Sexism forces girls to ditch subjects and avoid sports

6th November 2015 at 00:00
Female pupils suffer harassment, wolf-whistling and discrimination, study shows

Sexist attitudes are still so rife in Scottish schools that girls are ditching academic subjects, career options and hobbies even when they interest them, according to a new survey.

Young women also report feeling humiliated by wolf-whistling boys, and TESS has been told of how “sexting” leaves schoolgirls vulnerable to malicious harassment.

One respondent says that a teacher stopped her from playing football because she might “get hurt”. Another was told that she should not play the saxophone because it was “a boy’s instrument”.

Detailed interviews with more than 60 young women show that problems stem from sexist attitudes among boys, teachers and parents (

The report, Status of Young Women in Scotland 2015, from YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement, says that young women want education about gender equality for both boys and girls from a young age, and mentoring or training to help girls be as confident and assertive as men.

The research reveals that sexism can be driven by misplaced good intentions, with female pupils discouraged or prevented from taking part in sports or certain subjects.

“At my school, science lessons were really gendered: girls were encouraged to do biology and boys to do chemistry and physics,” one interviewee says.


‘I wasn’t allowed to play’

One young woman recalls: “I was the only female player in the school’s football team. When we got to the final I wasn’t allowed to play in the match. The teacher said it was because ‘we don’t want you getting hurt’.”

Respondents also believe not enough is being done to show career options to girls, beyond stereotypically feminine roles.

One says: “I was given some well-meaning careers advice: in an interview, a woman should try and project that they are not interested in relationships or family life – signal that they are ‘career-focused’, willing to work late and unlikely to leave to have children.”

Another recalls how a group of boys followed a classmate as she walked down a road, and wolf-whistled and called after her. “I think they were really shocked when we pulled them up on it the next day at school – she was upset. They didn’t realise it could be perceived as threatening,” she says.

What starts in school can continue into university, another woman reports: “There are some courses with only one girl in a class of 20 or 30 students. We hear lots of stories of wolf whistles, sexual chat or being made to feel uncomfortable.”

An S5 girl at a Scottish secondary told TESS that the sending of intimate images between pupils – or “sexting” – was rife, but that if these were shared widely the girls were denounced as “whores” and “sluts”. Boys were not subjected to the same humiliation.

Girls were given strict advice from teachers on appearance and behaviour, she added, but boys had more freedom. “You’re told you need to be ladylike and dress in a certain way, and boys can get away with acting the fool – girls can’t,” the girl said.

She added that some male teachers had made disparaging comments – often meant in jest – about physics not being suitable for girls or women belonging “in the kitchen”.

Kara Brown, innovation coordinator at YWCA Scotland, said it was “striking” how many issues raised by girls and women several decades ago still cropped up today.

But she added: “It’s not all doom and gloom – there is a positive message. These experiences haven’t deterred girls from being who they want to be. There’s a real sense of supporting each other. If you give young women space to talk, share ideas and work together, it is amazing what they can achieve.”

The report comes just weeks after the TES website highlighted a new pilot project, Gender Equality Leadership in Schools, which encourages schools to set up feminist or gender equality groups. It is hoped that sexist attitudes can be reduced by encouraging pupils to confront them head-on.

Nine UK schools are taking part in the project, a collaboration between the Gender and Education Association, UCL Institute of Education academics and pressure group UK Feminista.

Feeling the pressure

Teenage girls are more likely to feel under pressure at school than boys of the same age, University of St Andrews researchers have found (

The proportion of young people feeling pressured by schoolwork has been rising since 2006, especially among girls, with the gender gap now wider than at any point in the past 20 years. Some 80 per cent of 15-year-old girls feel pressured, compared with 60 per cent of boys that age. About 10,800 school pupils aged 11, 13 and 15 took part in the survey, following previous studies every four years since 1990.

Professor Candace Currie, principal investigator and director of the university’s Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit, said: “We have observed concerning changes in teenage girls’ mental health, especially over the past four years. In 2014, 15-year-old girls are around twice as likely as boys to report irritability, nervousness and low mood.”

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