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Gender issues

Gender issues are central to physical education. They influence the way teaching and learning experiences are perceived by males and females (teachers and learners), and they also influence the way physical education is planned and organised within schools. Specific examples here include whether physical education classes are single-sex or co-ed, and the relative dominance of sport compared with more participative and health-related programmes.

Salter (1993) cites extensive research which shows differences in performance among adolescent girls and boys in cognitive, affective, and motor performance, and suggests initially small performance differences in early childhood are exaggerated later over time due to differential treatment by teachers and others.

Less is known, however, about participation and why it is maintained, expanded, restricted, or resumed, and how these patterns are affected by gender. Overlaid across these differences are also the influences of culture and social class. Important school influences are teacher attitudes and expectations, the availability of credible role models, and issues such as school size, ethos, access to space, and to variety in the activities offered, and the emphasis given to competition.

Salter's studies on a sample of intermediate school children in New Zealand confirmed that traditional perceptions of gender-appropriateness are still prevalent although students claimed gender was not an important factor in their own participation. Girls tended to choose sports activities for social and creative reasons whereas boys felt their participation was more related to emotional release, thrill-seeking, and self challenge. Peer influences were strong motivators to keep up participation, particularly for girls.

A study on a sample of fifth form girls from three schools (two co-ed and one single sex) found the most significant factors influencing the students' experiences in physical education were uniforms, the attitudes of students towards each other, their self- confidence, and the attitudes of their teachers (Chalmers, 1993?).

Students related earlier experiences of double standards and different teacher expectations for girls and boys. Feeling disadvantaged, a few had tried harder, but the majority responded instead by lesser participation. Students in the sample appreciated teachers who were able to recognise individual differences in their students, and who did not alienate the girls by seeming to favour boys. Students responded to encouragement, support, and praise which improved their self-concept and motivated them to lift their level of participation.

Students in co-ed classes in the Chalmers study appreciated teachers intervening when boys dominated activities or made derogatory comments. In a review of the pros and cons of co-ed physical education classes, Brown (1992) cites the following points for co-ed classes:

  • allows equal opportunities for girls in all curriculum offerings;
  • the more proficient girls have greater opportunities to reach their potential (through greater competition);
  • girls can overcome the stereotypes of female and male participation patterns;
  • it provides a socialising atmosphere which benefits both girls and boys.

Against co-ed classes she cites:

  • physical contact and sexuality are more obvious issues;
  • girls may be harassed both verbally and physically by boys or groups of boys;
  • forced integration in team games shows up the inadequacies of the less able girls;
  • student self-segregation by sex can be exaggerated;
  • choosing activities to cater for the interests and abilities of both girls and boys presents teachers with more of a challenge.

In this context, Flintoff (1990) comments on the problems created when teachers proclaim they are providing equal opportunities, but the curriculum they provide is not sufficiently inclusive to cater for the differing needs of the participants.

Flintoff wants education to be more than merely transmitting culturally valued activities. For physical education she believes the curriculum should be centrally involved in changing and challenging what is valued. This includes inequalities in sport and physical activities due to the dominance of male middle class needs and interests. Too often the activities offered for girls are either restrictive or else too difficult.

Gender integration in co-ed classes does not necessarily overcome gender-related problems because equal access to activities does not ensure equal participation. Girls in co-ed classes are often undermined and their concerns discounted, particularly if teachers lack the skills and experience to teach a full ability range in mixed gender groups (Vertinsky, 1992).

A gender-sensitive approach requires an overall philosophy of gender-inclusiveness based on a perspective of fitness and well-being which values participation more than quality of performance. Vertinsky believes a curriculum should de-emphasise competitive sports, shift fitness activities away from standardised performance and awards, and increase the range of recreation-type activities which give girls greater opportunity to participate and enjoy being active.