Women do the housework on a 1960s Seattle billboard – and in posters put up in Michelle Taute's all girls’ school in the 2010s.Seattle Municipal Archives

One of the myths surrounding all girls’ schools is that sexism is non-existent. This is, after all, the subliminal message of marketing campaigns by such institutions, whose rhetoric focuses on the idea that girls are only able to reach their full potential through a dearth of their male counterparts. Many parents and students alike are convinced that discrimination based on gender will be prevented by simply excluding the opposite sex. As someone who has attended three all-girls’ schools in both England and South Africa, I am not convinced.

“What we had failed to notice, was that this sexism was not just the misinformed opinion of a few, but was actually an institutional problem.”

In many ways, the school I attended prior to Cambridge was at the forefront of battling sexism. Our headmistress was heavily involved in the Girls’ School Association and advocated the role of single-sex education in enabling the breaking of the glass ceiling. She espoused the belief that being a woman was not a limiting factor but an empowering one. This doctrine pervaded every level of my school’s society. One of its most obvious manifestations was in our PSHE sessions. Overwhelmingly, our guest speakers were women who had come to share their experiences on how they had challenged the limitations put on them by virtue of their gender. Two of our most impressive speakers were Baroness Butler-Sloss and Baroness Warnock. The former is famous for being the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, while the latter helped to advise the government on embryo experimentation and chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. Both are incredibly influential members of society who are testimonies to the capabilities of women. They are the living proof that women are men’s equals. Their avowal that it is possible to be a woman and reach the highest echelons of your chosen profession was an axiom my fellow pupils and I embraced whole-heartedly. Ironically, it was one of the incidents of sexism at my school which made me most aware of this fact.

Tired of how our sixth-form kitchen had become a bio-hazard, teachers decided to put up posters saying: “Clean up your mess, your mother doesn’t work here!” While the epigram had a salient point as to the kitchen’s hygiene, the student body was outraged by the blatant sexism. Overnight, these posters were embellished with pictures of men and were amended to “nor does your father” or, in some cases, the latter clause was simply replaced with parents. I was never as proud of my fellow students as I was that week.

Unfortunately, this was not the only incident of sexism. One of the male teachers was famous for his saying: “An essay should be like a girl’s skirt. Short enough to be interesting but long enough to have everything covered.” He was not the only member of staff to hold such views. Another teacher told his class how he would not marry a woman who would not cook his dinner for him. At the age of 60, you would have thought he had mastered this skill, but evidently not. Pupils, of course, laughed this off as a product of a bygone era. These were all old, white, male teachers. Their opinions seemed immaterial to us. Yet what we had failed to notice was that this sexism was not just the misinformed opinion of a few, but was actually an institutional problem.

The educational programme I studied, the International Baccalaureate, promoted diversity. Yet despite this, only one of the 13 texts we studied for English Literature was written by a woman. Furthermore, all of the authors were white. Our teachers were at liberty to choose the works they wanted but clearly female, ethnically diverse, and LGBT writers were not high on their list. Even at Cambridge, the English course is dominated by male works. While each of these signs on their own can appear innocuous, in the bigger picture, they show a worrying trend to value women at a lower rate than men.

While my experiences at all girls’ schools were largely positive, sexism does remain an issue. More needs to be done to challenge both this everyday sexism and this institutional disregard for female contribution to academic debate in the wider world. I hope Cambridge will be at the forefront of this

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