Endorsing the importance of girls completing their secondary studies;

•  Allowing pregnant and parenting students to meet different assessment criteria to other students if they are not coping.

            Possibly, the most helpful modification a beginning teacher can make is to change a critical attitude. Always remember we are there to teach not to judge. A beginning teacher who can offer support and a non-judgemental attitude towards pregnant and parenting females might just make that vital difference between a young girl deciding to remain at school, or like so many others, never completing her secondary schooling.


Ailwood, J. and Lingard, B. (2001). ‘The endgame for national girls’ schooling policies in Australia?’ in Australian Journal of Education, April 2001 v45 n1 p9 (14)

Ainley, J., Batten, M., Collins, C. and Withers, G. (1998). Schools and the Social Development of Young Australians, ACER Press, Melbourne, pp. 1-159.

Australian Education Council (AEC) (1993). National Action Plan for the Education of Girls, 1993-97. Curriculum Corporation for the Australian Education Council, Carlton, Victoria.

Australian Education Union (AEU) (1999). A Nice Job for a Girl:  A submission by the Australian Education Union to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission inquiry into pregnancy and work. AEU: Australia.

Boulden, K. (2000). Present Pregnant and Proud:  keeping pregnant students and young mums in education. Association of Women Educators: Australia.

Collins, C., Kenway, J. and Mcleod, J. (2000). Factors Influencing the Educational Performance of Males and Females in School and their initial Destinations after Leaving School, Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Commonwealth Schools Commission (1975). Girls, School and Society: Report by a Study Group to the Schools Commission, Common-wealth Schools Commission, Canberra.

Commonwealth Schools Commission (1987). The National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools, Commonwealth Schools Commission, Canberra.

Commonwealth Standing Committee of Education and Training (2002). ‘Boys, Getting it Right: Report on the Inquiry into the Education of Boys’, House of Representatives, Standing Committee of Education and Training, October 2002.

Dryhouse, C. (1981). Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London.

Hayes, D. (2001). “Education today and Gender Equity” in Inkwel, July 2001, at .

Heaven, P.C. (2001). The Social Psychology of Adolescence.  Palgrave Publishers Ltd, Hampshire, 8:174-196.

Labaree, D.F. (1997). “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals” in American Educational Research Journal Vol. 34 (1) pp. 39-81.

Littlejohn, P. (1996). Young Mothers:  A longitudinal Study of young Pregnant Woman in Victoria.  Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (1997). Gender Equity: A Framework for Australian Schools. Published by the ACT on behalf of MCEETYA.

Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (1999). The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, Curriculum Corporation, at: .

Orenstein, P. (1994). School Girls. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group: NewYork, 3: 51-56.

Russell, A. (2002). ‘Class Ceilings: How Schools Limit Girls’ in The Age, 22nd May 2002.

Teese, R. et al. (1995). Who wins at school? Boys and Girls in Australian Secondary Education, Produced by the Dept. of Education Policy and Management, The University of Melbourne, AGPS: Canberra.

Victorian Government Submission to the Federal Government Inquiry into the Education of Boys, at: , October 2002.

Wyn, J. (2000). The Post-modern Girl:  Education, “Success” and the Construction of Girls’ Identities. (Eds.) Mcleod, J. and Malone, K., Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies: Hobart.

Yallop, R. (2002). ‘Oh Boy, you have a long way to go’ in The Australian, 29th October, 2002.


1  Anon,  [accessed 20th October 2002].


3   The Age 22nd May 2002.

4    ibid.

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