‘To beat the misogynists, teach the power of positive masculinity’

Educating all pupils about positive masculinity is one of the best ways schools can impact society, writes Heather Hanbury

positive masculinity can be taught in schools

You might be wondering why, as president of the Girls’ Schools Association and head of a girls’ school, I want to speak out about what has been termed “positive masculinity“. The answer is simple: girls and women need healthier constructs of masculinity every bit as much as men and boys do.

I do not believe that toxic masculinity has overtaken the world, largely because I know so many men and boys who are truly positive and proud in their masculinity. They need and deserve the support of women and girls to stand up to a vocal and dangerous minority of misogynists who harass and commit crimes against girls and women. These acts appear to be growing ever more common and this is deeply worrying. They have direct victims, but make no mistake, they also have a heavy impact on wider society.

“I do not believe that toxic masculinity has overtaken the world.”

While everybody in every walk of life can promote positive masculinity, school offers the chance to influence at a crucial stage when norms and expectations are developing. Male teachers and staff in schools – no matter if they work in the kitchen, the leadership team, or the classroom – can set positive examples through their interactions with girls and women. Showing boys what is acceptable through adult behaviour is significantly more influential than telling them what to do.

Girls’ schools have long been at the forefront of helping to address negative cultures through interschool partnerships with boys’ schools. These champion collaboration and constructive conversations and pave the way for mutually respectful understanding and friendships.

At Lady Eleanor Holles (LEH), the school I lead, we have a sixth form enrichment programme in partnership with the boys’ school next door, Hampton. Kevin Knibbs, Hampton’s headmaster, and I often talk about the responsibility that both of us have to promote positive relationships between boys and girls at every opportunity. Educating boys and girls about positive masculinity is one of the most important ways in which our schools contribute to wider society.

“Digital and social media are having an enormous impact.”

Women and girls continue to fight for equity in all areas of life. While there’s been much progress during my lifetime, some things feel worse than they did 30 years ago. When I started my career in the corporate sector, I experienced misogynistic comments and discrimination. This was wrong and unpleasant, but it didn’t feel dangerous in the way it does now.

I can’t identify all the reasons for this, but digital and social media are having an enormous impact. Societal norms are changing more rapidly than they have in previous generations. I know that girls (and indeed boys) often do not report inappropriate behaviour because they simply don’t realise that it is inappropriate: for them it has become the “new normal”.

“While there’s been much progress during my lifetime, some things feel worse.”

Again, schools can play a leading role by educating young people properly about the internet and encouraging them to question and challenge what they see. The GSA and its member schools have always promoted courageous action among girls. We empower them to use their voices to call out or report unacceptable or misogynistic behaviour; this is part of what we stand for.

Providing safe, honest and reflective spaces for open discussion about the world as it is and as we would like it to be, has a huge positive impact on our pupils. And, of course, this can happen in co-educational settings. Indeed, the growing collaboration between LEH and Hampton schools is encouraging pupils across both to come together to do just this, to the great benefit of both parties.

As you’d expect, all this makes me even more determined to encourage girls to set high standards, to expect respect, and to give them the confidence they need to take a stand against inappropriate behaviour. The less they stand for, and the more schools support boys and men to adopt positive masculinity, the better it will be for us all.