Stop it before it starts sexism in schools

Over the past 18 months, IE has reported on sexism in boys schools. Now there are practical tools available to help transform these troubled cultures, writes journalist Will Brodie.

Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersl

Unfortunately, some schools have an issue with harassment of teachers.

For years, certain boys schools have been beset by sexism scandals. There have been stories of schoolboys ‘rating’ girls and posting nude images of them online, setting crude ‘challenges’ for muck-up days, and indulging in sexist chants and comments on crowded trams and buses.

The issue escalated in the public consciousness earlier this year when more than 30,000 people signed a petition launched by former Sydney schoolgirl Chanel Contos calling for sexual consent to be taught in schools from a young age.

Contos’s petition produced a stunning response, with thousands of young women relating distressing tales of assault and abuse, many involving private school boys.

Breaking the silence

Soon after, a Monash University study found that female teachers in boys schools can be vulnerable to sexual harassment. The study, conducted by Monash’s Faculty of Education, interviewed 32 female teachers working at three boys schools.

Co-lead author George Variyan, a lecturer in educational leadership, wrote that female teachers can face the worst aspects of schoolboy behaviour on a routine basis.

“Reports of up-skirting, distribution of humiliating material and gossip, stalking, and surreptitious video-recording are examples of teachers’ experiences in elite private boys schools that continue to go largely unreported,” Variyan said.

He said female teachers in his study who experienced sexual harassment from boys were blamed, had their teaching methods questioned, and saw harassing behaviours “minimally punished or excused entirely”.

He believes harassment is sometimes hushed up because of market forces and fear of reputational damage.

Variyan doesn’t believe all boys schools can necessarily effect fundamental change “from better schooling programs alone”.

Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway says a “consistent chain of events” follows the exposure of bad behaviour in some schools. This includes minimisation of brand damage, attributing the scandal to a few bad apples; cosmetic changes and disciplining of individuals; and minor policy adjustments until the next media storm.

But deeper and more lasting change is needed.

Foundational shift

“Despite how ‘very seriously’ all these matters are taken by executives releasing media statements, sexism and entitlement seems entrenched in schools and universities,” Jane Gilmore wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017.

Commentators say it’s the parents’ fault. It’s society’s fault. Schools can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting.

But there are experts who say change is not easy, but it is possible.

Chris Hickey, Professor of Healthand Physical Education at Deakin University told The Guardian hypermasculine or misogynistic cultures flourish if unchecked.

“But these cultures are not a given,” Professor Hickey said. “They’re not unchallengeable.”

Hickey said one boys school had addressed its hypermasculinity problem by “hiring more female senior professional staff, foregrounding the arts, changing the physical environment and valorising the rugby archetype less”.

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds recommends sex education for parents run by schools, “well before the children are at the age of consent”.

“Get the parents on the same page as what the school plans to teach.”

Pivot to prevention

Our Watch Chief Executive Patty Kinnersly says if we engage younger children in age-appropriate educational content “they have the skills to reject aggressive behaviours and discrimination and form attitudes, beliefs and behaviours based on equality and respect”.

In Victoria, Our Watch helped develop the Respectful Relationships Education program with the state government.

“Gender-based violence is preventable,” that program states.

Its ‘toolkit’ for cultural change in schools says the key drivers of gender-based violence are:

  • condoning of violence against women
  • men’s control of decision making and limits to women’s independence
  • stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
  • disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise aggression.

To succeed, education about respectful relationships must:

  • address each of the above drivers
  • have a long-term vision
  • take a whole of school approach
  • use age-appropriate, interactive and participatory curriculum
  • provide resources and support for teachers.

Solidarity is essential

Union solidarity and support is also vital for teachers who feel they will be sidelined if they speak up as a lone voice on harassment.

In presentations to members, the IEU offers practical suggestions for creating workplace change: address gender-based violence in workplace policies and procedures; call out bad behaviour; demand clear school policies on what is and is not acceptable; promote an awareness of one’s own biases and behaviour; enact a safe, transparent process for the reporting of harassment; and push for gender balance in leadership.

Respectful relationships toolkits emphasise the importance of interactivity and active learning, rather than passive reception of information.

The International Labour Organisation’s workbook Violence and Harassment in the World of Work says active learning is “based on co-operative tasks designed for participants to learn from one another, sharing experiences and ideas based on problem-solving and working together to solve common problems aimed to build confidence and develop skills and knowledge in a supportive environment”.

Expert advice

There is no shortage of expert advice for those truly seeking change.

Sex Education Australia says it’s at puberty that “gendered codes of behaviour become suffocatingly strict”.

“High school is when young people are trying their hardest to fit in and establish their identity, including what’s expected of their gender.”

Non-profit organisation Man Cave offers advice on how to engage boys aged 12-16 to foster healthy masculinity.

Kinnersly says young men need a supportive school culture that shows them there are many ways to be a man.

“Research shows that rigid stereotypes about men, such as always being the tough, dominant, stoic type, underpin an unhealthy ideal of masculinity, which helps maintain gender inequality and contributes to violence against women,” Kinnersly says.

Dr Arne Rubinstein, chief executive of the Byron Bay-based Rites of Passage Institute says, “discussions of life, love and relationships should be as important as maths, English and science”.

Five years ago, author, academic and gender expert Professor Catharine Lumby championed another innovative idea: get boys listening to girls.

“A successful model trialled by a Sydney school involves bringing in Year 11 girls to talk to Year 9 boys and giving them permission to ask questions about what girls like and want,” Professor Lumby said. “Simple but brilliant.”

There are plenty more ideas, research and plans emerging to help improve school cultures, and thereby students’ futures and society as a whole.

If this article has raised issues for you, contact 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732