Back to School: maths, gender and clothes


My daughter started her A-levels this week. She’s doing Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and a design/engineering course about the built environment. Or, as my son puts it, maths, super maths, science maths and engineering maths. I’ve had lots of reactions to that, and I’m interested in yours. So I’ll leave a little gap here while you react without reading ahead to what others have said…


There’s the usual “oh I did Maths and Physics A-level” or its opposite, a sense of awe that anyone could do Maths or Physics. But the most interesting one is something like “Good for her!” which roughly translates as “it’s really great that a girl is taking those subjects”. I can’t knock this reaction because it’s true. It is great. The maths class is reasonable evenly split between boys and girls, but there’s hardly any girls in physics and even fewer in further maths. It’s also partly why she chose physics – because fewer girls do it and she wanted to break the mould. But it’s still remarkable that in 2017 it is worthy of comment that girls are opting for maths and science courses at A-level. There really is still a lot for feminism to do.

When she was born, I cast disdain on pink clothes. I must have expressed this rather more fiercely than anticipated (there is precedent for this), because my mother-in-law stuck to it doggedly. So we ended up with a wonderful sunny array of bright yellows and oranges, with just the odd bit of beige thrown in. Sixteen years later, this issue has not gone away. There has been recent mounting pressure on retailers who separate toys by gender, with a girls’ aisle festooned in pink and sparkles while boys get primary colours and trucks. Even Lego for girls is pink. This extends to clothes, and even more worryingly, to sexualised slogans and styles for little girls. But this week (hurrah!) John Lewis has announced that it will no longer divide its store into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sections. Rather, it will have one section for children’s clothes, as body shapes between girls and boys are no different until puberty. It is also launching a new ‘gender-neutral’ range of children’s clothes.

The reaction to this news has been astonishing! While lots of people are supportive, others are threatening to boycott John Lewis for (wait for it!) political correctness gone mad. This article from the Christian Institute is the one that drove me to my keyboard for this blog. No-one is making boys wear dresses, though they can if they want. But it is about making sure girls have the freedom of choice to wear clothes featuring dinosaurs, cars, space aliens and football without having to shop in the boys’ section.

Does this all really matter? Here’s what Let Clothes be Clothes had to say. ‘When we looked at tops sold in Mothercare, there were over 20 STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) themes sold as “boys t-shirts” and not one for girls. The idea that boys and not girls will be more inclined towards Science themes is harmful to girls AND boys, and is insulting to all the Women who have forged a path in STEM fields.’

And here’s a cautionary tale about why we need women in engineering. When airbags were first designed and fitted to cars, they had only been tested on man-sized crash test dummies. Consequently, when they were deployed, women and children were at risk of injury from the airbag. This didn’t change until 2011, so watch out if your car is older than that!

The gender gap is still wide open (along with many other gaps). I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the massive pay gap between the highest paid men and women at the BBC. For the rest of us, the gap in earnings between men and women means that once we get to Friday 10th November (equal pay day) women will effectively be working for free. This is the same as last year, so we’ve made no progress in a year. I’m proud of my daughter for her ambition to break gender constraints and stereotypes. We need her ambition, because we’ve still got a long way to go.


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