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'How is it that in 2017 sexism means that girls find school an unsafe and threatening environment?'

We need to learn the lessons from the Harvey Weinstein case: we must fight everyday sexism in our schools, writes one teachers' leader

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We need to learn the lessons from the Harvey Weinstein case: we must fight everyday sexism in our schools, writes one teachers' leader

The blanket coverage of the repugnant activities of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the fact that he allegedly harassed, abused and violated women actors "in plain sight", has raised repeated questions. Why did the women he allegedly abused not speak out earlier? A classic case of victim-blaming if ever there was one. Why did Hollywood continually look the other way? Because it was the norm – a price that women actors were expected to pay if they wanted to work.

The sexual harassment and abuse of women is practised on an industrial scale across the world. It is an expression of the power exerted by men over women, and it takes many forms.

Just consider that, on current progress, it will take 50 years for the gender pay gap to be eradicated – a fact that shows us just how persistent and pernicious sexism is and how pervasive it is in our society. And consider how the potential, the prospects and the pay of women continue to be depressed and how their lives continue to be circumscribed because they aren’t men.

When I began teaching in the 1980s, I quickly became aware of, and alert to, sexism in schools.

As a teacher working in London, I received regular, high-quality equal opportunities training, which enabled me and my colleagues to go back to the workplace and to examine institutional practices that discriminated against girls. As a result, we made changes in our schools, such as providing areas in the school grounds where football was banned, creating safe spaces for girls to occupy. We examined the curriculum and ensured that women’s achievements were properly acknowledged and represented across subjects. And we monitored our classrooms to ensure that girls got equal speaking time, and were able to answer questions and to develop their thoughts at length, instead of just listening to the boys talking.

Lack of action

How is it, then, that in 2017 girls are having such a difficult and distressing time in some schools? A report, last year, by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee outlined evidence that almost a third of 16- to 18-year-old girls said they had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. Nearly three-quarters of all 16- to 18-year-old boys and girls said they had heard terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls at schools on a regular basis, and nearly 60 per cent of girls and young women aged 13-21 said that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college within the previous year. 

These are shocking statistics. But they are not surprising. Last year I made what I thought were wholly innocuous comments about institutionalised sexism in schools. I said, in answer to a journalist’s question, that sexist bullying in schools inhibited girls from putting their hands up to answer questions in class, and that many highly academic girls had to walk a tightrope between being seen as clever, and being feminine. I added: “There are lots and lots of pressures on girls – to be compliant and to be quiet.”

The Department for Education took grave exception to this. A DfE press spokesperson responded: “It’s stories like this – with no evidence to back them up – that are exactly why sexism still exists.”

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, was amazed at the DfE’s stance. She wrote: “To imply that speaking out about these issues perpetuates sexism is downright bizarre…we are doing a disservice to those who are experiencing sexual bullying if we try to ignore or dismiss it.”

And so I find it doubly disappointing that government ministers appear to have moved little further forward in tacking sexual discrimination and harassment in schools.

Appearing before the Women and Equalities Select Committee last week, Nick Gibb, the schools and equalities minister, was asked to explain why new guidance on sexual harassment and violence in schools is not due to come into force until 2018, a full two years after the committee had published the scale and extent of the problem.

Jess Phillips MP, a member of the committee, asked Mr Gibb directly: “What reassurances are you able to give parents that schools are now in a better position to handle these incidents [sexual violence and harassment] appropriately?” In response, Mr Gibb could only insist that Ofsted would place schools in special measures for failures in safeguarding

The committee was not, I think, impressed with this response. Nor am I. While we wait for government action, girls continue to find schools an unsafe and, at times, a threatening environment. 

I recognise that boys also face sexual harassment, and this is equally unacceptable and pernicious, but I’ve deliberately focused on the sexual harassment of girls because this is happening on an industrial scale.

The National Education Union (NEU) is not prepared to wait for the government to act and is shortly going to publish a report that asks the question: why is sexism so prevalent in schools? We have also asked why children and young people are still so deeply affected by stereotypes about gender and why sexual harassment is so normalised. Teachers tell us that extreme pressure on their time, and a near-total absence of equality training, affects their ability to tackle these issues and that the government’s narrowing of the curriculum and the targets and testing culture it has imposed on schools make it much harder for them to create the learning opportunities and strategies that can reduce sexism.

The NEU will make its report widely available in every school and college and empower teachers and school leaders to develop ideas and initiatives to challenge sexism and sexual harassment. And we hope that, in due course, the government will catch up.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedNEU

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