Schools crucial in the stand against misogyny and sexism

If misogyny is left unchallenged, the damage to girls' lives can be devastating, a landmark report warned
12th May 2022, 4:22pm
Henry Hepburn


Schools crucial in the stand against misogyny and sexism
Misogyny, sexism

There have been some quite breathtaking reports this week of the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny that continues to blight Scottish society in 2022.

From within the footballing and legal establishments, we've seen a simmering hostility towards women that the more credulous might have thought was a thing of the past.

What has changed is that sexism and misogyny, several years on from the coruscating light that the #MeToo movement shone on them, are now more likely to lurk in the shadows - in backrooms, at invite-only events, in private social media chats - than in public discourse.

But let's not ever kid ourselves that it's not there. Even if more overt discrimination has retreated, there is still an undercurrent of bile that seeks to belittle women and maintain male dominance.

And we should all be wary of claiming the moral high ground - no sector or industry is above reproach, education included.

The independent Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland, led by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, recently published a report on its findings, which was discussed in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. It was "abundantly clear", the report said, that being "subject to misogynistic attitudes and behaviour is the routine experience of girls - in schools, on public transport and even within the educational community charged with their care and progress".

The group reported that the "use of threats of violation and physical damage to women is growing daily and fills women's lives with fear and distress, limiting their freedom of movement and liberty", while threatening, or invoking, rape had become "commonplace, online and offline".

And it made this crucial point: "Women in public life receive such threats constantly, but so do schoolgirls."

The report, Misogyny - A Human Rights Issue, warned that, with misogyny "at epidemic levels, not just in Scotland but across the UK", the impact on women and girls' participation in society was clear. Why, for example, would a girl put her hand up for something in school "if it draws attention to you and puts you at greater risk of misogynistic bullying, harassment or derision?".

Social media can be an "enabler of misogynistic experiences" in schools, colleges and universities - and, of course, staff can also be the target, not only students - including "non-consensual distribution of intimate images, being forced to view pornography and other expressions of 'lad culture'".

One woman who identified lad culture as a big issue said: "In my school, lads would come up to girls and grab their ass, try and push them into the changing rooms and stuff and say, 'don't get upset, it's just banter'."

Women and girls were often not sure what was illegal and what was condoned by society - what, for example, would be the response if someone pulled on your bra strap at school? - and there was "almost no confidence" among those surveyed that authorities would take seriously "any experiences that, in their accumulation and omnipresence, are so corrosive to their quality of life".

The report made clear that if, for example, a girl is called an "ugly bitch" while walking home from school, this "is not a trivial one-off to her", but an experience where "she does not feel safe or secure and…is likely to be all too aware of the potential for escalation if male entitlement - to attention, a response, a reaction - is denied".

Baroness Kennedy's group called for legislation that encouraged women to report "misogynistic crimes of all kinds", on the understanding that "having no agency in the face of misogynistic conduct is one of the most distressing aspects of the experience". New criminal offences would lead to more comprehensive data and "proper analysis of the conduct women are experiencing and where it most often occurs" - insights that should be "at the heart of training programmes within the police, schools, universities and the legal profession".

It is not enough, however, to leave change to expert groups such as this, for the rest of us to content ourselves with tutting disapprovingly when we witness misogynistic behaviour - we have to take a stand, and there is a particular onus on men to do so.

Graham Goulden, a former police chief inspector and member of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit who was sharing his expertise with teachers at an event this week, tweeted about the problem of the "silence of men". However, the viral success of last year's Police Scotland video That Guy ­- which confronted male attitudes about sexual entitlement - gives some hope that more men are taking a stand.

Baroness Kennedy's report explained the consequences of misogynistic behaviour that is ignored or excused: "If girls are being held back, rendered self-conscious, objectified, diminished and undermined at school, kept 'in their place', what hope for their abilities and confidence to raise their voices and presence, to access jobs worthy of their potential, progress at work, close the gender pay gap?"

In short, schools absolutely have to be at the vanguard of changing attitudes to sexism and misogyny.

Henry Hepburn is Scotland editor at Tes. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

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