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What’s the problem?

Urgent action is needed to combat sexism in schools. Research commissioned by UK Feminista and the National Education Union has revealed that sexual harassment, sexist language and gender stereotyping are commonplace in school settings. This has to change.

“Boys often lift skirts up and whistle and treat girls in a sexual manner and nothing gets done about it.”

– Female student, cited in “It’s just everywhere” report by UK Feminista and the National Education Union

Sexual harassment

Over a third (37%) of female students in mixed-sex secondary schools have been sexually harassed while at school.

The problem

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which: violates a person’s dignity; intimidates, degrades or humiliates someone; or creates a hostile or offensive environment. It can include verbal, non-verbal or physical acts – such as sexual comments, taking ‘up-skirt’ photographs or unwanted sexual touching. Sexual harassment is gendered, the majority of cases involving boys targeting girls.

17% of primary school teachers have witnessed sexual harassment in their school, while almost one in three teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools witness it on at least a weekly basis. Despite this, only 14% of students who have experienced sexual harassment reported it to a teacher.

Solution

Schools should operate a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. This requires a clear policy and procedures for preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment, with support and sanctions consistently applied. Every teacher and student should be: aware of what sexual harassment is; clear on how the school views and responds to sexual harassment; and confident that reports of sexual harassment will be taken seriously. Initiatives to prevent sexual harassment should form part of a ‘whole school approach’ to tackling sexism. Find out more.

“You often hear boys being told to ‘man up’ or ‘not be such a girl’ because people think being called a girl is an insult.”

– Female student, cited in “It’s just everywhere” report by UK Feminista and the National Education Union

Sexist language

Over a quarter (29%) of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools say they hear sexist language in school on a daily basis.

The problem

The use of sexist, misogynist language – which denigrates girls and femaleness – is commonplace in schools. This language typically associates negative characteristics with being female (“you throw like a girl”) and more positive characteristics with being male (“man-up”). Over half (54%) of female students and a third of male students (34%) say they have witnessed someone using sexist language at school. The normalised and often casual use of language that denigrates girls/femaleness creates a conducive context for sexist attitudes and behaviours – including sexual harassment.

Solution

All teachers should understand what sexist language is, what impact it has, and feel confident about how to tackle it. This can be achieved through training and staff discussions. Individual incidents of sexist language should be consistently challenged. Where appropriate, incidents may be used as ‘teachable moments’ – opportunities for class-wide discussions and learning about sexist language and the impact it has. Challenging sexist language should form part of a ‘whole school approach’ to tackling sexism. Find out more.

“Teachers painting children’s nails at the Christmas fair commented negatively / implying in a humorous way how this was a strange thing to do when a boy asked for his nails to be painted.”

– Primary school teacher, cited in “It’s just everywhere” report by UK Feminista and the National Education Union

Gender stereotyping

A quarter (25%) of secondary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping and discrimination in their school on a daily basis.

The problem

Gender stereotyping reinforces distinct ideas about what is expected and acceptable behaviour from women and men, boys and girls – like the notion that women are weak and over-emotional, while men are strong and brave. These sex-role stereotypes can have a deeply harmful impact, placing arbitrary limits on children while fuelling prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes are communicated and reinforced from an early age. Over a third (34%) of primary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping in their school on at least a weekly basis.

Solution

Schools should be committed to challenging sex-role stereotypes as part of a whole school approach to tackling sexism. All teachers should be supported through training and guidance to understand what gender stereotypes are, what impact they have and how they can be effectively challenged. Stereotypes can be challenged through the resources students use, the activities they do, the visual environment they see each day and the discussions they have with teachers and peers.

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