“Sexism is a problem in every school. Now we must take action”, by Sally Thomas

In December last year, the National Education Union and UK Feminista launched a ground-breaking report on sexism in schools: “It’s Just Everywhere”[1].

The report found that sexual harassment, sexist language and sexist stereotypes are commonplace in schools. Over a third of girls in mixed sex schools said that they had personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school. Nearly one quarter had been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature.Gender stereotyping and discrimination were witnessed on a daily basis by a quarter of all secondary school teachers. This rose to over a third in primary schools.

The fact that these behaviours and attitudes are witnessed frequently, sometimes everyday and ‘everywhere’, makes it seem normal and acceptable for many young people. As one teacher commented “it is the drip, drip, drip effect of minor sexism that causes the most damage.” Girls described how sexual harassment or sexist behaviour was “just how it is” or that “guys think it’s okay to touch girls whenever they like.”  These comments are shocking and upsetting and have profoundconsequences for children and young people.

It is clearly unacceptable that boys think they have a right to girl’s bodies without consent and without consequence.This behaviour harms girls both physically and psychologically. Indeed, both students and teachers in our report said that as a result of sexual harassment, girls learn to ‘take up less space’, to position themselves at the edges of corridors, playgrounds and classrooms to make themselves less visible.  It is equally deeply troubling that gender stereotypes are so persistent in schools.  These stereotypes perpetuate harmful and narrow ideas about what it is to be man or woman. These stereotypes often give legitimacy to behaviour that allows sexual harassment to feel normal.  They are harmful for boys just as they are harmful for girls. They limit us all and who we are ‘allowed’ to be and how we respect others who are different from ourselves. Whether it is a student or teacher telling someone to ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be such a girl’ – it is vital we challenge these stereotypes and call them out for what they are: sexism.

So what do schools need to do to tackle these deep rooted behaviors and attitudes? As a start, the NEU believe schools need to take a whole school approach. Any strategy needs to empower students to call out and challenge sexism. A strategy must give students the confidence to report incidents to teachers (because our report showed that currently only 14% of students who experienced sexual harassment reported it to a teacher).  This approach requires listening to students, taking their concerns seriously and drawing upon their lived experiences to talk about sexism and sexual harassment in the classroom   and throughout the curriculum.

Crucially, tackling sexism in schools requires empowering teachers to take action. What are effective preventative strategies? How can we use the formal and informal curriculum to counter the sexist messages in music, film, and so much of popular culture?  Which are the school policies which can actually reduce sexism and sexual harassment?

We also believe teachers deserve an entitlement to high quality professional development on how to tackle sexism and interrupt gender stereotypes. Too many teachers described in our report how they feel ill-equipped and unsupported to tackle sexism.Only one in five secondary school teachers surveyed had received training in recognising and tackling sexism as part of Initial Teacher Education, and only 22% of secondary school teachers received Continuing Professional Development.  The NEU wants to work with members to start to address this lack of confidence and we have already produced materials for primary practitioners called Breaking the Mould about how to use books and reading to reduce stereotypes about girls and boys. However, it is also the Government’s responsibility to ensure schools are equipped with the tools, resources and guidance that are needed to address this problem.

What next?

The most common suggestion given by teachers in primary and secondary schools to help them tackle sexism was awareness: acknowledge that sexism is an issue and that it needs to be addressed. This has been the starting point for the NEU’s work to tackle sexism in schools. We have encouraged members to order copies of the report and our anti-sexism stickers and share them in their school. We have also called on members to use staff meetings and INSET days to build awareness about sexism and why it is harmful

So far we have seen enormous energy and commitment from members to tackle sexism. Many school staff (alongside third sector organisations and MPs) have been talking and tweeting about the report and how important it is to tackle sexism in school. We have also distributed thousands of copies of our sexism resources to members.  A snapshot survey suggests that as many as 1 in 5 schools promoted women and women’s rights on International Women’s Day this year.

We are bringing our members together to discuss their experiences of sexism in school and to use collective activity as a vehicle to give teachers ideas and strategies for tackling sexism.  On the 17th March I attended an NEU member led conference on challenging sexism in schools.  It was a fantastic event attended by over 100 teachers and students. Workshops were on a range of topics including ‘empowering young people to challenge sexism’ and ‘challenging sexism with boys and men.’   

This is just the start of long term commitment by the NEU to challenge sexism and sexual harassment of children and teachers.At our annual conference in Brighton in Aprilwe passed a motion on precisely this issue – a clear sign that our members want to make tackling sexism a priority for this Union.

We want to continue to work with members, schools, Government and other education bodies to develop a whole school approach to tackling sexism.  We know that sexism is happening in every school. It is now incumbent on all of us in the education community to take real action.

[1] The report “It’s Just Everywhere” is available here.

For more information on NEU resources to tackle sexism please visit:   https://www.teachers.org.uk/equality/equality-matters/sexism-in-schools     


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Sally Thomas

Sally Thomas is Policy Officer for Women and Girls’ Rights and Race Equality for the National Education Union. Her work focuses on identifying and addressing gender and race inequalities that affect school/college staff and children and young people in education.  

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