Boys are Strong and Girls are Pretty: Challenging Sexism at School

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Recent weeks have seen the publication of several reports which should make us all sit up and listen. Firstly, Girlguiding UK issued a report “Equality for Girls” which found that 75% of young women aged 11-21 believed that sexism affected their confidence and future aspirations. 87% of girls aged 11-21 felt that women are judged more for their looks than their brains and nearly three-quarters of girls over 13 had experienced sexual harassment: reporting being regularly shouted and whistled at, being on the receiving end of sexual jokes and taunts as well as unwanted sexual attention, touching and stalking.

Similarly, Cardiff university, the NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’s office interviewed young people aged between 10-12 and found that young people felt that they were living in a sexist society, were angry about this, but felt powerless to create change.

Other research has shown that domestic violence is a reality in teenage relationships and that young people feel that this is expected, and in extreme cases young girls involved in gangs are being made to feel that rape is normal. Even across Britain’s universities there is a prevalence of ‘lad culture’, with misogynistic and homophobic “banter”, the objectification of women and sexual harassment being rife.

These reports make for disturbing reading. It has been 38 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, girls now outperform boys when it comes to GCSE results and women make up 57% of the adult workforce, so how is it that young people are so sharply aware of sexism and gender inequality and so bleak about the possibility of change?

It is vital to recognise that young people are not growing up in a bubble, more than ever before they are connected to the media, through the internet, television and magazines, which via phones, tablets and laptops can enter their bedrooms and leisure spaces 24 hours a day.

This media shows them a society which values an unobtainable, photoshopped, stereotyped version of female beauty and judges those who fail to meet this standard. A society where a young woman who doesn’t engage with boys is frigid, but one who does is considered loose; whilst sexual behaviour is accepted or even admired in young men. A society where even those women who have succeeded in getting to the top of their professions, such as the home secretary Theresa May, attract press articles judging their looks and clothes rather than their achievements or failures in the workplace. A society where toys are now clearly demarcated for boys and for girls, with the girls toys being restricted to pink or purple homeware, dolls, make up and princess dresses.

Tracey Beaker, written by Jacqueline Wilson and featuring a strong willed girl in care at its heart, is the most popular children’s television programme on CBBC. However, Jacqueline Wilson’s books usually feature pink covers sending out signals to boys that these are not for them. The author herself has complained that the practice is “pigeonholing” girls while also putting boys off reading her stories. When she complained to the publishers, she was told that marketing her stories in this way meant that they would sell twice as many copies amongst girls, even if they put boys off. The pinkification of girls toys may be limiting young people’s choices and reinforcing stereotypes, but it is perceived to be driven by market forces and therefore there is little incentive for change.

Campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys are doing excellent work, challenging shops and manufacturers to stop marketing toys in a gender segregated fashion and it is vital that similar messages and more are communicated in school. Young people have reported that much of the sexism they experience or witness happens at school and school is the ideal place to challenge it. School is a space where young people learn to interact with each other, where friendships and relationships are developed and where values and aspirations are acquired. By allowing the belief that there are separate interests for boys and girls we are reducing the opportunities for them to play together and the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships and understanding outside of a sexual sphere. Research by the National Union of Teachers found that even in primary schools some boys had developed a belief that women were inferior to men and even a negative view of girls in general.

As educators we also need to continually challenge our own assumptions and stereotypes, otherwise we are in danger of unintentionally reinforcing them through our own language, behaviour and resources that we select. Research has shown that 60% of those who buy technology are women, but women make up only 14% of those who work in the industry. When I am working with teachers on these issues I talk about the importance of inviting female speakers from STEM industries in to the school to speak to the young people to allow girls the opportunity to picture themselves in these roles. However, when I suggest this, the immediate response is often “but what about the boys?”. The idea that girls will learn from and relate to male speakers is never questioned.

It is not just girls whose life chances are limited by gender stereotypes. The National Union of Teachers reports that boys are four times as likely to be excluded as girls and are overrepresented in the youth offending system as they can perceive learning to be “unmanly”. Boys also need the opportunity to see themselves in a wide variety of roles without fear of being labelled as effeminate or unmanly if they choose a traditionally female career. Evidence from the Institute of Physics has shown that schools that actively address the issues can reduce the impact of gender stereotyping. Curriculum developers in gendered subjects need to examine the curriculum content and types of assessment to ensure that they are providing meaningful access to all young people. It is vital to start this work when children are very young and to continually challenge stereotyping and inappropriate language where it occurs.

Good sex and relationships education (SRE) is also vital. Learning how to develop healthy, respectful relationships is an integral part of young people’s social development. However the current guidance was produced in thirteen years ago and is not fit for purpose in an age where digital technology is such a big part of young people’s lives. There are many calls for this information to be urgently updated and it is essential that the government responds to this as soon as possible.

To leave sexism and gender stereotyping unchallenged is to do a disservice to all young people. Sexism ruins relationships, limits potential, reduces career aspirations, damages self-esteem and creates an environment where abuse is able to occur. Educating young people about equality and the impact of sexism will benefit both young women and young men. This is not an issue that we can afford to ignore.

Sarah Soyei

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