Addressing toxic gendered behaviour in schools

Written by: Zahara Chowdhury | Published:
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As a society, we must address toxic gendered behaviour. In schools, the culture change needed to achieve gender equity is not an overnight process. Considering the practicalities of curriculum design, behaviour and other areas, Zahara Chowdhury advises how we can achieve long-term change and create safe spaces for students and staff

The Office for National Statistics painted us a bleak picture last year. In June alone, more than 40% of women aged 16 to 34 revealed that they had experienced catcalls and unwanted sexual jokes and comments from a stranger (compared to less than 10% of men).

Furthermore, nearly 30% of women in the same age group felt they had been followed (compared to less than 10% of men).

Overall, the data showed that 32% of women and 19% of men had experienced some form of harassment in the year to June 2021.

The murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and so many others have caused a public outcry, as have the revelations in February about a culture of “toxic masculinity, misogyny and sexual harassment” (IOPC, 2022) in the Metropolitan Police.

Although much of this has taken place outside of a school setting, the recent Ofsted review (2021) and the disclosures made on the Everyone’s Invited platform (SecEd, 2021b) show these behaviours need to be addressed in schools.

Equally, as we aim to work towards gender equity, we want to ensure we bring everyone, collaboratively, along with us. In her book, Her Allies: A practical toolkit to help men lead through advocacy (2021), Hira Ali explains that female students often experience low self-confidence in their abilities and prospects compared to their male counterparts.

Ali quite rightly addresses the social anxiety that men and boys can face as they challenge typical masculine behaviours, ally with women, and aim to talk more openly about mental health.

We see this in school every day as boys struggle to talk about their mental and emotional health due to gender stereotypes (Maggs, 2022).

Nearly half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans pupils (45 per cent) – including 64 per cent of trans pupils – are bullied for being LGBT+ at school (Bradlow et al, 2017).

The intersection of race and ethnic diversity (Burton et al, 2020) must also be considered when exploring toxic gendered behaviour due to the impact it can have on professional progress for students in the future.

These examples are evidence of an ever-growing need to address toxic gendered behaviours. Working in schools gives teachers and leaders an opportunity to overcome toxic gendered behaviours in practical and strategic ways, so that schools can work towards a gender equitable culture and help ensure the success of all students.

Intention vs implementation

Although school leaders and teachers know it is something that needs to be addressed, the practicalities and culture change needed to achieve gender equity is not an overnight process.

It is a difficult topic and one that has an impact on school policies, different stakeholders, curriculum and behaviour management. In her book, Hira Ali explores research into what is termed the “intention gap” – i.e. men generally have good intentions but there is a gap between intention and implementation.

This stretches beyond cis-gendered men: although not true of everyone, we are all conditioned to rigid, traditional and often patriarchal structures and viewpoints.

Equally, when addressing these behaviours at school we must be mindful of other factors:

  • Student mental and emotional health: How do we create safe spaces without cis-gendered boys feeling vulnerable or targeted by stereotypes? How do we create inclusive, safe spaces for cis-gendered female students, members of the LGBT+ community and the intersection of race, religion and different cultures – all of which may approach gendered behaviours with different lived experiences and value systems?
  • Teacher wellbeing and training: How do we create the time and space to understand the lived experiences of teachers, their understanding and background regarding gendered behaviours, and to ensure they feel comfortable and able to address what can seem like an unprecedented culture shift?
  • Parents: How do we ensure parents/carers, and the wider community are supportive of ending sexism in schools and education?
  • Curriculum and pastoral policies: How do we address policy (uniform, for example) and practice in a strategic and inclusive manner, without causing overwhelm and extra workload?

Overcoming sexism and stereotypical gendered behaviour in schools can be prioritised on the school development plan, within CPD strategies, and be a visible part of a school’s cultural identity too. There are many effective and tangible practices that schools can begin putting in place to create safe and gender equitable environments. I describe some of these below, as a starting point for school leaders.

What story is our curriculum telling?

A pilot programme conducted by the non-profit organisation You Be You (2019) revealed that gendered stereotypes begin when our students are in Reception. This can be through representation, their experiences and language-use too.

One of the first statements you read when visiting the You Be You website warns us: “Girls by the age of six already believe that they are less intelligent than boys.” (see also Bian et al, 2017)

Jeffrey Boakye and Darren Chetty explore a range of lived experiences and the history surrounding “masculine” and “feminine” behaviours in their 2019 book What is Masculinity and Why Does it Matter? And Other Big Questions.

For example, the stereotypes, beliefs and perceptions we have about “male and female brains” go as far back as the Victorian age when “scientific research” suggested men were more intelligent than women based on women's brains being lighter.

Fast-forward to gender stereotypes today and we see these being enforced from a young age: representation in sport, the toys we give young children to play with, the colours and type of clothing young children are conditioned to wear, the activities children are involved in (netball for girls, football and rugby for boys).

It is important to note these are generalisations, however the very fact that we recognise them and are perhaps conditioned to them well into adulthood speaks volumes.

Across the curriculum, we need to take a brief look at the content we teach in individual subject areas and, in the words of Aisha Thomas, founder of Representation Matters, we need to ask: “What story is our curriculum telling?”

This simple, yet powerful question can be applied to several intersections of diversity, equality and inclusion, especially gender and behaviour. We can go further and consider:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • What type of language is used when teaching about men and women?
  • What history and context do our students learn as fact?
  • Who do they see on displays and within different subject areas?

Equally, as a teacher of many years, I sympathise with subject leads and teachers given the rigidity of the curriculum, especially at key stages 4 and 5. Time and training are two of the key barriers we often see preventing subject areas from diversifying their curriculums. Some suggestions to overcome these barriers might be:

The focus of curriculum-based CPD: Often, a big chunk of time in CPD meetings is devoted to feedback, marking, and exam-based training. While these are important, school leaders need to prioritise change in the curriculum by giving subject leaders and their staff the objective and time to create a gender equitable curriculum.

This may involve new schemes of work, training in gender equitable literacy and language, a change to reading lists, class structures (for example, if a mixed school teaches PE in different gendered groups, question the impact of this).

Again, this cannot be achieved overnight and does not have to be. Develop a three to five-year plan, start with key stage 3, liaise with feeder primary schools on transition units of work and activities, and let your board of governors know.

Just as we have seen a shift in the last two to three years in popular culture with generation Z and generation Alpha, it takes time and incremental steps to successfully embed a new culture in schools too.

Budget: How are curriculum budgets being spent? Is there budget to invest in specific gender equitable training from subject specialists within the field? This not only applies to gender, but to other areas of diversity and inclusion too. Look to specialists in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Draw on the experts within your department who may have a particular interest in diversity and inclusion – however, give them the time and money needed to focus on this.

DiverseEd and the Global Equality Collective are brilliant platforms that offer resources, training and development, specifically for schools.

PSHE: Prioritise this subject area. It is one which can be approached in a variety of ways and not always through drop-down days or fortnightly sessions. Consider the extra-curricular activities your school offers. Are there opportunities for intersectional discussion forums, or for students to engage in progressive campaigns, such as End Sexism in Schools? Create the time and space for students and staff to build on this area of work so that it becomes an intrinsic part of the school identity.

Behaviour is key

Although schools have policies, annual and termly training, protocols and positive displays for behaviour management, stereotypical gendered behaviour can often seem difficult to address.

It is an uncomfortable topic, which even as teachers and responsible adults we do not always know how to discuss. Equally, we too were once students, conditioned to certain normalised behaviours, policies and practices that we did not question. However, addressing day-to-day behaviour in schools is key to overcoming sexism and toxic gendered behaviours.

The first step for all school leaders and pastoral teams is, quite simply, to listen and look. Spend time in a variety of lessons, the school playground, at the school gates, in corridors observing the everyday interactions and exchanges between your students.

  • How do the students address one another?
  • What language are they using?
  • Which key groups are displaying positive behaviours? Which key groups are displaying negative behaviours? What are these behaviour markers?
  • Who seems uncomfortable? Why?
  • Who seems to love school and why?
  • How do different teachers address cis-gendered boys, girls and non-binary and transgender students? What do you notice about their interactions and presence in the classroom?
  • What assumptions and biases do you as school leaders and behaviour leads have that are right, but also wrong?
  • In what ways is behaviour affecting student progress and success?
  • How is the current behaviour policy being implemented? How are students practically responding to it? How do teachers feel about it?

Take a “curious” look at the day-to-day behaviours being displayed. Again, this is not overnight work, and I would suggest these observations need to be daily, weekly and it is an on-going process for at least a couple of terms, if not a whole school year.

Behaviour is key to school culture and identity and to truly overcome toxic and sexist behaviours it needs to be at the forefront of all behaviour and culture processes. Try the following:

Gather student and staff voice: Create safe spaces for staff and students to discuss sexist and toxic behaviour in school. Every individual will be at a different place and therefore it is important that this process is approached with sensitivity and your demographic in mind. It may be that you create separate groups for girls, boys and students who are part of the LGBT+ community. This structure may also be applicable to staff too. You may also eventually think it relevant to create groups for diverse cultures. Listen to what students and staff have to say and their suggestions for improvement too.

Parent and community voice can help too: Ultimately, parents want their children to feel safe and respected at school. They want their children to thrive just like we do as staff. Overcoming sexist and toxic behaviours is in their best interests too. Creating a forum for parents can further support and reinforce a school identity that supports gender equity. It can also help address and create healthy, diverse conversations around the topic too.

Action, policy and practice

Thinking back to “intention vs implementation”, the strategies and processes suggested above may seem overwhelming, mainly because we want to get it right for our students and staff and we want to get it right quickly, so all can benefit. However, a strategic approach as part of the school development plan, CPD structure and even extra-curricular offerings can help.

Addressing the importance of overcoming sexism and toxic gendered behaviour in schools is a multi-layered three to five-year approach that will constantly develop as part of a wider diversity and inclusion strategy too.

It is possible and, remember, this work is one of the most effective ways to ensure equitable success and empowerment for all of your students and staff.

  • Zahara Chowdhury – @zaharachowdhur2 is the diversity, equality and inclusion lead at Beaconsfield High School and The Beaconsfield School in Buckinghamshire. Zahara advises and supports schools and teachers with their diversity, inclusion, and equality processes. She is also an education blogger and podcaster at where she explores a range of diverse and challenging topics for students, teachers, and parents.

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