Sexism in schools is a clear and present danger

6th November 2015 at 00:00

There’s a sense of a tipping point being reached with gender equality, of a marginalised issue becoming mainstream. The signs have been everywhere: a film about the suffragettes muscling aside action flicks and romcoms at the multiplexes; the “everyday sexism” hashtag that exploded on Twitter; the chatter created by a gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish government.

Of course, the pessimistic view is that these novelties underline the scale of the problem. If women were routinely accorded the same respect and life opportunities as men, the argument goes, none of this would generate such excitement. And now two reports have revealed the prejudice and pressure faced by many girls at school in Scotland (see pages 6-7).

There are misplaced attempts to help; for example, by teachers who discourage girls from playing sport with boys because they could get hurt, or who discourage them from taking physics, chemistry and other subjects supposedly more suited to boys.

There are also more blatant and disturbing cases in the report by YWCA Scotland – The Women’s Movement: for instance, the girl who, as she walked down the road, was harassed by male classmates who had no idea of the distress they were inflicting.

And in universities, those supposed paragons of enlightenment, a female student in a predominantly male class may still have to contend with a background thrum of sexual innuendo. This will continue until, as one woman observed, the men decree that the female interloper is “one of the boys”.

We like to believe that at least things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Television shows such as It Was Alright in the 1960s (or the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s) feed this complacency by picking out shocking clips of sexism: a middle-aged presenter making suggestive comments to a 16-year-old beauty queen, or a hero in The Professionals slapping a woman to quell her hysteria.

Research from the University of St Andrews, however, suggests that in some ways things are getting worse: girls feel more under pressure at school than they have done at any time in at least 20 years.

No reasons are given, but the stark truth is that many more 15-year-old girls feel stressed because of school than boys of that age.

One 16-year-old girl we spoke to said she and her friends were expected to be demure and mannerly in school, while the unruly behaviour of male classmates was indulged.

Such constraints are in contrast with the advice that writer Maya Angelou liked to give young women: “You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

Young women say that schools need to provide more help, including training on how to be assertive. The campaign for a Scottish Qualifications Authority course in ass-kicking starts here.

Turning to an issue that has dominated the thoughts of Scottish educators this past week,, the death of Cults Academy pupil Bailey Gwynne was devastating news. Most of all, of course, for his family, to whom we offer our most profound sympathies at this desperately difficult time.

Teaching is an altruistic profession. The teachers who knew Bailey have dedicated their lives to helping students make themselves ready for the adult world. For them, the events of 28 October will have been a hammer blow. Tragedy is an overused word but there is no more apt description for the death of a pupil on school premises.

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