Sexism and harassment in schools as gender inequality continues

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Sexism and harassment in schools are “rife” and girls are “fed up and frustrated” with the lack of progress on gender equality.

This is the stark message in the second State of girls’ rights in the UK report published by charity Plan International UK.

The 172-page report, which is based on interviews with young women aged 10 to 25, as well as literature reviews and Plan International UK’s own annual surveys, catalogues a range of areas where girls continue to face worse outcomes, discrimination and harassment.

Key areas of concern include gender-based violence, street harassment, the culture of silence and taboo over menstruation, the impact of pornography on young people, and issues of mental health, body image and self-esteem.

On education, the report says that our system needs an overhaul: “Girls are outperforming boys in educational attainment, but sexism and harassment in school is rife. Subject choices are still gendered, and gender stereotypes are impacting girls’ future career opportunities.”

The report finds that of female students at mixed-sex schools, 37 per cent have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school and 24 per cent have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school. Sexist and sexual language is commonly heard and directed at girls, too.

Victim-shaming is another concern. The report continues: “Through our discussions with girls, we have found that responses to this behaviour tend to place the burden on the victim and not the perpetrators. The girls in our focus groups talked about having their phones taken away because they were sent ‘dick pics’, being told to leave school if they didn’t want to see their abuser.”

The report warns that only 14 per cent of girls who have experienced sexual harassment at school have reported it to a teacher.

However, a problem with teacher training is also recognised: only one in five teachers in England and Wales have received training on recognising and tackling sexism, while 27 per cent of secondary school teachers say they would not feel confident tackling a sexist incident at school.

Sexual harassment and abuse is also a problem on the streets. Two in three young women aged 14 to 21 have been sexually harassed in public (a third of these incidents happened while they were wearing school uniform).

The report adds: “Girls do not feel safe in public and they do not feel their local areas are designed for them. They are dealing with relentless street harassment and changing their behaviour to avoid being targeted.”

The report warns that “too many boys in the UK are still feeling under pressure to conform to a traditional form of masculinity that encourages male violence, dominance and control”. It adds: “Much more work needs to be done with boys to challenge harmful ideas of masculinity and prevent gender-based violence – including the seemingly ‘harmless’ harassment of girls.”

Elsewhere, schools subjects continue to have strong gender segregation, the report says, affecting the jobs and careers young women go into and how much they earn.

Interviewees gave examples of schools where not a single girl took engineering, and while the gender gap in STEM as a whole is decreasing, 2019 saw the gap increase in both maths and ICT study.

PE and sports is a particular problem, with the report warning that girls face “implicit and explicit sexism” in terms of perceived ability and choice of sports; one girl described being given a skipping lesson while the boys were outside learning football.

Sports uniforms are also a problem. The report states: “PE kits and sporting uniforms were seen as an area where double-standards and sexism loomed. Frustrated that they couldn’t just wear leggings or other ‘proper sports clothes’ girls decried that the ‘skorts’ they are instructed to wear. These problems with uniforms are exacerbated when girls’ bodies don’t fit the adolescent ideal.”

On education, the report concludes: “From textbooks, sports and subject choice, to school uniforms and the prevalence of gender-based violence, the government should commit to taking action on gender inequality in schools.

“Teachers need to be much better equipped and informed and their resources must be modernised. Governing bodies, schools and teachers must take a zero-tolerance approach to sexism and sexual harassment.”

Among the other areas of concern in the report, mental health problems seem to be hitting girls harder. Since 2004, NHS data shows that emotional disorders including anxiety and depression have increased by 48 per cent, with the rise higher among girls. Body image and self-esteem are also areas of increasing concern, with 41 per cent of girls aged 17 to 21 saying they are not happy with they way they look.

The report adds: “Pressures to look a certain way remain a source of anxiety in girls' lives and this is exacerbated by the exponential number of images they are exposed to – both online and offline.”

Plan International UK CEO, Rose Caldwell, said: “While injustice and inequality still undoubtedly prevail, powerful movements such as #MeToo and young activists such as Greta Thunberg have raised the critical voices of girls and forced governments and institutions to listen.

“But as we enter 2020, our latest report finds girls still feel disempowered. They are frustrated and fed up with the empty messages of female empowerment, while policies and practices at both national and local level are not going far enough to tackle inequality.”

Commenting on the report, Rosamund McNeil, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said it painted a “troubling picture”.

“Girls speak about how sexism and sexual harassment affects every aspect of their lives, from online to public spaces, to school life. Sexism has become normalised at school through sexist stereotypes and sexist language and through the patterns of harmful behaviour girls are subject to from a young age.

“To make real change, we support Plan International’s call for a remodelling of education, one that puts gender equality and social and emotional learning at its heart.

“Teachers must feel empowered to tackle sexism through the whole school environment and understand how they can use the curriculum, and subjects like relationships and sex education, to prevent sexual harassment and ensure all children learn about what are healthy, happy and equal relationships.”

  • To download the report – The state of girls’ rights in the UK: 2019/20 (January 2020) – and for more information on Plan International UK’s work on girls’ rights, visit


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