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.

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.