Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Not so redundant after all

Chris Bonnor wants Australian boys to be more like girls. In 1997 he was a principal of a boys' school in Sydney when he gave an influential speech on the issue of boys and education.

The gist of the speech was that the world of work had changed. Male skills were no longer required and therefore boys would need to learn to "cross gender boundaries" to succeed in life. According to Bonnor "gender is something that is socially constructed" which meant it was his school's "core business to reconstruct boys". What about the influence of traditionally masculine teachers? A simple solution: "Schools need to simply sideline those male teachers who spend their school lives and probably their other lives simply perpetuating destructive gender messages."

Several years ago Chris Bonnor repeated this message in an address to schoolboys. He said,

It's a new world out there, boys ... When dad left school it was a more predictable world for boys. Boys could get a reasonably long-term job, and one in which 'male' skills were more highly prized. If you were good at woodwork or metalwork, there were plenty of these jobs ... Many of these things have changed. You now have little chance of getting one of these traditional 'male' jobs full-time, and for the rest of your life ... The new types of jobs want people who can think and communicate ...

So what do you do, boys? Some men want ... the workplace to change ... to give boys a chance once again. Apart from being a silly idea, this simply won't happen. Boys need to gain a wider range of skills, especially the skills that girls so often display. Boys also need to cross the gender divide and become good at the things that the workplace now needs. If some of these things are traditionally 'girl's skills', then so what!"

Sure. Even back then it was hard enough to get a plumber. And now we read in this morning's Age newspaper, that there is such a shortage of tradesmen that one Melbourne company has flown in 60 welders from China as guest workers. These men, I presume, don't speak English. So it seems that at least some Australian boys should just have kept up with their metalwork and not worried too much about competing with girls' communication skills.

Chris Bonnor is simply another liberal who wants to overthrow the influence of gender and is willing to use junk arguments to justify it. Why is he really so keen to argue against masculinity? Because liberals believe that we are truly human and free when our individual choice is unimpeded. We don't get to choose our sex. Therefore, for a liberal we can only be free if our masculinity or femininity is something that is socially constructed and can therefore be overthrown, preferably in the direction of something that is gender neutral.

That's why Chris Bonnor talks of the need "for boys and girls to develop in an atmosphere free of restrictive and potentially damaging stereotypes." Note the kind of language employed. Traditional masculinity or femininity is a "stereotype" (negative connotation) which is a "restriction" from which we have to be freed.

It also explains why Chris Bonnor is so hostile to boys playing sport. Sport encourages what most of us would think of as a healthy masculinity in boys. This is a problem for someone wanting to deconstruct this masculinity. So Chris Bonnor is moved to write,

Sport. Heavily masculinised contact sports celebrate and reinforce dominant roles of gender. These sports serve to define dominant masculinity, connecting manhood with violence and competitiveness and often marginalising girls and women.

Two final points. Although most right liberals wouldn't carry on like this, they do often share the underlying idea that traditional manhood and womanhood are restrictive stereotypes which need to be overcome. The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, for instance, claimed happily in 2002 that the feminist battle had been won for young women, the "good thing" being that "we have broken through some of the old stereotypes". Nor are these mere words: the Howard Government has actively tried to break down gender "stereotypes" by providing funds to get women onto boards of management and into engineering courses. (Let me, though, compliment Mr Howard for promising today to provide funds to train Australians to fill the tradesman shortage.)

The second point to be made is that gender is not just a product of socialisation. It's also hardwired into human biology. Therefore it won't be shifted as easily as the Chris Bonnors of the world think it can be.

I witness the resilience of gender difference in my job as a school teacher every day. I recently supervised a class of junior high school students who had an hour of free time on the computer. The girls spent their time looking through class photos or playing a game in which you place different fashion accessories onto pictures of celebrities. The boys played sport or adventure quest type computer games, or watched humorous cartoons. There was no overlap at all in what the boys and girls chose to do. When given any chance at all, the natural differences between boys and girls readily assert themselves.

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