‘Male toxic’ environment contributing to inequality in schools

Girls are being put off studying subjects such as woodwork, says Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty

Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty has said a culture of toxic masculinity is stopping female students taking up subjects which are usually the preserve of their male counterparts.

Senator Doherty said her teenage daughters are the only ones in their mixed school who are doing woodwork and metalwork.

They will not be doing the subjects for the Leaving Certificate because of a “male toxic” environment, she said.

Senator Doherty was speaking at the joint committee on gender equality which is examining the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on norms and stereotypes in education.

“The culture and the environment in the class is male toxic and it is not conducive to them staying. It isn’t much fun and it is not a nice environment,” she said.

“If I had a magic wand, every school would have to have both sexes and it would be a gender empowering environment.”

She said relationship and sexual health education is the most important subject that pupils should be taught in school. “It is not being taken as seriously as it should be. It should be fundamental and mandatory.”

Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) president Emer Neville said she did woodwork for Junior Certificate, but not for the Leaving Certificate level because she found it to be an "uncomfortable environment".

She said gender stereotypes are enforced by the fact that you rarely see a woodwork class in a girls’ school or a home economics class in a boys’ school.

She suggested that such absences “significantly reduces” the career opportunities for people.

“We need to show that pupils are not confined to what is seen as a traditional masculine or feminine career. We need to show them that a young man can become a nurse, that a young woman can become an engineer.”

Expert witness David Byrne, a PhD candidate at the Technological University Dublin, suggested changing male behaviour in schools will be a very long road.

“We need to teach boys not to be that way. It would be very difficult to break that mould because it is such an ingrained habit.”

Mr Byrne suggested there should be an end to single-sex schools. He said there is no context outside the school environment where educational establishments or workplaces are single sex.

He urged the committee to support a Bill proposed by Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to phase out single-sex schools.

Voice of youth

Meanwhile, the voices of young people will be feature in a new citizens’ assembly on the future of education, Minister for Education Norma Foley has pledged.

The Minister said her department has begun examining what such a body will look like and the broader questions to be addressed.

She made the comments in a short speech recorded for an event taking place in the Burren, Co Clare, on the future of education.

The programme for government committed to the establishment of citizens’ assemblies across several themes including gender equality, a directly elected mayor for Dublin and biodiversity loss which have taken place or are under way.

No commencement date for an assembly on education has yet been announced.

Citizens’ assemblies typically include 100 people, including an independent chairman or woman, who consider proposals on how to improve the State’s response on a given area.

Ms Foley said an education citizens’ assembly offered a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reimagine education and to consider Ireland’s education needs.

She said the impact of education is felt in nearly every home in Ireland and, as a nation, we are “rightly proud of all that our education system has achieved. We have one of the highest school completion rates in Europe . . . together with Ireland’s strong further and higher education sectors means that we have one of the most highly skilled workforces in the world.”

She added: “Nonetheless in education we always strive to do more and to exceed our greatest ambitions.”

Ms Foley said citizen assemblies have become an important part of our democratic system, bringing together a diverse array of citizens to debate, discuss, and to deliberate.

The idea of a citizens’ assembly for education first emerged at a symposium, hosted at the Burren College of Art in September 2018.

This three-day gathering – attended by students, parents, teachers, academics, policymakers and artists – backed calls for radical reform of education to meet the needs of 21st century Ireland.

The Green Party is understood to have played a key role in securing the addition of a citizen’s assembly on education in the programme for government.