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Girls, Boys & Communication – Lessons I learned as a teacher

Gender difference and education can be a controversial subject but I’m going to wade into it anyway. I’ve seen a lot over my 27 years of teaching and training.

I started at 17 as an assistant teacher, teaching deportment in a speech and drama school and I’ve been doing it (along with a plethora of other things) ever since. Despite my other corporate and community roles and work as a lawyer, I still make time to teach young people. once or twice a week. I’m asked all the time why I continue this. The answer is two-fold – one because I enjoy it and the other is I believe in it. I fundamentally believe that teaching performance (acting, stagecraft) and communication skills makes a difference to self–esteem. And who better to teach than children so they can enjoy a lifetime of benefit.

Recently I was working with a law firm. This was a mixed group of lawyers and support staff, half were men, half were women. I had been addressing body language and the way posture can influence our mental state and focus. An interesting question was asked.“Why are women more flustered and rushed and men in many areas seem calmer and more able to cope?” Now remember it’s not my question.

At first I thought it was a minefield and I said I wasn’t sure I was qualified to answer it. But I did have some insights I was keen to share now the Pandora’s Box of differences between men and women was opened. The question raised all sorts of spin off discussions about gender pay gap, performance and promotion, issues of confidence and roles at home! (The last I’m definitely not qualified to talk about!)

When I’m teaching public speaking and confidence building in schools, one of the first things I do is ask each student to tell me three things they are good at. When I began to offer this course to various groups, I was surprised. Four weeks after asking the question, “What are you good at?” I was still trying to get the girls to answer the question! Meanwhile I had boys clambering over the top of each other (physical harm being a real possibility in my public speaking class) to be the first to tell me how good they were.

The difference was stark. Over the years I have continued to ask this question. I’ve also probed at the reasons why extremely talented, well-educated young women struggle with this simple exercise.

After much probing and discussion about why this is the case this is what I’ve learned from the girls:

“I can’t say I’m good. Everyone will think I’m full of myself.”

“People will think I’m boasting and won’t like me.”

“I don’t want to show off.”

“I’m not that good at anything. It’s not like I’m the best.” (Even girls who were the best said this!)

I always refuse to move past the question. They have to answer it. Sometimes it takes weeks. After a lot of hand-wringing, huffing and general discomfort a few of these extremely talented ladies eventually admit they are okay at some things. More often than not, these admissions were followed by discounts or apologetic comments like “I suppose I’m okay at” or “but it’s not like that’s a really important thing”& “It’s just..”. Whereas as the boys usually tell me plainly and straight “I’m good at…” no apology or second guessing and I sometimes have to limit the list!

It’s frustrating. Here I am looking at the next generation of amazingly talented women. They have so much opportunity and are being educated in the top private single-sex schools. in the country. We are stuck on the simple question “Tell me three things you are good at”.