Why do boys need opportunities to think about sexism and sexual harassment?
We live in a society where gender stereotypes still significantly affect young people’s views and choices at school, and their ambitions and dreams for the future. These stereotypes can constrain and limit all young people – and stop them doing things, such as certain clubs, sports or subjects. It impacts their behaviour towards others and influences the choices they make under the pressure to fit in.
Education is one place where stereotypes about men and women can be actively challenged. LGBT+ and non-binary students can face widespread bullying and stereotyping at school. Education about preventing the attitudes that perpetuate sexual harassment can reinforce and support work that your setting is doing to prevent homophobia and racism.
Challenging sexism and homophobia mutually reinforce each other because of the misguided assumptions that boys who aren’t acting ‘in masculine ways’ will be gay, or will fare badly in the world unless they ‘man up’.
Gender inequality and gendered social norms – the beliefs that a person’s sex should involve certain behaviours or roles in society – contribute to entrench patterns of violence against women and girls. Equally, they stop individual boys and young men from fulfilling their potential.
There is growing awareness of the level of sexual violence and sexual harassment in the UK, and particularly how widespread sexism and sexual violence are in schools. Many schools are now focused on how to reduce and tackle sexism and sexual harassment.
Gender stereotypes start for younger children, for example, with ideas about what jobs men and women can do. As they progress, gender stereotypes lead to a social norm that says that girls and women are worth less than men, they are sexual objects who should be sexually available to men and they should want male comments on their bodies and looks.
It is these attitudes that form the foundations for sexism and sexual harassment in schools.
Sexual harassment can come from anyone and can happen to anyone, and we should be mindful to look out for those already vulnerable to prejudice, for example LGBT+ students and students who face discrimination on the basis of race or religion. With that in mind, sexual harassment is predominantly experienced by girls and women and predominantly committed by boys and men.
Sexual harassment leads to unsafe learning places, absenteeism, students experiencing poor mental health, hurt, fear, isolation and more. The change needed in schools and wider society needs to come from individuals changing their attitudes and behaviours, and that applies to everyone in and around a school setting.
The Home Office strategy for violence against women and girls review of evidence found that education initiatives have been shown to have promising effects on changing attitudes relating to violence against women and girls. This tool focuses on safe and supportive work with boys as part of a whole school approach where staff, families and leadership work to create change.
The goals of this toolkit are to suggest actions in your everyday teaching practice to help address sexism and gender-based violence.
It includes some approaches that will address issues faced by young men and boys, while engaging them in conversations about the experiences of women, girls and non-binary people in our society.
We begin with some general frameworks to help you understand the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of this work; we then provide some tips and case studies; and finally we end with some exercises that you can adapt to your teaching context.
Beyond Equality is an education charity that facilitates group-based discussions and activities with boys and young men in schools, as well as working with all staff to adopt a whole school approach to tacking sexism in schools. The workshops encourage participants to reflect on masculinities and engage them in gender equality, healthy relationships, gender-based violence prevention and mental wellbeing.
The NEU and Beyond Equality have worked together to produce this advice. From Beyond Equality’s work in schools we know that many boys have too few opportunities to reflect on these issues. Many boys tell Beyond Equality that this is the first time they’ve had an open and honest conversation about their experiences of sex, relationships, identity and other social issues.