The results of UK Feminista and NEU’s groundbreaking study are clear: schools, education bodies and Government must take urgent action to tackle sexism in schools. "It's just everywhere" is a study on sexism in schools and how we tackle it.

Sexual harassment, sexist language and gender stereotyping are commonplace in school settings, yet teachers report feeling unsupported and ill-equipped to respond. “It’s just everywhere”, commented a girl participating in the study, yet all too often the institutional response to sexism in schools is silence.

The voices of girls around the country who are being subjected to sexual harassment and sexism at school must be heard - and acted on.

We need to understand what creates sexism and expose the attitudes which repeat the patterns of harmful experiences that women and girls face. We need to break the mould – the expectations about men and women, and girls and boys, that perpetuate harassment and gender injustice.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is highly prevalent in schools. It is also gendered, overwhelmingly involving boys targeting girls.

  • Over a third (37%) of female students at mixed-sex schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.
  • Almost a quarter (24%) of female students at mixed-sex schools have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school.
  • Almost one in three (32%) teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools witness sexual harassment in their school on at least a weekly basis. A further 36% say they witness it on a termly basis.

Sexist language

The use of misogynist language is commonplace in schools.

  • 66% of female students and 37% of male students in mixed-sex sixth forms have experienced or witnessed the use of sexist language in school.
  • 64% of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools hear sexist language in school on at least a weekly basis. Over a quarter of teachers (29%) report that sexist language is a daily occurrence.

Sexist stereotypes and behaviour

Gender stereotyping is a typical feature of school culture, often reinforced through mundane, ‘everyday’ actions.

  • A quarter of all secondary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping and discrimination in their school on a daily basis, and a further quarter say they witness it on a weekly basis.
  • Over a third (34%) of primary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping in their school on at least a weekly basis. Over half (54%) say they witness it on at least a termly basis.
  • 36% of female students in mixed-sex schools say they have personally been treated differently on account of their gender, compared to 15% of male students.

Reporting and responding to sexism

Sexism and sexual harassment in schools has been normalised and is rarely reported.

  • Only 14% of students who have experienced sexual harassment reported it to a teacher.
  • Just 6% of students who have experienced or witnessed the use of sexist language in school reported it to a teacher.
  • Over a quarter (27%) of secondary school teachers say they would not feel confident tackling a sexist incident if they experienced or witnessed it in school.

Action to tackle sexism

Schools are currently ill-prepared and illequipped to tackle sexism.

  • Less than a quarter (22%) of female students at mixed-sex schools think their school takes sexism seriously enough.
  • 78% of secondary school students are unsure or not aware of the existence of any policies and practices in their school related to preventing sexism.
  • Over half (64%) of secondary school teachers are unsure or not aware of the existence of any policies and practices in their school related to preventing sexism.
  • Just one in five (20%) secondary school teachers has received training in recognising and tackling sexism as part of their Initial Teacher Education.
  • Only 22% of secondary school teachers have received Continuing Professional Development training in recognising and tackling sexism.
  • Barriers to tackling sexism identified by teachers include an overly heavy focus on academic subjects (identified by 69% of teachers), teacher workload being too high (identified by 68% of teachers), and the failure of school leadership to prioritise tackling sexism (identified by 62% of teachers).

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • Violates a person’s dignity;
  • Intimidates, degrades or humiliates someone; or
  • Creates a hostile or offensive environment

Sexual harassment can include verbal, non-verbal and physical acts – including sexual comments, taking ‘up-skirt’ photographs, or unwanted sexual touching. Unwanted sexual touching, wherein the target does not consent to the touching and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe they consent, constitutes sexual assault.

Reports from both students and teachers reveal that sexual harassment is prevalent in schools. For many students, it is simply the norm.

Sexual harassment in school is gendered: the majority of cases involve boys targeting girls. 37% of girls report experiencing sexual harassment, compared to 6% of boys. Female students are also significantly more likely to describe multiple incidents and more severe cases of sexual assault. They are also less likely to dismiss their experience as ‘a joke’.

Sexual harassment has a detrimental impact on girls’ confidence and self-worth. Both students and teachers report 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). Girls also adopt strategies to avoid being noticed and singled out for unwanted attention, even if this means they miss out on more positive attention and recognition of their achievements.

“A boy touched my bum and tried to touch my boob. I felt uncomfortable and I didn’t tell him because I was scared but I tried to ignore him.” – Female student

Sexist language

The use of sexist, misogynist language - which denigrates girls and femaleness - is commonplace in schools.

Both male and female students report the common use of language which associates negative characteristics with being female - “you throw like a girl”, “don’t be a pussy” – and more positive characteristics with being male – “man-up”. This language is more likely to be targeted at male students, while female students are more likely to be subjected to gendered sexual name-calling – such as ‘slut’, ‘slag’ and ‘whore’.

The accepted and often casual use of language that denigrates girls/ women/femaleness fuels harmful and narrow ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman in society today. It contributes to a conducive context for sexist attitudes and behaviours – including sexual harassment.

Sexist language is also interlinked with homophobic bullying.  Students and teachers in the present study report phrases such as ‘that’s so gay’ being used by students to refer pejoratively to boys doing things stereotypically associated with girls.

“I have [heard] a male member of staff saying to another member of staff ‘Don’t be such a girl’ in a derogative manner, which is particularly strange because we work in a girls’ school” – Secondary school teacher

Sexist stereotypes and behaviour

False beliefs and over-generalisations about differences in girls’ and boys’ behaviour, preferences and abilities are prevalent throughout society. Such gender stereotypes can have a deeply harmful impact on girls and boys, placing arbitrary restrictions on children’s behaviour and aspirations while fuelling prejudice and discrimination.

Gender stereotyping in schools reinforces particular ideas about what is expected and acceptable behaviour from women and men: such as that women are weak and emotional, while men are strong and brave.

A significant portion of teachers report that sexism is an everyday occurrence in the classroom, and that small, seemingly insignificant events together create an environment in which pupils of both sexes come to see each other as different.

“I thought I was going to fail maths and science but the teacher told me it’s okay because girls tend to be better at expressive lessons.” – Female student

Gender stereotypes are sometimes reflected or reinforced by differential treatment in schools. The most common example students in this study gave concerned the activities that they are (or are not) allowed to participate in. Most frequently, this entails male and female students having to participate in different sports, either as a result of school policy or as a result of being excluded by other students - such as girls not being allowed to play football and rugby. 

Male students are less likely than girls to express a desire to participate in sports associated with the opposite sex, but students report difficulties faced by male students who want to participate in more artistic activities, such as dance and drama.

“Was constantly bullied for being in the choir and enjoying drama. As a result of that I lost my passion for the arts.” – Male student

As students progress through the school and have more opportunities to choose the subjects they study, so the influence of gender stereotypes in shaping those subject choices can be observed. This includes the stereotype that maths and science are ‘boys’ subjects’ while art and English are ‘girls’ subjects’.  

The resulting sex segregation within the same school is viewed by some students and teachers as inhibiting the development of equal, respectful relationships between male and female students.

Another example given by students of differential treatment concerns the tasks assigned to them by teachers. In particular, students commonly report cases of male students exclusively being asked to undertake tasks involving strength, such as moving desks and chairs or sporting equipment. Female students frequently report that they would like to be given the opportunity to do more physical tasks, and dislike being perceived as weaker than the male students.

“I teach design and technology. Every day I see sexist slurs towards cookery being only for girls and engineering for boys and that’s coming from other teachers.” – Secondary school teacher

Reporting and responding to sexism in schools

The reporting of incidents of sexism and sexual harassment is crucial to providing support to those who experience it, establishing the scale of the problem, and preventing it from occurring in the future. To enable this, students need to know how and who to report incidents to, and be confident that they will be taken seriously and the report acted upon. While there are some schools doing excellent work to identify and respond to sexism, our research findings indicate that the majority of schools are not.

The main reason students give for not reporting incidents of sexism and sexual harassment is how common it is: it is seen as an everyday part of students’ lives.

“I wasn’t aware that these incidents could be reported, no students have ever been told it is wrong to act in this way, it’s not discouraged or punished for it” – Female student

There is a vicious cycle of under-reporting of sexism in schools. Even when an incident occurs that students clearly recognise as harmful and unwanted, students are currently unlikely to report it. They do not believe the teacher would take reports of sexism and sexual harassment seriously, and anticipate that they would be viewed as being difficult and oversensitive.

Underreporting contributes to a view among school leaders that sexism is not a problem requiring action - so the issue is not raised with students. This institutional silence on the matter fuels the perception (or recognition) among students that sexism and sexual harassment is considered to be ‘normal’ and unimportant, which in turn fuels a reluctance among students to report it.

The findings also reveal that many teachers acknowledge that even in a scenario in which they are aware of a sexist incident having taken place, they would be unclear about how to respond

“It is never taken seriously. No one cares if it does not affect them. You suffer in silence and get told to move on” – Male student

Action to tackle sexism

Teachers are ill equipped to address sexism, and female students in particular feel unsupported in the face of normalised sexism and sexual harassment.

In order to take effective action against sexism, schools need to listen to girls and learn about their daily experiences. Boys must also be actively engaged on the issue in order to challenge the harmful attitudes that underpin sexual harassment and sexism.  Yet a key issue identified by both teachers and students in this study is summed up by the words of one secondary school teacher: “we don’t talk about sexism”. Teachers report being unclear about what constitutes sexism or how to explain to students why it is harmful.  This perpetuates a lack of awareness and understanding of the issue, as well as the perception that it is not taken seriously by the school.

Where policies to address sexism do exist in secondary schools, they tend to be part of broader policy frameworks covering equal opportunities, bullying and safeguarding. Incidents of sexism are often recorded as generic bullying or disagreements, and subsumed within broader discussions of student interactions. This prevents the recognition and recording of events specifically as sexism or sexual harassment. There are often no clear, understood definitions of what constitutes sexism or sexual harassment. As a result, sexism and sexual harassment in schools are commonly unnamed and unrecorded.

“Like many people I wouldn’t be overly confident that I would receive full support from the leadership team thereafter. These incidents are still seen too often as rather trivial” – Secondary school teacher

Recommendations

Sexism in schools is endemic - but it is not inevitable. Consistent and ongoing action is required from schools, Government and education bodies to tackle it.

Government

The Department for Education (DfE) must urgently make tackling sexism and sexual harassment in schools a policy priority.  To realise this policy priority, the DfE should:

  • Issue guidance to all schools on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. The guidance should be developed in consultation with sexual violence specialists, education professionals and education unions.
  • Create a fund to support specialist sector organisations to provide capacity-building support to schools on tackling sexism and sexual harassment.
  • Ensure the curriculum for relationships and sex education (RSE), across all key stages, is designed to prevent sexism and sexual harassment among children and young people and that RSE teachers have access to high quality professional development.

Ofsted

  • All Ofsted inspectors should receive comprehensive training on how schools can address and prevent sexism.
  • Ofsted should recognise schools that take effective action to tackle sexism. 
  • Inspections of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) providers should include an assessment of whether the training course adequately equips trainees with the skills they need to tackle sexism in the classroom.

Initial Teacher Training Providers

  • Training on how to tackle sexism should be a core and compulsory component of all ITT courses.

Schools

Adopt a ‘whole school approach’ to tackling sexism.

A ‘whole school approach’ means action to promote equality between girls and boys is supported by an over-arching framework involving all members of the school community. This enables a consistent approach and long-term change.

The three key components of a whole school approach are:

  • An institutional framework: put in place a strategy, support it through school policy, and drive it with leadership.
  • Building staff capacity: equip teachers and all staff with the skills, knowledge and resources to understand, identify and tackle sexism, including through the provision of training opportunities.
  • Empowering students: enable students to discuss and learn about sexism, to report incidents, and to take action for equality.

Take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment.

  • Sexual harassment should be specifically and explicitly addressed through school policy, including clear procedural guidelines which are consistently enforced.
  • All staff should know what the school’s policies and procedures are regarding incidents of sexual harassment.
  • All students should be aware of the school’s zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and be supported to report incidents.

Resources and order form 

The National Education Union understands the pressures that schools face daily which is why it is leading a campaign to tackle sexism in schools through a whole school approach and collective action.

You can get involved by ordering any of the sexism resources below for your school.  Order sexism resources now. 

Sexism in schools

The results of UK Feminista and NEU’s groundbreaking study are clear: schools, education bodies and Government must take urgent action to tackle sexism in schools.

Further guidance

  • Agenda-Wales:  This website offers information and resources for use in schools for young people about making positive relationships matter.
  • Brook:  Information about Brook education on Sex and Relationships Education delivered by Brook experts.
  • Sex Education Forum: This website provides advice and resources about teaching high quality Relationships and Sex Education-including posters for schools.

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