Sexist bullying in schools is inhibiting girls from putting up their hands and speaking out in class because they fear appearing “swotty and clever”, according to a senior teachers’ leader.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said sexist bullying was still prevalent in the classroom, where girls often felt under pressure to “keep quiet and listen to the boys talking”.
Speaking before the ATL’s annual conference, which opens in Liverpool on Monday, Bousted described “the tightrope” girls walk between being attractive and achieving at school. She said there was “a conspiracy of near silence” among girls, who did not want to appear “brainy” for fear of being called names.
“There are lots and lots of pressures on girls – to be thin, to be attractive, to be compliant and to be quiet – and it’s as great now as it ever has been.
“If you are an adolescent girl, there are so many names you can be called in school – there are very few for boys.” As a result, girls found it hard to challenge gender stereotypes, making it more difficult for them to take on challenging subjects and believe they can be successful.
A former English teacher, Bousted said she once taped the lessons at her London comprehensive school assuming that the split between boys and girls contributing in class was fairly even. When she listened back to the recording, it became clear “the boys were talking and the girls were listening”.
“I think sexist bullying is a thing that just doesn’t get talked about,” said Bousted. “For girls, there’s a very, very fine line – if you are swotty and clever and answer too many questions, you are not attractive. There’s a big pressure in many schools for girls to keep quiet and listen to the boys talking.”
The issue of sexist bullying and harassment of students is due to be discussed at the ATL conference on Tuesday where members are expected to say they deplore such behaviour and will call for training for teachers to help prevent it.
In a pre-conference briefing to the media, Bousted said social media was fuelling the problem, with girls overwhelmingly the victims of sexting. A study last weekby a fellow teachers’ union, the NASUWT, suggested sexting was widespread in schools – even primaries – with more than half of teachers who responded aware of pupils using social media to share sexual messages, pictures and videos.
Bousted said: “Schools are doing what they can. They are often the safest places for young people to be, but the fact is that schools are chock full of other young people who bring in all the social norms which are outside school.
“Adolescents today have more access to highly sexualised films and content, on social media, than ever before.” She said it would be curious if that did not make itself felt in schools. “It’s very difficult for teachers to police that. You can’t just confiscate everybody’s mobile phone.”
However, she added: “I am very confident that schools are dealing with this much better than they did a few years ago. This is not something particular to schools.Schools have to promote equality and respect between the sexes and promote the behaviours they want to see in their school, but schools can’t tackle this on their own, it is one for society.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “It’s stories like this – with no evidence to back them up – that are exactly why sexism still exists. We should be celebrating the achievements and talents of women and girls rather than focussing on outdated notions. Girls are outperforming boys academically and we know that good schools support all their pupils to feel empowered to be themselves in class.
“We are crystal clear that sexist bullying, like all other forms of bullying, must not be tolerated. Every school is required by law to have measures in place to prevent it. We have strengthened teachers’ powers to tackle bullying and have made clear that teachers can discipline and investigate cases of bullying outside school. In addition, we’re ensuring all children are better educated about the dangers of the internet, with children learning about internet safety as part of the new National Curriculum.”