The last few weeks have seen in-depth discussion of the sexual harassment of young women and girls in the UK. Whilst the focus of discussion was initially on independent schools, prompted by the reports lodged on the Everyone’s Invited site, there has been a growing recognition this is not an issue which is confined to a specific sector of education, nor to education alone, but is a far more widespread issue throughout society.
It’s not a new issue, either, nor one confined solely to the UK: UNESCO has highlighted the extent and impact of gender based violence and harassment against girls in countries from the Netherlands to South Africa and beyond. Reports from women of all ages and from all walks of life have also appeared on Twitter, outlining the sexual harassment they have experienced from an early age.
What strikes me about these accounts, as varied as they are, is that they speak of a sense of entitlement on the part of the perpetrators to behave in this way towards young women and girls. The common theme across the diverse accounts seems to be a power imbalance where (largely) male perpetrators exercise power over a victim who does not feel able to a) resist or b) report the issue, often for many years after the event.
“These accounts speak of a sense of entitlement on the part of the perpetrators to behave in this way towards young women and girls.”
Whilst I do not suggest that the blame for these events should be laid at the feet of schools, if we consider the issue to be fundamentally one of power and entitlement, there is perhaps more that we could be doing to model gender equality in our organisations.
The World Economic forum Global Gender Gap report looks at the differences between the status of men and women across a variety of indicators. Whilst it may be encouraging to see that average educational attainment gaps are relatively small and closing, the 2020 report notes that women still encounter barriers to employment and are under-represented in six of the eight areas with the highest employment growth rates.
Even when employed, their skills are under-utilised, so they are often not considered for high-tech and managerial roles. Representation of women in senior roles more generally is also poor, with a global average of 36 per cent of senior roles occupied by women. The report also notes that this figure was favourably skewed by a small handful of countries who approach parity. On a societal scale, and in many countries, there is therefore much to be done to ensure that women and men are perceived equally.
“Whilst we talk to our students about equality of gender, what do they see when they look around them?”
We are now quite accustomed to the principle that what we teach in the classroom should be carefully considered and should reflect and celebrate the achievements of all genders and nationalities. We should also encourage young people to reflect critically on history and the shortcomings of the societies they live in. We explicitly teach young people that they are equals, and hope that our schools in their day-to-day activity offer equality of opportunity to all students.
But here’s the rub: our hidden curriculum may well be signalling the opposite of our words. Whilst we talk to our students about equality of gender, what do they see when they look around them? We know that whilst 63 per cent of secondary school teachers are female, they make up just 38 per cent of headteachers, and in primary schools, whilst men account for just 14 per cent of the workforce, they account for 27 per cent of headteachers.
We know too that in international schools, the situation is worse: here just one third of school principals are women. Recent research across a range of countries suggests that this imbalance is due to a “double standard” effect, whereby women’s capabilities are judged more harshly than those of men, rather than a reluctance to apply for positions on the part of women.
“We know too that in international schools, the situation is worse: here just one third of school principals are women.”
So, in our schools, both in the UK and across the world, we send the implicit signal to young men and women that it is men who hold more positions of power with women more frequently in subordinate roles, and that what we teach is therefore not a reflection of real life. It isn’t such a leap, therefore, to believe that young people will recognise this dissonance, and that they will play out the power imbalances modelled to them in social situations.
What is to be done to address this? First and foremost, we must not relax in our efforts to ensure that the taught curriculum in our schools is truly representative of society and that our message of equality is loud and clear. We must also continue to educate young men and women to challenge unacceptable behaviour and make our schools places where everyone feels that reports of harassment will be taken seriously.
“In our schools we send the implicit signal that it is men who hold more positions of power with women more frequently in subordinate roles.”
But we need to be more proactive, too, in looking at ourselves critically and asking whether societal power imbalances are reflected in our own structures. The first step is, of course, to assess the current state of play: what percentage of leadership positions in our schools are held by men and women? Do we look critically at our gender pay gap and consider the reasons for pay differentials between men and women at the same level?
In addition, there are a range of strategies which can be employed to try to avoid bias in selection and appointment, particularly for senior roles. These can include blind shortlisting, a careful consideration of how the language of an advert can introduce bias at the application stage, or a commitment to ensuring that any shortlist for a senior position includes at least two women (the two in the pool effect). We can also be proactive in thinking about our own biases and challenge others to justify their thinking on candidates during selection processes.
We won’t always get it right, and no system is perfect: all of the activities mentioned above have their own critics. But if our role as educators is to nurture individuals who will eventually work to make society a more equal and better place, we need to show today how we are, at the very least, trying to make a difference to existing structural inequalities ourselves.