The Toronto District School Board’s supposed goal of promoting gender equality in the classroom “requires strong leadership from all educational leaders,” the board said in its introduction to the 2016-17 strategic plan. For the most part, that plan put equal emphasis on gender equity at schools as on inclusive policies and practices for students, teachers and parents. But it might not be strong leadership if leaders decide to gut a semester-long program aimed at training teachers to be more engaged with female students. The program, called an “Interact Classroom Gender Equity Workshop,” has been on hiatus for over a year as part of the TDSB’s budgetary process and it could be back on hold indefinitely.
In a November 2017 letter to all TDSB principals, Director of Education Donna Quan said the board was going to slow down its funding of gender equity programming in light of the recent downslide in standardized test scores. According to board documents, during the 2016-17 school year, that “implementation of gender equity initiatives came to a complete halt,” and the volume of training workshops for educators was curtailed. Now, TDSB, which has 106,000 students, has withdrawn funding from the program, known as ICS-TGEE. Of the four ICS-TGEE workshops that were planned for the current school year, one has already been canceled.
Carleton Gordon, the chair of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, tweeted a demand for accountability and for the restoration of funding: “Donna Quan needs to stop trying to make a political point against feminism and return to focusing on women’s health & learning in our schools.” Elaine Marsden, a Toronto elementary school teacher, expressed her frustration: “So we were told that preparing women for this fiscal crunch is ‘doing things differently’?” she tweeted. In a blog post, Joe Handelman, a London-based feminist, psychologist and educator, remarked that, according to the data he reviewed, nearly 40 percent of female teachers would go on to retire early because of the return to austerity and the decline in funding for gender equity programs. He called on the TDSB to “tackle the root causes” of this problem.
Whatever the outcome of the board’s review, this saga reveals a number of important issues that the Toronto district school board should confront and reflect upon. The question isn’t whether or not the program should be restarted, it’s whether the board should start considering its options at all. The foundation’s call to action urges the TDSB to “establish a working group to consider a more flexible and effective model,” with the guidance of a gender equity officer. “In the meantime,” Gordon tweeted, “[we] encourage you to commit to recruiting more female teachers.” The ICS-TGEE workshop is one example of programs that put female teachers into leadership roles, and it is possible that the women who have enrolled in the workshops are the ones in need of additional training. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Michelle Morée, a math teacher who has been volunteering in a prior version of the ICS-TGEE workshop, raised questions about whether female teachers would take seriously the implicit call for empathy. “I am a senior, gender-identified teacher,” she said. “But I do not see many women entering into the field of math.” In a recent study, a team of researchers at Loyola University Chicago found that female teachers perceive their male colleagues more positively than they do female colleagues. Researchers from Dartmouth College and Michigan State University conducted a similar study, and found that female teachers tend to see female colleagues as less competent and less likable. Morée’s assertion that male teachers “see women as less competent and less likable” is worth considering.
The implications of this result are that female teachers are, presumably, more likely to view men as more competent and likable, and it’s possible that this perception may influence young women’s attitudes toward men and how they see themselves in the workplace. As David Norling, a feminist psychologist at Brigham Young University, put it in an interview with the Atlantic, “You have very conscious individuals who are consciously sexualizing [female teachers]… and that has a different kind of impact on things than more subtle mechanisms.”
The board has an opportunity to rethink its priorities and rethink its approach. It should put a priority on its students, and treat female teachers as valuable leaders, regardless of their