This academic year we are celebrating 25 years of co-education at ECS. For a quarter of century we have been a school which has welcomed girls and boys and which has – obvious and de rigeur though it might seem – offered the same opportunities and challenges to all pupils. Society has come a long way since 1994; so has our school. Society is co-ed; so is our school.
I did an experiment (soon-to-be-evident pun intended) in Headmaster’s assembly on Monday: I asked the pupils for names of famous scientists. Einstein, Hawking and Newton were names at the top of the list, but there soon followed Anning, Nightingale and Curie. I was delighted by this – how many years back would one have to go to find a cohort in any given school whose answers to my question would have been entirely male? I suspect, alas, not as far as 1994. Here, then, it occurred to me, is a mark of how far our society has come in acknowledging, recognising and trumpeting its key female figureheads: an assembled group of 7 to 13 year olds offered a 50:50 split – gender-blindness in action.
I offered the School 8 further names – notable scientists who had undeservedly slipped under the radar of general awareness. I also offered (on distributed cards – nothing livens up an assembly like a kinaesthetic matching-up task) these scientists’ achievements in their field, and set the selected volunteers the task of pairing scientist with accomplishment. We did pretty well between us and learnt a good deal about those scientists along the way. The hit list of eight was:
Caroline Herschel: first woman to discover a comet
Mary Anning: celebrated English fossil hunter
Barbara McClintock: American geneticist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1983)
Dorothy Hodgkin: crystallographer who mapped the structure of insulin, thereby improving treatment for diabetes
Elizabeth Garret Anderson: first female English doctor
Grace Hopper: computer programmer and first American (and first-ever woman) to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society
Valentina Tereshkova: Russian Cosmonaut and the first woman in space
Jane Goodall: British Ethologist, and leading figure in wildlife and conservation
The reason behind my question – and the thinking behind my list – is that Tuesday of this week was International Women in Science Day. A perfect opportunity, therefore, to learn a bit more about some of the leading female figures both past and present. The more we celebrate and promote these important days, the more it will be the case that the next cohort, and the next, and the next will go on – organically – to nonchalantly deliver a 50:50 answer when posed the type of question with which I began our assembly on Monday. We’ve come a long way as a society and as an educational system – even in the last 25 years – in recognizing, celebrating and pioneering equality. In the words of an early 1990s-style school report – much progress made; more work still to do.