07 SES 05 C JS, Joint Session NW 31 and NW 07
Paper Session Joint Session NW 07 and NW 31
This paper opens fresh debate into the topic of gender and literacy, given that the debate has so far failed to understand how engagement and ‘success’ in literacy is related to achievement beyond the school system. Intrinsically linked with wider debates on education and achievement, attempts to explain the ‘gender gap’ have proliferated (Millard 1997; Connolly 2004). Yet, while studies consistently report that girls outperform boys in all aspects of literacy achievement and engagement across the world (Twist and Sainsbury 2009; Bradshaw et al. 2010), the World Economic Forum (2014) recently reported that the UK has now fallen out of the top 20 most gender-equal countries, with average earnings for women falling, while earnings for men remain unchanged. Given that girls outperform boys in literacy (the only school-based subject where a consistent gender difference in achievement is reported), this paper argues that there is an urgent need to re-examine the relationship between engagement and achievement in literacy and outcome in the labour market.
The need to do this became apparent recently in the context of a larger study that set out to explore links between social mobility and attitudes towards literacy over the last 100 years (Levy et al. 2014). This study revealed that this relationship is highly complex and cannot be reduced to a simple causal connection, however this was particularly evident in relation to gender. Having gathered data through a systematic search of academic and ‘grey’ literature, policy documents and archived material such as the Mass Observation Archive, this study triggered the question; what role does literacy play in women’s achievement in, and beyond the school system, and what are the specific issues that need to be addressed within the education system today in order to promote greater equity in the workplace? In attempting to answer this question, this paper demonstrates that it is vital that we understand how socio-cultural and socio-historical factors influence many of the issues embedded within the gender and literacy debate today.
It was recognised from the outset that such reflection must acknowledge that definitions and constructions of the term ‘literacy’ are context-specific and constantly changing and that this is particularly salient as we move forward in technological advancement (Bearne 2009; Kress 2010). This raises further important questions such as; what do we mean by the term ‘literacy’ in relation to the gender and literacy debate? Have definitions changed over the lifetime of the debate and what are the implications of this for gender equity beyond school? This paper invites these avenues of enquiry into the gender and literacy debate in an attempt to bring the discussion up to date.
It is argued that for too long now, the gender and literacy debate has rested on oversimplified binary constructions that provide a misleading and unhelpful view of achievement. As a result, much of the debate has not only failed to address the issue of gender inequality beyond the school system, but has contributed towards upholding narrow, oversimplified and unhelpful notions of gender and achievement. Rather than continuing to focus on boys’ underachievement in literacy, this paper argues that there is a need for all education systems to recognise how constructions of literacy are changing and understand what schools must do to accommodate this change in order to prepare all children for success in the workplace.
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