'There is a problem with sexism in schools. It would be surprising, given the evidence of sexism in society, if there were not'
Earlier this year, I made what I thought were some well-evidenced and straightforward comments about sexism and its effect on girls’ experience of school and their ability to demonstrate their learning and knowledge.
I said that sexist bullying in schools inhibited girls from putting up their hands 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 thin, to be attractive, to be compliant and to be quiet – and it’s as great now as it has ever been.”
And I said: “If you are an adolescent girl, there are so many names you can be called in school – there are fewer for boys…There’s a big pressure in many schools for girls to keep quiet and listen to the boys talking.”
Sexism: an outdated notion?
I made these comments in response to a journalist’s question about a debate at ATL’s annual conference on sexist bullying and harassment of students. I had made similar remarks previously, which had attracted some media interest. But this time, for some reason, the story grew and grew. My comments were widely reported in the national media. I had a busy day of radio phone-ins where I discussed the issue with presenters and the public.
There was a general agreement that sexism remains a problem, that its effects are particularly damaging for adolescent girls searching for a sense of their place in the world, and that although schools work hard to create safe places for all their pupils, more needs to be done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson gave this response to my concerns: “It’s stories like this – with no evidence to back them up – that are exactly why sexism still exists. We should be celebrating the achievements and talents of women and girls rather than focusing on outdated notions.”
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, commented on the government’s response: “That the DfE should responds in this way is extraordinary, particularly as the defensive and combative tone…implies some kind of attack on the government itself, when Bousted in fact was simply discussing a problem she had observed during her own teaching career…
“To imply that speaking out about these issues perpetuates sexism is downright bizarre. Of course nobody is suggesting that every single child is experiencing the same problems, nor that we shouldn’t also celebrate the achievements of women and girls – of course we should. But we are doing a disservice to those who are experiencing sexual bullying if we try to ignore or dismiss it.’’
I had, in fact, not only observed the more vulnerable position of girls in school during my teaching career, I had also, as a teacher-researcher, investigated the issue, looking at patterns of talk in mixed-sex classrooms. The results were clear – boys dominated classroom talk, their answers were longer and they had a greater expectation that they would be listened to. Girls talked less, their answers were shorter and much more difficult to hear when played back, as they talked much more quietly.
Concerns have been rising about the experience of girls in schools, with evidence that daily harassment and sexist bullying is commonplace for many. In 2010, a study by YouGov for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that 71 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds hear sexual name-calling used towards girls at school daily or a few times a week. The same study revealed that 29 per cent of 16- to 18-year-old-girls had been subject to unwanted sexual touching at school.
Inappropriate and explicit
Social media too often intensifies the pressure on girls. Last week, a major study by Middlesex University, for the NSPCC and Children’s Commissioner for England, of more than 1,000 children aged 11-16 revealed, that at least half had been exposed to online porn. Of those, 94 per cent had been exposed to it by the time they were 14.
This research aligns with the sense I get from teachers that children and young people are exposed to inappropriate and explicit sexual content at too early an age, and that such exposure then manifests itself in inappropriate behaviour towards girls in schools.
This month, when MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee addressed this issue, they were told that online pornography had led to increased acceptance of sexual violence and harassment towards women. A normalised culture of sexual harassment in England’s schools meant girls were changing their behaviours, rather than boys being challenged. Sophie Bennet, co-director of UK Feminista, told the Committee: “Girls tell us that you do not leave school as a girl without being called a slut; that to wear shorts under your skirt to prevent boys revealing your underwear in the playground is just normal behaviour.”
I think the evidence clearly shows there is a problem with sexism in schools. It would be surprising, given the evidence of sexism in society, if there were not. Schools are a microcosm of society’s norms and beliefs. Schools embody the best in our society – striving to ensure that children and young people experience a safe, positive and productive environment in which they can grow both as people and in their learning. But vigilance against all forms of discrimination, be it sexist, racist, homophobic or other, needs to be constantly maintained, along with the promotion of equality for all.
We must not have a conspiracy of silence on the sexist bullying of girls in schools and in society.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL