Tackling Misogyny & Sexual Harassment

diversity, Education, equality, human rights, inclusion, mental health, sexism, sexual harassment, teaching

I frequently run workshops in schools on sex and relationships. As part of these workshops I spend considerable time addressing respect, self-respect, consent and sexual harassment. Along the way I  ask students to discuss these five questions in groups:

  1. Would you feel able to report sexual harassment in all its forms if you experienced it?
  2. Would you report sexual harassment in all its forms if you saw or heard it?
  3. How much do you think sexual harassment goes unreported in your school? Sometimes, Often or Mostly?
  4. How confident are you that it would be taken seriously and dealt with if you reported it?
  5. Do you think all members of staff would take such a report equally seriously?

Without exception the common answers are:

  1. No
  2. No
  3. Mostly
  4. Not confident
  5. No

Note number 3. Almost unanimously students report that sexual harassment MOSTLY goes unreported in their school. I ask students, ‘Why? Why are you not reporting it?’ And the answers are the same:

  1. There’s no point – nothing will happen
  2. I have done before and nothing happened
  3. It’s happened in front of teachers and they haven’t done anything
  4. It will just make things worse
  5. You feel like maybe you’re the only one
  6. You feel like you’re making a big deal about something that everyone seems to think is harmless or normal
  7. It’s just treated as banter

This is serious. We have a problem. In the UK, as globally, one in three women will experience violence at some point in their lives.[i] The problem is systemic and institutional.  By our passivity and inaction we are perpetuating a culture which continues to treat women and girls as objects, as property and second class citizens. And we can’t legitimately claim that we didn’t realise it was happening: it’s our job to realise, to notice and to act. The fact is, the violent and misogynistic views and actions lived out in our society and experienced daily by millions of women, had their roots in unchallenged attitudes and behaviours in childhood and adolescence. Attitudes and behaviours that were dismissed in our schools as harmless banter or even reinforced by unfair policies and practices. Policies that, for example, restrict opportunities for girls to access certain sports or dress code discrimination.

Our young women are being socialised into a culture that still places more value on women’s ‘beauty’ than on their intellect, that still expects women to fulfil outdated gender stereotypes in almost every aspect of life. And, alarmingly, and because it is not being challenged, our young men are being socialised to treat women as, at best, inferior and at worst little more than pieces of meat.

The tendency of most is to assert defensively, ‘I’m not sexist’. But the truth is you probably are. It is notable that when asked ‘Are you sexist?’ most people respond ‘No’. When asked ‘Are you a feminist?’ most people don’t respond ‘Yes’! Yet one is the logical corollary of the other. It is regrettable that the term ‘feminist’ has been tarnished in some people’s minds, however the definition of feminist is ‘one who believes in the equality of the sexes’. Remarkably when I asked 80 secondary school teachers at a mixed comprehensive in Poole, ‘How many of you would say you are a feminist?’ only approximately 50% raised their hands! If only half of our teachers can comfortably assert they believe in equal rights for men and women then it is no wonder that there is a disparity in the experience of our students. Clearly this is not simply a student issue. And though the incidents of sexual harassment may be lower amongst school staff than students (I’m assuming here…), the insipid attitudes which enable misogynistic behaviour to continue unaddressed is very much a staff issue.

The truth is that sexism is so deeply embedded in our thinking and modes of operating that for the most part we don’t even notice. Whenever a group of people who share the same bias form a business or school or team then that bias becomes ‘baked into’ the norms of the culture there. This isn’t necessarily with malicious intent, it is just a fact. And those structural biases don’t automatically disappear simply because there are more or even a majority of women in leadership positions; for women, like men and all genders, are a product of a sexist upbringing and culture that ignores and discriminates against women in ways we never even noticed. For example, Caroline Criado Perez points out that the “standard” piano keyboard discriminates against female pianists who, by virtue of being female, have on average smaller hands than male pianists. Pianos were designed by men with average male handspans in mind, which disadvantages 87% of female pianists and leads to a disproportionate rate of injury amongst female piano players.[ii]

The truth is that unhelpful and often damaging, gender stereotypes begin from the moment we exit the womb. The mantlepieces of our parents were adorned with cards that communicated the expected preferences and behaviours associated with our biological sex. For example, boys are supposed to like football, robots, trucks, pirates and blue. Girls are supposed to like cupcakes, fairies, ponies, princesses and pink! Very quickly children learn what they are supposed to like. In fact, studies show that in just three weeks a child’s preferences can be altered by the rituals, norms and role models to which they are exposed.[iii]

Soon after we are born we are introduced to stories. A study of children’s books showed that males are twice as likely to appear in title roles as females and appear in 50% more pictures. In TV, boys and men appear in 75% more speaking roles than girls and women. In those same stories the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘weak’ are more commonly ascribed to women and the words ‘brave’ and ‘great’ more commonly ascribed to men. Without realising it children learn early on that ‘beauty is an essential part of being female’.[iv]

Such early experiences of conditioning feed the stereotypes that then perpetuate the myth. ‘My daughter just prefers playing with dolls’ is asserted to be ‘natural’ when her introduction to expected norms was far from gender neutral from the start. Take too the tendency for parents to spend more attention each day to brushing and styling a girl’s hair or the outfit she wears than to boys’ appearance. Very early girls in our culture grow up with two distinct identities: their body and their mind; they are subtly absorbed into a society which values women more for their physical looks and men more for their intellect. So effectively internalised is this stereotype that when women are asked simply to record their sex on a quantitative test (thereby reminded unconsciously of the stereotypical expectations) they consistently perform worse than when they are not reminded of their sex![v] Being pretty is more important than being smart if you are a woman in our culture. This is the prevailing message. And the examples of this are multitudinous.

If we are going to even start to attempt to fulfil our various school mottos and vision statements, espousing lofty dreams to ‘enable excellence and achievement for all… etc etc, then we must proactively address the grossly inequitable starting points of female students as compared to male. Inequities in mindset, self-esteem, stereotypes and practices entrenched in every school in the land. Resolving to take this issue seriously and seek to proactively address it is a challenge for every school. If we don’t then I fear that the prevalence of sexual harassment and misogyny will only continue. Change starts here.

So what can we do as schools to proactively address this issue?

  1. Find out what’s happening and acknowledge it. There needs to be an open consultation in which students of all genders are invited to tell their stories in whichever way they feel comfortable – anonymously or not. The ‘Everyone’s Invited’[vi] initiative has begun this on a national level. (By the way if you haven’t checked to see if your school is listed there then you ought to check it out). We can’t address it until we admit it. We can’t jump to a solution without acknowledging what has been happening right under our noses every single day and without apologising to the thousands of girls who have, whether by culture or convention, felt silenced. This is a piece of work that will be deeply uncomfortable and open up the proverbial ‘can of worms’ – but I do not believe we can bypass this if we are going to take this issue seriously.
  2. Establish absolute clarity on the rights of every child and on your values as a school. Unicef’s Rights Respecting School Award[vii] is undoubtedly the best vehicle available for doing this at a whole school, sustainable level. But part and parcel with this is absolute and repeated clarity over what sexual harassment is. What exactly it means. What kind of behaviours are classed as sexual harassment and, critically, understanding that it is not the intention on the part of the perpetrator which makes the behaviour unacceptable but whether it is unwanted by the target or recipient of said behaviours. We must hammer home to students and, in this case especially to girls, that they do not have to put up with ANY behaviour or attention of a sexual nature if they do not want it.
  1. Education about power, consent, unconscious bias and gender stereotypes. We must acknowledge that we are products, all of us. That it’s our unconscious mind, powered by habits, that processes 90% of our daily information intake and thereby drives our thought patterns. Childhood and adolescence is a key time to challenge assumptions that may originate in the home or via social media or religion or culture. The story books mentioned above have left boys and girls with unconscious assumptions about masculinity and manhood, femininity and womanhood that must be explored as early as possible. This may include examining and assessing the different views, religious or secular, about the role of women in society and the family – examining assumptions and equipping students to make informed, free decisions as to their views whilst affirming the legal status of all as defined in the Equality Act 2010.
  1. Clear policy and procedure must be in place to back up those who experience harassment or abuse of any kind and address those who perpetrate harassment in an appropriate and contextual, age appropriate way. Bottom line: does everyone in school know exactly who to go to, where to go, how to report an issue? Do they know what will happen next? Is there clarity over the consequences. When in Year 10, my daughter experienced repetitive comments and attention about her bum. It made her feel uncomfortable. We told her she didn’t have to put up with that. She didn’t want to make a fuss but, with encouragement, she went to her PE teacher. The matter was dealt with quickly and decisively and the ringleader in question was isolated for two days. My daughter experienced some backlash from his mates: ‘Why did you do that? He was paying you a compliment!!’ But it stopped. At least for her and in her hearing. Decisive, visible action is essential to clarify the message.
  1. Transparency of process and consequences. It’s one thing to have a policy. It’s another thing for people to know about it! As a Head of Year I found it endlessly frustrating that students would say about bullying issues: ‘There’s no point reporting it because nothing happens..’ when I knew first hand just how many hours I had spent addressing bullying issues. I gradually realised that dealing with the bullying was only half the job. The other half is communicating what happened and the outcomes. If students don’t know what happened next they will assume nothing has. And that perception undermines the whole system. There is a proviso here however that in some cases the sensitive nature of incidents and the need to protect those involved means that transparency is not appropriate. However, I would argue that if we make sure there is transparency and clarity over the lower-level incidents then students will trust you and trust the system. And what is more, we will hopefully have less higher-level incidents to deal with!

And, of course, repeat the above over and over and over again. Bullying of any kind (sexual harassment is bullying) is a group behaviour. The myth of the lone bully, the ‘wrongun’ who ends up committing some heinous crime later in life, is used to absolve the rest of us of responsibility for the fact that we didn’t see it coming and we didn’t do anything. It’s a myth. Bullies only have power because the group empowers them, the silent onlookers, the passive observers laughing along at the rape joke that they know is unacceptable, the system which looks the other way and dismisses the behaviour as ‘just a bit of fun’. The combination of these reinforcers give the bully the confidence to continue and to notch things up a step higher. Take away the enabling system and the bully has no power. This is what we can do in our schools, we can proactively ensure that the attitudes which give rise to discriminatory behaviour, harassment and abuse have no air to breathe, have no space in which to flourish.

FREE & EQUAL? #2 – National Stand Up Conference on Sexism, Misogyny and Harassment takes place on 29th September 2022. It will be streamed LIVE to schools all over the country. For info and to book go to www.beyondthis.co.uk/standup2

Peter Radford is a Speaker, Teacher and Author. His company Beyond This delivers training and workshops fore staff and students on issues that really matter.

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-56337819

[ii] Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women, Vintage, London, 2020 p157-159

[iii] Caroline Criado- Perez, Do it Like a Woman, Portobello Books, London 2015, P149

[iv] Ibid, P150-151

[v] John Bargh, Before You Know It, Penguin, London 2017, p87

[vi]  See https://www.everyonesinvited.uk/

[vii] https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/

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