Why 'girly swots' rock…but the phrase does not


10-09-2019
young girl studying

The term 'girly swot' was trending this weekend thanks to a leaked, handwritten document from Boris Johnson where he used the term as an insult against former Prime Minister David Cameron. Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, and Vice President of the Girls’ School Association, looks at why this term is a damaging, but sadly all too common, when we refer to girls’ education.

As Vice President of the Girls’ School Association, Head of an all-girls school, and a passionate advocate of girls’ education generally, I was unimpressed and irritated to see that our current Prime Minister has recently, and indeed historically, used the term ‘girly swot’. This kind of silly and lazy throw away put-down represents the sort of ‘banter’ that schools are educating their students not to use; in this case it underlies attitudes that the ‘everyday sexism’ project did so much last year to call out. It is dispiriting that an alumnus of a great school which genuinely espouses a liberal humanism should use what he thinks is a clever put-down to an academic rival who scored a better degree result in his Oxford finals but which is ultimately a put- down to bright girls and young women.

Sadly, Boris is not alone: his facile comment is, unfortunately, a disturbing reflection about how intelligence in women is viewed by large swathes of society. I have known girls to hide their intellectual potential because they are worried that by being smart they will be deemed less attractive by boys and potentially isolated by their own female peer group. How frustrating to be sitting in a class where you know every answer and have the capability to be challenged more by your teacher but you sit quietly, hoping that by being silent no one will work out that you are actually one of the bright kids? I have also known girls who, to avoid too much attention being drawn to them for being clever, have let other students copy their homework – or in one case actually do it for them!

Since when did it become a bad thing to be clever? Or, indeed, when did it become a bad thing to be a clever girl who works hard? Do we think it is more cool or trendy for our young girls to not try to put effort into their learning so that they don’t get the grades they need and don’t fulfill their real potential? Is it really more attractive to our society if a girl is lacking in intelligence?! Surely for our country’s economy and prosperity it can only be a good thing to encourage all of our young people to work hard, to not mock people for being bright and aspiring – especially our girls – and to try and dispel these antiquated notions that clever girls who like to read, or are good at maths are actually simply rather dull or boring swots. Just in the same way that whenever we see a clever person portrayed in the media you can bet that 9 times out of 10 they will be wearing glasses…

So why is this such an issue for girls in our society? And why have so many women come out in force this weekend on social media using the hashtag #girlyswot to showcase how they have succeeded academically? Because as a woman in today’s society sadly there are still unacceptable levels of bias that need to be addressed in order to stop limiting 50% of our population.

So what you may say. Well in an all-girls school environment, where girls do not have to conform to gender stereotypes and where I simply never hear this kind of gender-based insult, the stats speak for themselves. Statistics show that girls in single-sex schools achieve higher academic results, compared to their co-ed peers. Studies show that girls in GSA schools are more likely to choose ‘more challenging’ STEM subjects. For example:

  • 75% more likely to study Mathematics A-Level
  • 70% more likely to study Chemistry
  • 2.5 times more likely to study Physics
  • twice as likely to study languages

Free from stereotyping, girls in single-sex education thrive in an environment that allows their intellectual and social confidence to flourish. They dream big - because girls believe anything is possible and as Cheryl Sandberg would have it, they ‘lean in’. It is the wider community which needs to catch up and not push back, down, out and off! It is exactly this kind of very silly and very unhelpful comment from our Prime Minister which highlights this urgent and pressing need.

Women in our society are not only to be viewed and valued as relational ie as our mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends and friends, but also as stand-alone entities - the doctors, teachers, academics, nurses, engineers, managers and leaders, today, and of the future. We have worked hard to deserve more respect from our political leaders and senior figures, and it is a sad reflection that these feeble, but dangerous, insults are still being widely and indiscriminately used. The effect, whether intended or not, gives permission to try and limit and suppress the potential that so many of us have which, if influenced by this kind of bias, may never be realised.

 

Established on a founding vision which is over 400 years old, our educational provision continues to be tailored for girls.

St Mary's School Cambridge