Enough is Enough: Tackling Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Schools

Enough is enough womens safety
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By Kate Hollinshead: kate@equaliteach.co.uk

The last few weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, fear, concern and anger after the details of the murder of Sarah Everard have emerged. Feelings have run high in the political sphere, on social media and in schools, with more and more women contributing their experiences of sexism, sexual harassment and violence to the wider call for action against these pernicious and pervasive acts.

In the wake of the Sarah Everard case, the National Education Union have once again called on the government to implement a strategy to tackle sexism in schools, expressing their disappointment at the Department for Education’s action when the NEU’s report into these behaviours was first published in 2017. The report, written in collaboration with UK Feminista, found that almost a quarter of female students at mixed-sex schools had been subjected to unwanted physical touching at school and almost a third of teachers witness sexual harassment in school on at least a weekly basis. The website, Everyone’s Invited, was set up by Soma Sara after her post sharing her experiences of sexual abuse on Instagram caused a huge number of responses from others highlighting similar experiences. In the past few weeks, this website has been inundated with thousands of allegations about sexual harassment at British schools and universities.

At EqualiTeach, we have seen an increase in calls from teachers who are dealing with these conversations in schools, wondering what to say in response and what resources exist to combat sexism and sexual harassment in their classroom. There have been incidents where girls have been upset and angry and boys have been dismissive of the severity of the situation, suggesting that girls are ‘over-reacting’ or that it’s ‘not all men.’ One school has approached us to share that girls have been expressing their upset at the historic behaviour of some of the boys in their class. In another, a year 6 boy has been internally excluded for making comments about rape. Many of the conversations and incidents here are an extension of those happening on social media or in the press, highlighting that young people are consuming news and need help in dissecting the discussions effectively in a safe and open environment.

The suggestion that the incidents women are sharing online are overreactions or the dismissal that sexism and sexual harassment isn’t as big an issue as women think comes from a place of privilege; of a life lead without constant fear of abuse in public spaces or of a lack of understanding that incidents that appear ‘small’ or ‘low level’ are often so regular that they build up into a picture of continual harassment for a woman from a very young age. Someone might only witness sexism or sexual harassment of a woman a couple of times in their life, but the same woman may have many experiences of such behaviour, just not within the same line of sight. What is often missing in the response about women ‘overreacting’ is an understanding of how seemingly low-level incidents feed into a societal acceptance of sexist behaviours and sexual harassment, which, left unchecked, can escalate into the levels of violence against women and girls we experience in the UK.

According to a 2021 survey from UN Women UK, 97% of women aged between 18 and 24 said that they had been sexually harassed and 80% of all women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.

Such a normalisation of sexism and sexual harassment can disguise the true prevalence of behaviours. Sometimes, experiences may simply go unnoticed by targets as behaviours can be so normalised or the expectation that someone will take a complaint seriously is so low. A colleague of mine has spoken about being inappropriately touched throughout her school life, but only realised that this wasn’t acceptable when she was in her mid-twenties. Speaking about these issues can often educate those experiencing the behaviour that the behaviour isn’t something they should have to tolerate. Those young people in schools who are now speaking up about historic incidents of sexism or sexual harassment perhaps didn’t realise that this was unacceptable behaviour at the time or didn’t see the point in speaking up about it. Either way, these incidents should be dealt with seriously and robustly now. They should be investigated, and education and punitive measures should be administered accordingly. It is important for the school to adopt a robust and consistent approach to challenging sexism and sexual harassment in the same way it would approach challenging any other prejudice or misbehaviour.

Whole school education on sexism and sexual harassment is vital to prevent incidents occurring again.

This should be comprehensive and woven not just into the PSHE and citizenship curriculum for each year group, but opportunities should be taken throughout the curriculum; in English, RE, History and beyond to highlight and interrogate stereotypes, sexism and sexual harassment within the taught content. Stand-alone assemblies will not do. Education should focus on what sexism is, how it manifests and what reporting procedures are in place at the school for pupils. It should focus on understanding boundaries between people, consent and how to hold others’ behaviour to account if someone witnesses something unacceptable. It should focus on stamping out sexist jokes or ‘banter’, abolishing name calling and the different expectations between girls and boys with regards to sexual behaviour, and showcasing how to be an ally to women in the fight against these behaviours.

Being an ally is about listening to women’s experiences. All too often the response to women speaking up about such behaviours is that ‘not all men are like that.’ I understand that many men will want to distance themselves from sexist behaviours and sexual harassment, that in itself is a good thing to want to do. However, this is a defensive response which can prevent people from listening. It dismisses women’s reality. Women are aware that not all men are like that but articulating that does nothing to help address the men that are like that.  It allows the conversation to be focused only on the ‘few monsters’ out there, those who have committed terrible crimes, without highlighting how smaller acts by lots of men can contribute to women’s unsafety. As Jameela Jamil put it in a recent Twitter thread:

“Do all men work to make sure their fellow men do not harm women? Do they interrupt troubling language and behaviour in others? Do they have conversations about women’s safety/consent with their sons? Are all men interested in our safety? You don’t get to exclude yourself from the wrong side unless you’re actively fighting on the right side.”

But this shouldn’t be a blame game. Men are a product of societal norms and values, just as women are. The focus needs to be on re-educating people away from sexism and sexual harassment and reforming schemes of work in schools to begin discussions from an early age. Not doing so does a disservice to men, women, everyone. Instead, we want to create a society where everyone feels safe, valued and able to succeed.

The following resources may be useful to beginning these conversations with young people:

EqualiTeach Outside the Box Guide for Educators: Promoting Gender Equality and Tackling Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Schools: https://equaliteach.co.uk/for-schools/classroom-resources/outside-the-box/

EqualiTeach Outside the Box Workshops for KS2-5: https://equaliteach.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Outside-the-Box.pdf

UK Feminista How to Take a Whole School Approach to Tackling Sexism in Schools https://ukfeminista.org.uk/resources/wsa/

Further Reading

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges: advice for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/719902/Sexual_violence_and_sexual_harassment_between_children_in_schools_and_colleges.pdf

End Violence Against Women https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/about/data-on-violence-against-women-and-girls/#:~:text=%20Data%20on%20violence%20against%20women%20and%20girls,and%20internal%20child%20trafficking.%20The%20vast…%20More%20

Gender Matters. Toward’s Women’s Equality in Scotland https://gendermatters.engender.org.uk/content/education-training/

Girl Guiding (2013) Girls’ Attitudes Survey https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2013.pdf

Murray, J (2021) The Guardian. Government still has no strategy for tackling sexism in schools, say teachers. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/20/government-still-has-no-strategy-for-tackling-sexism-in-schools-say-teachers

NEU and UK Feminista (2017) ‘It’s Just Everywhere! Sexism in Schools’ https://neu.org.uk/advice/its-just-everywhere-sexism-schools

UN Women UK and YouGov (2021) Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces https://www.unwomenuk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/APPG-UN-Women-Sexual-Harassment-Report_Updated.pdf

Women and Equalities Committee Report (2016) Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmwomeq/91/91.pdf

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