I sat down to write this article about the fantastic new campaign by Sport England – This Girl Can – and how its impact could be harnessed by secondary schools to encourage our young girls to take part in sports. You’ve probably seen the advert? It portrays lots of different women, real women, getting sweaty and wobbly in the name of health and fitness.
But as I scrolled to the bottom of the YouTube video to click “thumbs up”, I could see that although more than 28,500 people had beaten me to it, well over 1,600 had clicked “thumbs down”. What is there to dislike about this advert? I read a page’s worth of comments. All the negative posts I read were written by people using male usernames. And so the angle for this article was revised and I started looking into what the impact might be of the negative attitudes of boys about our girls.
Within an hour of conducting some light research on the attitudes of girls and about girls in sport I was shocked: 41 per cent of girls questioned by a GirlGuiding survey say that embarrassment about wearing school sports kit puts them off playing sport (Girls’ Attitude Survey, 2013). Why? Because 87 per cent of girls think women are judged more on appearance than on ability.
So this article is no longer about inspiring girls to take part in sports, it’s about going back a little further and asking school staff: do we know, do we really know the extent to which sexual harassment by boys in our schools affects our girls so that nearly half are embarrassed about participating in PE lessons? And what better time to ask this, with International Women’s Day and the NASUWT Gender Equality Challenge launch both taking place on Sunday, March 8.
A quick look at the EveryDay Sexism website, or indeed the book published by its founder Laura Bates, reveals shocking things that our girls are experiencing every day in our schools.
One girl posted: “In one lesson at school today, I heard more than 10 rape jokes, mostly by boys. I am 13. If that’s what they’re like aged 13, I am truly worried (about) what they will be like when they are older. Rape culture sickens me. Also, in the four years I have had sex education at school, not one lesson talked about consent.”
And can you accept that this might be happening in your school: “When I was at secondary school it was quite normal for the boys to grope the girls. One day, while walking up the stairs to my next class, one of the boys put his hand up my skirt and groped my vagina. When I told a passing teacher he said ‘oh well, boys will be boys’.”
The teacher who responded so glibly to this disgusting and criminal assault on a teenage girl is doing everything in his power to ensure it continues, and it is shocking to imagine we might be working with people who would react like this. How would you respond if you were the teacher this girl spoke to? How should we be responding as schools to these issues?
Let’s not forget that for every girl who reports being sexually harassed, there is a boy who has done the harassing. What is happening to them? And I don’t just mean punishment, though I do strongly feel that we should consider appropriate punishment. I mean, what is being done to change these boys’ attitudes?
I recall dealing with two year 7 boys who, during a lesson, held down a girl backwards over a table and said to a friend that she was “ready for you now”. For a school to deal with this kind of incident effectively it has to address urgently the needs of the victim, offering support as she works through the abuse or harassment. But beyond removing the boys and punishing them in the short-term, what should schools be doing? We need to, in the very least, be addressing the ugly issue of where 11-year-old boys pick up this kind of language and gesture and set about realigning their understanding of acceptable behaviour. Our boys need help to understand why what they do is so bad – we can’t just punish and assume our work is done.
So yes, support our girls in the short-term as an absolute priority; but in order to protect our girls long-term, and to give them the confidence that we will treat their gender-based harassment seriously, we need to work with the boys too.
Without this our girls will always lack confidence to take part in sports and PE. Because with these stories as a backdrop it isn’t surprising that our girls have lost all perspective when it comes to inhabiting their own bodies through playing sports or doing some exercise.
Sexual harassment is being endured by our students every day, over and over again.
Nadine Pittam has been a teacher of English for 11 years.