The General Teaching Council for Scotland

How to tackle #everydaysexism in schools

Laura Bates talks about the importance of tackling sexism in schools

More than a fifth (21%) of young women aged between 13 and 25 experienced sexual harassment at school, college or university, according to a 2018 report by Girlguiding Scotland (1). A report published by the National Education Union the same year revealed that sexist behaviour, language and harassment was commonplace in schools (2). The normalisation of this behaviour meant that very few people reported it.

Headshot Laura Bates credit: Siggi HolmIntroducing Laura Bates

Earlier this year, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, released her debut young adult novel The Burning, which centres around 15-year-old Anna and the sexist bullying she faces after an “incident” online. Although the book is a work of fiction, the experiences of Anna are based on real accounts from UK schoolgirls and relatable to many young people around the world. We asked Laura about her work.

You launched the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012. Do you think there have been any shifts in society since then?

Yes, I do. When I first launched the project, it was out of frustration that sexism was so invisible; it wasn't talked about, wasn't taken seriously, wasn't even acknowledged.

Now I think that is shifting. We are starting to see much wider and more visible conversations about sexism, harassment and abuse. We certainly haven't solved the problem, but we are finally starting to recognise that it exists.

What can schools do to help tackle sexism, misogyny and harassment?

I'm really passionate about tackling these issues at school level because I truly believe it is the stage at which intervention has the greatest impact. If young people grow up believing it is simply normal to ridicule boys for crying, or suggest that girls aren't naturally good at science, these ideas become ingrained and hard to shift. But if we give young people the tools to question sexist stereotypes by helping them to identify and probe them, we prepare them to be resilient against sexism when it rears its head later.

Schools can play a major positive role by teaching all young people about healthy relationships, consent, bodily autonomy and gender stereotypes from a young age. But they need to be supported in order to do so. I see many brilliant teachers who are working so hard to support their pupils, but they need backing, in the form of proper training and resources, financial support and good links with local women's organisations.

Sexism, misogyny and harassment are not only experienced by girls and not only perpetrated by boys. Do you think boys’ experiences differ?

The portrayal of the boys in the book was informed by my work with young people. Because of the sexist and deeply outdated ideas our society perpetuates about how to be a man, teenage boys are also under immense pressure: to ‘man up’; to treat girls in a certain way; to excel in certain areas and appear disinterested in others; to swallow their emotions and hide their fears.

When I meet boys in school who have had the courage to try and stand up to sexism or harassment, they themselves often become the targets of abuse, sometimes homophobic as well as sexist. That’s why it’s so frustrating when people suggest that talking about sexism in schools might be a ‘witch hunt’ against boys – in reality, it is an issue that has huge implications for them as well. Tackling this is important for all young people, regardless of gender.

What is the one thing teachers could do that would have the biggest impact on tackling sexism?

It's vital that teachers and schools set a good example by taking sexual harassment, sexist jokes and abuse seriously. Too many girls are still told 'boys will be boys' or punished for their own skirt lengths, rather than boys being held accountable.
What should colleges and universities be doing to help tackle these issues?

Too many cases of serious sexual assault and rape continue to happen in colleges and universities, and too often these issues The Burningare brushed under the carpet to prevent reputational damage rather than tackled openly as they should be. Every institution should have clear, transparent, victim-centred reporting procedures for sexual harassment and assault, with support provided to survivors and a zero-tolerance policy promoted.

Are there any resources you would recommend that teachers use?

There are lots of fantastic resources like the Sex Education Forum, websites like Scarleteen, and the Disrespect NoBody campaign. External providers of workshops and training like the Good Lad Initiative can also be hugely effective.

Your new book focuses on some real experiences of young women – what are the common themes?

There is sadly almost nothing that happens in this novel that hasn't happened in real life to a girl or young woman I've worked with. These experiences seem dramatic and extreme but the reality is that they form teenage girls' day-to-day lives. Being coerced to send nude images, body image pressure, slut shaming and sexist double standards are some of the most common themes I see in my work in schools.


(1) Girlguiding Scotland, (2018), Girls in Scotland
(2) National Education Union, (2018), It’s just everywhere - sexism in schools