School for sexism

This week, it was announced that schools in England are being issued with new guidelines on combatting sexism and gender stereotyping. This initiative follows research conducted for the Institute of Physics (IoP), which found that most schools took sexism less seriously than other kinds of prejudice and discrimination. According to the IoP’s report,

All the schools had policies to counter racist, homophobic and sexist language. However, in almost all cases, infringements in the last case were treated less seriously than the other two. Often, during a visit, the Senior Leadership Team would assert that there was no problem with sexist language, only for the classroom teachers to refer to some cases and the students to report that it was an everyday reality. Such language was often dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, but many of the students, particularly girls, did not see it as such, and, in extreme cases, it verged on bullying.

The IoP’s main concern—one it shares with the government, which co-funded the research—is that girls are being deterred from studying science subjects by the sexist attitudes they encounter in school. Language is only one of the issues the report urges schools to tackle (others include timetable conflicts, poor careers advice and the presentation of subjects like maths as too difficult for most students). But language was the main theme picked up in media reporting on the new guidelines, with many news outlets dramatically proclaiming that children ‘as young as five’ were going to be ‘banned’ from using certain words.

The Sunday Times’s report, for instance, was headlined ‘No more sissies in the playground’. The story continued:

IT’S been banned in the workplace, in universities and from the airwaves. Now children as young as five will be told to cut out sexist language. The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

The Telegraph’s headline was ‘The “sexist” words your children are no longer allowed to use’, followed by the information that ‘teachers are to be issued guidelines from the Institute of Physics detailing the words which are to be banned from the playground’. The Mail had ‘Saying ‘sissy’ is sexist, teachers tell pupils of five in new government drive to stamp out gender stereotypes’.

I think we can guess why these newspapers were so keen on the language angle. They’ve known since the heyday of ‘political correctness gone mad’ that nothing stirs up the wrath of Middle England like a story about someone trying to ban words. Never mind that no sane parent permits total free expression for the under-fives (think how wearing all those mealtime conversations about poo would get): we can’t have a bunch of feminazis (cunningly disguised as physicists) telling our kids what they can or can’t say. An Englishboy’s playground is his castle, FFS!

This reporting only underlined the point that sexism isn’t taken as seriously as other forms of prejudice. Would any reputable newspaper talk about ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “Paki” and “wog”’? (And yes, I know those days aren’t over; the point is that most people at least pretend to think they should be.) Rather than being outraged by the idea of telling primary school children to watch their words, shouldn’t we be asking why ‘children as young as five’ are using sexist language in the first place?

We may not want to think that this is happening among children still at primary school, but unfortunately the evidence says it is. In 2006 a study carried out for the National Union of Teachers found that around half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using sexist language to girls, and over a third had witnessed examples they were willing to describe as bullying or harassment. Almost one in five of these teachers had themselves been on the receiving end of sexist verbal abuse from pupils, and two in five had seen colleagues abused in this way.

There is also evidence suggesting that what teachers see and hear is only part of what actually goes on in our schools. Girl Guiding UK publishes an annual survey of girls’ attitudes: the 2015 survey, conducted with a sample of nearly 1600 girls and young women aged between 7 and 21, found that in the week before they were questioned, over 80% of respondents had experienced or witnessed some form of sexism, much of which was perpetrated by boys of their own age, and some of which undoubtedly occurred in school. 39% of respondents had been subjected to demeaning comments on their appearance, and 58% had heard comments or jokes belittling women and girls. (That was in real life: 53% had also heard such jokes and comments via the media.)

By the time they go to secondary school, girls are conscious of this everyday sexism as a factor which restricts their freedom, affecting where they feel they can go, what they feel able to wear and how much they are willing to talk in front of boys. In the Girl Guiding UK survey, a quarter of respondents aged 11-16 reported that they avoided speaking in lessons because of their fear of attracting sexist comments.

So, the Institute of Physics isn’t just being perverse when it identifies sexist ‘banter’ as a problem that affects girls’ education. It’s to the organization’s credit that it’s saying this shouldn’t be tolerated—and it’s also to its credit that it’s offering practical advice. Its recommendations are sensible, and its report contains many good ideas for teachers to consider.

But there are some things about the report that don’t sit so well with me. It’s striking how many of its examples of sexist language are expressions which are typically addressed to or used about boys—like ‘sissy’, and ‘gay’ used as a term of abuse. Many of the news reports quoted a deputy head teacher whose school in Bristol participated in the research:

We used to say, ‘man up, cupcake’. We’ve stopped saying that. Saying ‘don’t be a girl’ to a boy if they are being a bit wet is also unacceptable.

Now, I don’t dispute that the expressions this teacher mentions are sexist: they tell a boy he’s shit by saying he’s like a girl, and that presupposes the inferiority of girls. But it seems odd to put so much emphasis on boys’ experiences of verbal sexism. In reality, girls are the primary recipients of sexist comments in the classroom and the playground, and some of the things they habitually get called are a lot more degrading than ‘sissy’ and ‘cupcake’.

There’s a deeper difference too. Whereas sexist language used to/about boys targets individual boys who deviate from the assumed masculine norm, sexist language used to/about girls targets girls as a class, just because they are female. True, there are specific insults for girls who are judged insufficiently feminine (‘dyke’, ‘lesbo’) or insufficiently attractive (‘minger’), but there are also more general insults for girls which don’t depend on their behaviour or their appearance. ‘Make me a sandwich’, for instance, is something any male can say to any female. It’s an all-purpose put-down, a way of reminding women that their role is to serve and to obey. Similarly, comments on girls’ bodies—admiring as well as derogatory—are symbolic assertions of the entitlement of boys and men to treat girls and women as sexual objects.

When the Sunday Times talks about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’, the implication is that we’re dealing with something reciprocal, a ‘battle of the sexes’ in which the two sides are evenly matched. But they’re not evenly matched. What can a girl say to a boy that will make him feel like a commodity, a piece of meat? What popular catchphrase can she fling at him that has the same dismissive force as ‘make me a sandwich’? (A girl once asked participants in an online forum what they thought would be a good comeback for ‘make me a sandwich’: the most popular answer was ‘well, you’d better come back with a goddamn sandwich‘.)

The IoP report does not seem to grasp that there is more to sexism than gender stereotyping. It falls back on the liberal argument that stereotyping harms both sexes equally: it’s as bad for the boy who wants to be a ballet dancer as it is for the girl who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. But sexism doesn’t harm boys and girls equally, just as racism doesn’t harm white people and people of colour equally. It is the ideology of a system based on structural sexual inequality: male dominance and female subordination. You can’t address the problem of gender stereotyping effectively if you don’t acknowledge the larger power structure it is part of.

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