Tackling sexual harassment and misogyny in schools

Written by: Peter Radford | Published:
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Violent and misogynistic views and actions experienced by so many women in our society can often have their roots in unchallenged attitudes and behaviours in childhood. This puts schools on the front-line. Peter Radford challenges us to consider how we respond...


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 five questions in groups:

  • Would you feel able to report sexual harassment in all its forms if you experienced it?
  • Would you report sexual harassment in all its forms if you saw or heard it?
  • How much do you think sexual harassment goes unreported in your school (sometimes, often or mostly)?
  • How confident are you that it would be taken seriously and dealt with if you reported it?
  • Do you think all members of staff would take such a report seriously?

Without exception the common answers are:

  • No
  • No
  • Mostly
  • Not confident
  • No

Note number 3. Almost unanimously students report that sexual harassment mostly goes unreported in their school. This reflects the findings of last year’s Ofsted Review (2021).

I ask students why and these answers too are always the same:

  • There’s no point – nothing will happen.
  • I have done before and nothing happened.
  • It happened in front of teachers, and they haven’t done anything.
  • It will just make things worse.
  • You feel like maybe you’re the only one.
  • You feel like you’re making a big deal about something that everyone seems to think is harmless or normal.
  • It is 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 (WHO, 2021). The problem is systemic and institutional. By our passivity and inaction, we are perpetuating a culture that continues to treat women and girls as objects, as property and second-class citizens. And we can’t legitimately claim that we did not realise it was happening; it’s our job to realise, to notice and to act.


Unchallenged attitudes

The fact is that many of the violent and misogynistic views and actions lived out in our society and experienced daily by millions of women have 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 enforce dress code discrimination.

Our young women are being socialised into a culture that still places more value on their “beauty” than their intellect, that still upholds outdated gender stereotypes. And because it is not challenged, young men are being socialised to treat women as, at best, inferior.

Clearly this is not simply a student issue. And though the incidents of sexual harassment may be lower among 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 in” to the norms of the culture there. This isn’t necessarily malicious – 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.

The truth is that unhelpful and often damaging gender stereotypes begin from the moment we exit the womb. 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 those same stories the words “beautiful” and “weak” are more commonly ascribed to women and the words “brave” and “great” more commonly to men (Criado Perez, 2015).

Such early experiences of conditioning feed the stereotypes that then perpetuate the myth. 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.

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 ideals to “enable excellence and achievement for all”, and so on, 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. Change starts here. So, what can we do as schools to proactively address this issue?


Find out what’s happening and acknowledge it

There needs to be an open consultation in which all students are invited to tell their stories in whichever way they feel comfortable – anonymously or not.

The Everyone’s Invited movement has begun this on a national level (and by the way if you haven’t checked to see if your school is listed then you ought to).

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.


Establish absolute clarity on the rights of every child…

…and on your values as a school. Unicef’s Rights Respecting School Award is undoubtedly the best vehicle available for doing this at a whole school, sustainable level.

But part and parcel of 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, 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.


Education, education, education

We must be educating about power, consent, unconscious bias, and gender stereotypes. We must acknowledge that we are products, all of us. That it is 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. Unconscious assumptions about masculinity and manhood, femininity and womanhood 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 while affirming the legal status of all as defined under the Equality Act 2010.


Clear policy and procedure

This must be in place to support those who experience harassment or abuse of any kind, while those who perpetrate harassment must be addressed 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?


Transparency of process and consequences

It is one thing to have a policy. It is another thing for people to know about it. When I was a head of year, I found it endlessly frustrating that students would say about bullying: “There’s no point reporting it because nothing happens.”

I knew first-hand just how many hours I had spent addressing bullying issues. But 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 “low-level” incidents then students will trust you and trust the system. And hopefully you will also have fewer high-level incidents to deal with.


Conclusions

Bullying of any kind (sexual harassment is bullying) is a group behaviour. The myth of the lone bully is used to absolve the rest of us of responsibility. 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 “a bit of fun”.

These reinforcers give the bully confidence to continue and to notch things up. 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.

  • Peter Radford is a speaker, teacher and author. His company Beyond This delivers training and workshops for staff and students. Read his previous articles for SecEd vis https://bit.ly/seced-radford


Free & Equal? A national conference

The second national stand-up conference on sexism, misogyny and harassment takes place on September 29. It will be streamed live to schools all over the country. For details, visit www.beyondthis.co.uk/standup2

Further information & resources


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