Life lessons

Where I live September is back-to-school time, and this year the annual ritual had a special significance because it followed a period of several months when schools were closed to most children because of the pandemic. There were many reports on how delighted pupils were to be back with their friends in real classrooms with real teachers. But we all know (some of us from first-hand experience) that for some young people that won’t have been the story. There are many things that can make returning to school a less than delightful prospect. One of those things is sexism.

I first blogged about this back in 2015, when the Institute of Physics (IoP) published a report called Opening Doors, about sexism and gender stereotyping in schools. This document was on my radar because of the emphasis it placed on language. The Institute’s research had found that sexist language—covering a spectrum from casual stereotyping (‘I need two strong boys to help me with this table’) to name-calling and verbal bullying—was ubiquitous in schools. Half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using it to girls, and one in five teachers had themselves been subjected to sexist verbal abuse by pupils. The researchers also noted that this was rarely treated as a problem: often it was dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, though ‘many pupils, especially girls, did not see it as such’.

The IoP’s mild suggestion that schools should be less tolerant of sexist language got a predictable reception from the right-wing press, which treated it as both an outrage and a joke. The Sunday Times’s report lamented that

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.

Still, I found it encouraging that the report was getting some attention (and some buy-in from the government—it had a foreword written by Caroline Dinenage, the then-Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities). If anyone bothered to read the whole thing they’d find some useful examples of good practice and various practical, achievable recommendations. So, five years later, what progress has been made?

I fear that the answer is, ‘not much’. Some schools may have acted on the IoP’s recommendations, but the national initiative that made headlines in 2015 had evidently been forgotten by 2017, when the National Education Union (NEU) in association with UK Feminista conducted another study and produced a report entitled It’s Just Everywhere: A study on sexism in schools—and how we tackle it.

For anyone who’d read the IoP’s report two years earlier, this was déjà vu all over again. Once again, the researchers noted that ‘the use of sexist, misogynist language…is commonplace in schools’. In a sample of over 1600 teachers, almost two thirds of those who worked in mixed-sex secondary schools said they heard this kind of language at least weekly, and nearly a third said they heard it every day. Their further comments made clear they were not talking about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. Teachers expressed concern about boys discussing girls in language they described as ‘degrading, sexualised and offensive’ or even ‘violently misogynistic’; one interviewee reported that ‘sexually unacceptable/ threatening comments’ were made by certain boys both to girls and to female members of staff. Though the report treated sexist language and sexual harassment as separate issues, the accounts it reproduced showed that language played an integral part in many or most incidents of harassment.

In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like (Secondary school teacher)

Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years’ bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal (Female student)

In secondary schools, the use of sexist and misogynist language is no longer, if it ever was, a reciprocal, equal opportunity activity: it’s overwhelmingly a case of boys targeting girls with overtly sexual comments. And the effect on girls is not trivial. According to Girl Guiding UK, which conducts an annual survey with a sample of girls aged 11-16, fear of attracting these comments from boys makes many girls reluctant to draw attention to themselves; about a quarter report that they try not to speak in lessons. Even if most girls do not practise self-censorship, why should any girl (or indeed, anyone at all) be expected to spend 30+ hours a week in an environment where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence? Beyond its effects on girls’ academic education, what life-lessons is this experience teaching them?  

According to the NEU/Feminista study, few schools were making any systematic effort to tackle the problem. In their sample, 78% of students and 64% of teachers were not aware that their school had any policy on sexism (suggesting that even if one existed it wasn’t being followed), and only 20% of teachers had discussed the issue during their training. The report concluded with a list of recommendations: sexism should get more attention; schools should adopt explicit policies; teachers need specific training; students need opportunities to talk about it. This is all pretty obvious, and it’s also pretty similar to what the IoP came up with. So, three years later, has anything changed?

This month a book has been published which claims that something has indeed changed since 2017—but not, unfortunately, for the better. In her introduction to Men Who Hate Women, a tour of the misogynist subcultures of the online manosphere (incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs (‘men going their own way’) and other assorted men’s rights activists), Laura Bates explains that what prompted her to investigate these subcultures was hearing their language and their talking-points parroted by boys she met when she went into schools to talk about sexism. This hadn’t been a thing when she first started visiting schools, but two years ago she began to notice a change:

[Boys] were angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism. Men themselves were the real victims, they’d tell me, in a society in which political correctness has gone mad, white men are persecuted, and so many women lie about rape. In schools from rural Scotland to central London, I started hearing the same arguments. The hair rose on my arms when I realised that these boys, who had never met each other, were using precisely the same words and quoting the same false statistics to back up their claims. …These [online misogynist] groups have dug their claws into teenage boys across the country.

Laura Bates is among the feminists who place the ideas and activities of online misogynist groups in the conceptual frame of terrorism (this is a framing I have some reservations about, but in this post I’ll leave them aside). She is concerned that teenage boys, most of them more confused and lonely than violent and hateful, are being radicalised online, and recruited into an extremist movement which bears comparison with white nationalism or radical Islamism. Education, she believes, has an important role to play in countering this radicalisation, just as it does in the other cases. She suggests that schools could make use of the expertise that already exists in organisations like White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative, run by ‘men who hate men who hate women’.  

My own feelings about this proposal are mixed. I don’t dispute that some of the young men who are drawn to the manosphere are struggling with personal and social problems; but the thought that kept coming into my mind was ‘what about the girls?’ If schools are pushed into doing something about misogyny only because it’s been added to the list of extremist ideologies that can lead to acts of terrorism—and if what they do focuses on boys as potential victims of radicalisation—what does that say about our priorities? Where does it leave the victims’ victims?

I think that what schools most urgently need to address is the sexism of the ‘hidden curriculum’—what students are learning, not from explicit instruction, but through participating in the daily routines of school. It’s no use teaching formal lessons about the evils of sexism and misogyny if students’ whole experience outside those specific lessons shows them that in practice ‘no one thinks it’s a big deal’. In many schools, if the studies I’ve linked to are anything to go by, that’s exactly what their experience shows them. How much can sexism and misogyny matter if boys can verbally abuse girls with impunity, and girls’ only refuge is silence?

The most general lesson girls are learning from the experiences described in study after study is that their needs, rights and feelings are not important–or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ freedom. Until we as a society decide that this is intolerable, we will doubtless be presented with many more reports which highlight the same problems, make the same recommendations, are met with the same brief flurry of concern, and are then left to gather dust.