Jennifer Roberts was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. In her secondary school-based ethnographic work, she explored the experiences of adolescent girls in physical education (PE). In doing so, she uncovered how PE in contemporary times remains a space where traditional masculine discourses pervade and create unfair, unequal and unjust learning experiences for girls. This blog presents a selection of her key findings.
Jennifer’s work revealed that historical notions of masculine strength and skill prevail in PE, promoting the idea that gender inequalities are a biological fact rather than a social construction, and used as evidence and justification to optically center boys as successful while simultaneously marginalizing girls. She describes an example of this in a co-ed rugby lesson she observed. All of the students were given the option of participating in full contact rugby or non-contact rugby. All the boys in the class chose full contact rugby while all but three of the girls chose the other non-contact option. Subsequently, the three girls who chose to participate in full contact rugby were rejected by the boys, refusing to pass the ball to them, generally excluding them from the lesson. When asked later in an interview about the boys’ disruption to inclusion for the girls, the PE teacher suggested that the girls would need to work harder to prove themselves to the boys as skilled team players. However, this was extremely difficult for the girls, made more difficult by the fact that they had limited access to discourses of success. For example, those who attempted to display or celebrate their athletic skills were often labelled as ‘show offs’, a form of gender block that policed the girls to censure each other and limit their expectations in PE.
Another key finding was the visible lack or representation of women in the PE context. For example, a football booklet was created as a resource for pupils and teachers. In this booklet, there were 14 pictures of white masculinsed male footballers and only one white feminised player. Jennifer highlights that girls make meaning about who is valuable and worthy in PE based on who is optically centred and represented as legitimate. In this context, it appears as though value and worth are assigned to the boys, especially when it comes to playing football.
Finally, there was a lack of awareness by the teachers of their own gender expectations in PE and school sport. For example, a PE teacher explained in an interview his understanding of girls’ resistance to participating in team sports. He described the girls’ complaints about not being passed the ball by the boys in basketball as ‘learned-helpless’. He stated that they create their own barriers to participation, and that it is difficult to break those barriers.
In light of these findings, it is clear that the barriers to the game for girls in PE are more than ‘learned helplessness.’ In PE, the girls were inadvertently encouraged to learn their limitations to power and success, had fewer opportunities to display agency and learned that their failures were due to lack of effort. Consequently, there is a need for future research to shift the focus away from girls and turn towards teachers in an attempt to raise their awareness of their own gendered expectations in PE. This may be achieved if more critical and empowering pedagogies are adopted by PE teachers. For example, there is much promise in critical pedagogies such as the Activist Approach (Oliver and Kirk, 2015), an approach that aims to make PE better for girls by providing them the space to ‘identify, critique and negotiate their self-identified barriers to valuing the physically active life’ (Oliver and Kirk, 2015; p 2). Essential to teachers’ successful uptake of such an approach, is their ability to identify and critique their own gendered perceptions. Indeed, in light of the findings presented in this blog, the success of the Activist Approach might be less to do with empowering girls, and more to do with educating teachers about the social, societal and cultural challenges that young girls’ face. This may provide them with the resources to challenge the status quo and to work with the girls to create fairer, more equal and liberating experiences.
For more information about the Activist approach, click here.
Oliver, K.L and Kirk, D., (2015). Girls, Gender and Physical Education: An Activist Approach. London.