Sexism, Education and Constitution

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This dialogue took place on Thursday, October 20th, the day after the “Not One Woman Less” march.  This event inspired a conversation about education and sexism with three academic researchers from the University of Chile (Patricia Soto, María Elena Acuña and Carlos Peñaloza).  Our guests assessed the state of sexism in education; they unveiled root causes, and suggested actions and strategies aimed at tackling a problem that does not have easy solutions.

Palabra Pública: Let’s begin discussing the presence of sexism in the Chilean education system.

Carla Peñaloza (academic of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities and M.A. in History): Sexism understood as a kind of mandate given to each human being for having been born with certain biological characteristics, is present in our whole society and especially in our education system, which is not only a reflection of what our society is thinking, but in this case the opposite: the education system also propagates, at all levels, from preschool to the university, these stereotypes.

The education system reproduces the mandates that say that there are careers for girls, others for boys, that women must comply with certain expectations, like maternity, for example.

Sometimes the family or even society has more enlightened ideas in relation to those of the education system.  Chile must be the only country in the world that still has a public education system that has schools separated by gender; this is the case with the so-called emblematic schools.

María Elena Acuña (academic in the Department of Anthropology of the Social Sciences Faculty.  She is a social anthropologist and PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of Santiago): We live in a country where gender differences result in dramatic inequality.  This permeates society at all levels, as well as through its institutions.  The school system is not an exception.  And it’s not that society permeates the schools, but that the school, as a normative space, is a reproducer of social inequality and social differences, of class, and where we have to consider gender and ethnic differences too.

Sexism is one of the manifestations of gender violence, which affects women disproportionately.  We have gotten used to thinking about this in quantitative terms, in terms of enrollment figures—if there is gender segregation in certain university majors that tend towards exclusivity for men, for example.  And this blinds us to the fact that this is a cultural issue that transcends numbers, that it has to do with how identities are formed, and we’ve all gone through that, from preschool all the way to the university; as we learn mathematics and the history of Chile, we also learn in what ways our society values us, in what parts of that society we belong to, and what roles we are invited to fulfill.

We shouldn’t have gender segregated schools, but I also don’t think it will be easy to turn the Instituto Nacional into a mixed school, because they have a dense cultural legacy there that is expressed in their practices, in their formation, in the stories that are told there, about class and gender, about great men who serve the nation, so to speak.

Patricia Soto (Professor at the Pedagogical Studies Department and the Latin American Center for Gender and Culture Studies and PhD in Development Psychology, Learning and Education from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid): I want to highlight the results of a study I just completed, where we interviewed 36 head teachers from mixed schools and emblematic gender segregated schools, especially from the Metropolitan Region.  I focused on the head teachers because they are in contact with the students in those moments when the students are allowed to voice their opinions, like in student council.  These are moments when this teacher can intervene or educate about values.

In most of the public schools, the strongest discourse that students receive has to do with redistributive equality, which emphasizes gender equality in terms of numerical proportion.  The word “coeducation” is typical, understood in the way it was understood many years ago, even when the first coeducational schools were founded, like the Manuel de Salas school.  They use the word “coeducation” in this sense, the idea of joining the two sexes, not in the way we use it today, as a kind of compensatory education, where what is lacking in either sex in terms of abilities is worked on in order to bring them up to par.

There is an androcentric discourse that exists in schools for girls where they are constantly being compared to schools like the Instituto Nacional, making them feel that they are excessively worried about make-up, feelings, and falling in love, and not so much on studying.  Again, it is a discourse that is centered on boys.

Palabra Pública: Let’s see what is happening in higher education.

Carla Peñaloza: At the university level the discourses and the preconceived ideas that come from primary and secondary school are repeated.  Going beyond the numbers, there are majors that clearly prefer women, and others that prefer men.  And that comes from the idea, sown in primary school already, that we women aren’t good at mathematics and that we are better at other things, like teaching.  When we speak of sexism, we have to come to terms with the fact that the majority of teachers are women.

In higher education, sexism is reproduced not only within the education system itself, but also in the way men and women interact.  It also manifests itself when men abuse their positions of power, in situations of varying degrees of violence against women, or when there is little respect for the other sex, because they are different, or because they are simply women.

It’s interesting to examine this false notion of equality.  The “Not One Woman Less” march, for example.  If we are all equal, then we don’t have to kill each other.  It’s not as if people don’t understand the problem, it’s that people want to make it invisible.  So it’s great if you want to go to the march, but it’s a little more complex than that: it’s about how men and women interact with each other.

And here it’s clear that women start off at a disadvantage, because our autonomy and our liberation—to have more, or less, rights as well as equal opportunity—does not depend solely on individual decisions.  It has to do with imagining a society capable of accepting those women who are determined to do things differently, and giving them the necessary tools to make it happen.

María Elena Acuña: With regards to Patricia’s data, it’s important to understand the perceptions, the cultural constructions that teachers have with respect to people’s identities, and in this case, their sexual identities.  We live in a hyper modern world, where everything is fluid, where sexual identities are fluid.  But what the school ends up doing is to situate you in one of the two polar extremes, feminine or masculine, and they ignore this fluidity.  The school is a surveillance institution in the sense that it tries to determine whether you are a good man or a good woman.

The university, meanwhile, maintains a very rigid structure, and it is also the product of this surveillance.  Preferring certain sexes for certain areas of study is not an explicit university policy.  The university does not restrict men from studying nursing, or women from mathematics, but let’s recognize that it also doesn’t do much to revert the situation.  This is part of the problem, because I think that in most areas of study, from the humanities to the hard sciences, androcentric parameters are in full operation, and this includes basic practices like how our history is told.

Lately, the issue of sexual harassment has increased dramatically.  It is something that we need to study, along with the issue of unequal pay.  The university is guilty of having a hidden curriculum at all levels.  Violence against women is not new.

Patricia Soto:  On the one hand, what is lacking in the university is a review of the official curriculums in order to figure out what the weaknesses are, but we also need to focus a lot more on the hidden curriculum of education in general.

What we are seeing in terms of the problem solving practices of head teachers are sermons, on the one hand, and also an excessively individualized focus on, for example, lesbian students.  Teachers in their day-to-day practices are for the most part unaware of other more profound strategies that are available, like engaging with the values of the students themselves.

Palabra Pública: In conclusion, what are the perspectives that you see for real change towards an anti-sexist education, for example, in relation to the constituent process for a new constitution?

Carla Peñaloza:  I’m guilty of being an optimist.  I think that despite all of the difficulties that our country, our politics, and the public sector in general are facing, there are certain signs that give me hope as to how certain issues will be debated moving forward.  Without a doubt, the “Not One Woman Less” march was one of those signs.  Five years, or even two years ago, we would not have imagined that so many people could come out against gender violence.  And this is related to the movement against the pension system, the public education movement, etc.

I participated in one of the groups in the constituent assembly and it was one of the more interesting debates: when we considered which rights should be protected in the constitution, one of the rights available was that of “gender equality”, but there were other rights available including “equality” on its own.  And that’s where the debate starts, and it’s hard to convince others that gender equality has to be a particular right.

María Elena Acuña: I think that as a university, the first thing we should worry about in relation to the new constitution debate is university autonomy.  We just experienced a scandalous situation with (the removal of the university president) Roxana Pey.

In the new constitution we should at least have some idea about gender equality, about respect for the lives of women, and we should constitutionally consecrate our sexual and reproductive rights, that is the baseline of what we are talking about.

What is the problem?  This issue that we debate, at the institutional level, is dominated by institutions that consider themselves liberal feminist, but which are really feminist in the sense of formal equality.

Patricia Soto: The crisis of institutions is a global phenomenon, and this includes the school.  In terms of gender violence, I think that it is very important for schools to not only incorporate the issue of sexuality, but also the issue of equality with respect to domestic chores.  That way I could distance myself from the idea of placing women alone at the center, because what might be happening is that, as some experts conclude, women are progressing more and more, while men are falling behind.

The crisis of neoliberalism in Chile is erupting all over the place, and it’s overwhelming.  We are witnessing an institutional crisis, which is in some ways, although on a different level and in a different way, the same as in México, and a consequence of this is a brutal and unthinkable increase in the violence against women, the poor, and immigrants.

Carla Peñaloza:  That’s right, we can’t understand gender violence as if it were an isolated issue in our society.  But we must also analyze what other phenomena are responsible for the fact that we have a society that is increasingly more violent, and where people matter less and less.

It also has to do with something that in Chile we haven’t dealt with very well, which is living and knowing how to live in a culture of human rights, where we know how to resolve our differences without violence.  It is a pending task that we have as a society, and will remain so if we refuse to see what has already happened to us.

We have to think about it in that context, and in the context of an economic system that is increasingly more violent against its people.

Translated by Anthony Rauld

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