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Men, women and their relationship

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We should start from the basics of giving more life skills to both boys and girls in our education by gradually moving to mixed educational settings in all our leading schools


The first International women’s Day was held in 1911. After more than 100 years, we women look better statistically, but, we are not any better in reality, in the Sri Lankan context at least.

Today, a day after Women’s Day, after all the speeches are made, l think we should get down to the real issue of men, women and the not-so-healthy relationship between the two genders in Sri Lanka. In fact, if I could, I would name the day as ‘Men & Women Day,’ a day to reflect on our relationships with each other – at home, at work and in society. sh

In our grandmothers’ or mothers’ time, when men sat around talking politics or anything that was non-domestic, it was natural that women talked about children and other strictly domestic issues. Ironically, that seems to be the case still. 

Social gatherings in Sri Lanka, irrespective of class, will degenerate into a segregated affair where men gather around bottles hard liquor, talking politics and other seemingly-important stuff, while women choose the fizzy sweet drinks to fret about the children, their schooling and difficulties of getting help in the kitchen. 

High court judges, corporate lawyers, director of this and that, it does not matter, we all play a script handed down to us from our grandmothers’ time. Listen to both sides carefully and conclude for yourself. The quality of the conversation on both sides can improve with some mixing.


An uphill task

But, it is an uphill task. In the corridors of power in Sri Lanka, corporate or political, women’s influence is still largely through pillow talk, the illicit kind in particular. Scandals, in the past or the present, are always flavoured with sex. Sexual exploits of ageing politicos rejuvenated with power as the aphrodisiac make the news. Seen as the norm, these behaviours are now beginning to be questioned. 

Horror stories from the universities too are emerging. Inadequate scholars reign in academia by rigging the recruiting process to surround themselves with yes men and women, with women often playing the sex card.

In fact, as a young woman local councillor shrewdly observed, women may be educated, but they fail to advance due to lack of socialisation. Lacking the life skills that are not found in the textbooks or the home environment, women languish in the boondocks of their professions with no recognition. Sexual bribes become the last resort for some. 

Malala, the young Nobel Laureate, is an articulate ambassador for the education of women. Yes, there are women all over the world without access to basic education, including the Swati Valley from where Malala hails. 

In Sri Lanka, we have achieved gender parity in basic education. The gaps, if any are related to income gaps. Our issues are not so much about quantity but quality. In that regard, I am happy to note that Dr. Dileni Gunawardena makes an excellent argument about the quality gap in her blog. In this column I would extend her arguments but go beyond the classic “affirmative action type policies to ensure that women are treated fairly in the workplace, and gender-neutral family friendly policies like parental leave, or child care subsidies” solutions.

I think we should start from the basics of giving more life skills to both boys and girls in our education by gradually moving to mixed educational settings in all our leading schools. A radical idea for those believe that education at Royal College, for example, is a qualification for leadership in government or industry. Think again. The one-sided education given by these institutions, in fact, could be seen as source of all our problems. 


Credentialing v. Real education

In Sri Lanka, girls are outperforming boys in basic education. Though women are attracted to biological and social sciences and boys’ presence is higher in engineering and computer science in senior secondary or higher education, there is parity in overall enrolments.

As our universities are revealing their inadequacies through the performance of their graduates in the labour market, young men are opting out of bad academic programs. An amazing 85% of more of entrants to faculties of Arts in public universities are women. Of the 10-15% of men, a large number are monks. 

While rote learning is the norm for girls or boys in our education system, girls seemed have embraced and succeeded in rote learning giving themselves a false of sense of hope on book learning. An event held few years ago by SL2COLLEGE, a volunteer group dedicated to increasing access to higher education, was attended more by young women with their parents than young men.

After I talked about options after A/L, at question time one young woman asked whether I could recommend any courses to do while they wait for the results. I was incredulous. This event was held like a day or two after the exam and they want to do more courses! My advice was to find a long lost relative from a faraway place, pack a change of clothes and a toothbrush and take a bus there. I was assuming that independent travel of the discovery type was not an option for these young women. 


Demographic challenge

As Sri Lanka strives to move up in the middle income category, we are facing a demographic challenge. We have an ageing population. We will need more bodies in the workplace and women have to fill the gap. To succeed we need a society where men and women coexist as equals. In that regard, we need to take a hard look at how we educate our children and our youth.

We raise girls in glided cages and real life can be a rude awakening for them. Young men learn to deal with society in crowded classes packed with 50 or more other bodies with growing levels of testosterone. Public universities perpetuate attitudes picked up in schools. Boorishness we see in men is learned in popular boy’s schools, period. Boringness we find in girls too are learned in popular girls’ schools.


Girls’ schools as gilded cages

It is strange to hear about the quaint practice of boys from leading schools raiding girls’ schools as part big match rituals continuing to date. On the other hand, I would not blame the boys either. Roald Dahl would write a new version of witches, if he was to take a peek behind the iron gates of these girls’ schools.

Women teachers can be extra hard on girls. Girls get beaten for threading eyebrows. Threaded eyebrows are seen as a sure sign of interest in boys, an absolute no-no. Too much reading is discouraged too. Stick to the textbooks if you want to get ahead. Field trips are minimised and if they take place it is more about guarding virginity than gaining experiences.


Boys learn boorish behaviour in schools

Dr. Indra de Soysa, the Warden at S. Thomas’s Mount Lavinia, is the rare principal who looks beyond the façade of college song and tie to understand the real nature of the education imparted in our major boys’ schools.

At the Colombo Forum a few years ago, he revealed how sexual biases are formed as early as primary school and described some programs that he has initiated to give the extra skills that boys need to co-exist with the opposite sex as decent human beings. Not many schools do that. And I am not sure how successful he has been in continuing his program. 


Mixed schools for all?

Globally, there is a debate whether co-educational schools are better for educational outcomes. The popular belief is that girls do better in single-sex schools and there are many studies that seemingly support the notion. 

Pahlke, Hyde and Allison (2014) carried out a systematic review of the literature, analysing 184 studies, representing the testing of 1.6 million students in Grades K-12 from 21 nations, carefully filtering the studies for their quality. They looked at multiple outcomes – mathematics performance, mathematics attitudes, science performance, educational aspirations, self-concept, gender stereotyping, for example. The results show little or no difference between single-sex schools and co-educational schools in regard to education outcomes. 

Does that mean that co-educational settings have no special value either? The researchers argue that expectancy-value theory and other theoretical considerations or even common sense suggests that co-educational setting should have effects that are not captured in empirical studies. More research is recommended.

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka we don’t have sufficient number of schools to do randomised-control trials, but a qualitative study is in order. With or without more studies, we have to create conditions for our boys and girls to interact with each other as human beings first.

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