Girls shouldn't be more ‘disruptive’ in class to get ahead – they’d only suffer for it

If a normally studious girl suddenly becomes less compliant in school, would she be treated in the same way as a rebellious boy?

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The Independent Online

When I was 13, I was moved down from the top set in maths. Not because I wasn’t any good with numbers – although those who know me might beg to differ – but because I kept distracting other pupils by being disruptive. I was an annoying teenager who found it more interesting to write stupid notes and pass them to the pupil sitting next to me than to draw Venn diagrams.

I haven’t been nursing resentment over this for three decades; it was fair enough of my teacher to move me. But I was reminded of this incident when I read the comments by Helen Fraser, the head of the Girls’ Day School Trust, urging schoolgirls to be more disruptive and less compliant in class. A little chaos and bad behaviour is good grounding, Ms Fraser argues, for the world of work, because employers reward risk-takers. Because risk-takers are more likely to be boys, when they become men they will tend to be more creative, entrepreneurial and go-getting in their careers than compliant women.

Firstly, it should go without saying that not all boys are disruptive and creative, just as not all girls are compliant and well-behaved. My banishment to second-set maths is just one example of that. Women may make up less than a third of Britain’s entrepreneurs, according to official figures (although since the 2008 crash, women account for more than half of the rise in self-employment) – but this is not because of some gender-specific character trait that turns female workers into drones best suited to a robotic production line. Far from it.

Women still lag behind men in the jobs market: we are paid 9.4 per cent less in full-time work, or 19.1 per cent less when you take part-time work into account, and we make up just 17 per cent of all business owners and a measly 8 per cent of board-members on FTSE 100 companies. But this isn’t because we are doing anything wrong. Perhaps a small part of women’s second-class position in the workplace may be down to a lack of confidence – not “leaning in”, say,  or failing to nail a great interview for a job – but most of it is out of our control.

As long as men remain dominant among employers, they will tend to promote, subconsciously or not, other men in their image. The gender pay gap is narrowing but it is still, on average, £100 a week. That’s an entrenched gap that isn’t going to be solved quickly. Yes, women could be more disruptive by asking more frequently for pay rises, but this isn’t going to solve the issue across the board and, largely, pay rates are out of our hands.

Then there are the many ways in which having children suddenly hits a woman’s career: the “motherhood penalty” that many working women suffer after having a baby, which opens up a gap between their own pay and that of their childless female colleagues (the opposite happens to fathers); the desire to work more flexibly to see your own child more, often at cost to your career progression; and the perception that may exist in an employer’s mind that, now you are a mother, you’re less likely to want that promotion.

For as long as the world of work remains like this, with its in-built higher hurdles for women, girls at school are going to be at a disadvantage before they’ve even had their first meeting with a careers adviser. It is a fact that girls perform better than boys at school. This may be because they are more compliant and better behaved in class and so study harder. It may also be because they have already absorbed the hard and fast rule of work: that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as men. What would happen if girls’ grades started to slip?

So Ms Fraser’s suggestion that girls should become more disruptive at school to get ahead in work worries me because I think it would backfire. If girls became less studious, they would lose even more ground against men when they were ready for work. Even at school this could be detrimental to girls: society seems to accept, as Ms Fraser does, that boys are boisterous and unruly as part of their “boys will be boys” nature and, in fact, this is seen as a positive attribute suggesting “creativity”.

If a normally studious girl suddenly becomes disruptive, would her behaviour be similarly regarded as beneficial? Would she be applauded for being a creative risk-taker? I doubt it. She would be put in detention or, worse, moved down a set in maths. And, I can tell you, that is no fun at all.