Monday March 9, as part of March on Gender – FAST FORWARD TO GENDER EQUITY, Andreas Schleicher[efn_note]Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General[/efn_note] presented the results of OECD studies related to gender equity (link to video recording). What the studies clearly elicit is the fact that girls on almost all accounts score better than boys, whether in terms of creativity, willingness to cooperate, literacy, sciences etc. In short, take at random a cognitive, social or emotional skill and you have over 90% chances to be right if you bet that, in the same age range, girls outperform boys. 

Yet, there is a gender gap…

OECD recommendations in favour of gender equity

While the OECD has recommendations to address the gender equity gaps, they are solely related to girls, not boys, stopping short of putting the blame on girls: “promote girl’s self-confidence and willingness to compete.”

While Freud saw “penis envy” as the source of neurosis and an insurmountable obstacle to psychological cure (it’s funny that he never considered “beard envy” as another source of neurosis!), the OECD sees the source of gender inequity in girl’s lack of interest in being competitive:

  • Freud: girl = boy – penis => neurotic women
  • OECD: girl = boy + (better at many things) – competitive => gender inequity

If girls show little interest in competing, this might be inferred from their superior cognitive, social and emotional abilities, said otherwise girls might be too smart to have the desire to engage in an activity as primitive as competition.

Wurst holding the Eurovision trophy after winning the contest (Wikipedia)

Despite the fact that girls score better than boys on many different fronts, and that the “deficit” is clearly on the boys side, it is a tiny weenie difference (no pun intended) that has the strongest consequences on gender inequity. If the willingness to compete was really related to having a willie, that might be an invitation to a whole new range of “early interventions”!

What the OECD doesn’t seem ready to take into consideration is that their metrics might be flawed, that celebrating “competition” might be the main source of gender inequity. 

Competition means that there are winners and losers, at the extreme, the competitor can be regarded as an enemy. Taking risks conveys a completely different set of values, attitudes and skills that are somewhat at odds with competition. Of course, competition might imply some risk taking, but it also implies that there will be losers, and it is not for the “winner” to take care of them, but themselves or society. Who ever thought asking the winner of a competition: “by the way, have you thought of the consequences for those who didn’t win?” Who cares? What a party pooper! 

Things are very different with risk taking: don’t injure yourself, don’t injure others, what will happen if? Competition is an invitation to care for yourself and imagine how to eliminate others, risk taking is an invitation to think of yourself in relation to others, it requires cooperation. And guess what? Girls score much better at cooperation than boys. Of course, there are also selfish ways to take risks, but it doesn’t automatically imply that there will be losers. Competition thrives on fabricating losers.

Skills do not exist in a void, but within an environment at their image. A competitive environment values competitive skills which in return shape that environment to be fit for competition. But is an environment fostering competition the best one to encourage authentic risk taking? Think a second: what would be the difference between a world where everybody is encouraged to take risks and one where everybody is invited to compete with everybody else (alone or in teams, that doesn’t make a difference)? Which one would have the most chance to develop in an inclusive and sustainable way?

The competition tropism dominating certain circles might be late manifestation of the remnants of ill-digested Darwin readings firing the wrong group of neurones in one’s reptilian brain. If we exist as human it is more likely the outcome of some sea creature risking itself out of the sea, rather than arriving first on the finish line!

I’m sure that nobody at the OECD would dare suggest in response to the violence done to women that the solution might be “early interventions that promote self-confidence and the willingness to practice martial arts”. Or to grow beards! So, going back to the title of that post, of course, the OECD never wrote anything as explicit as “if you want to be a successful girl, be a good boy!”, but isn’t it what can be construed from “promote girl’s self-confidence and willingness to compete” as the means to “narrow gender gaps”? 

Originally published in Learning Futures

Categories: Identity


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