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Sexism is widespread in our society – and tackling it begins in our schools

The increasingly macho nature of the education regime is modelling oppressive behaviour, says KIRI TUNKS

SEXISM has long been a problem. It is still a problem. This is despite all the progress women have made and historic changes in the law.
Women are still fighting sexism at endemic levels at work, in school, in public, on social media.

In 2018, it is shocking to see such high levels of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, including the murder of women by intimate partners of 2.6 every week in the UK. 

The longstanding failure of the justice system becomes clearer every day. Even the recent legal victory by two victims of John Worboys, which states that the police have a duty to investigate crimes against women, is a reminder that we can never take our rights for granted. 

Women still face a gender pay gap and every year in the UK 54,000 women lose their jobs due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. 

Austerity and the cuts to public services have a disproportionate impact on women and children and this is exacerbated by class and race. 

The increase in racist hate and assault have had a gendered dimension, with women bearing the brunt of these crimes. 
We are going backwards and we need the labour movement — and the Labour Party — to commit to turning things around.

It was good to hear John McDonnell pledge at Labour conference that every Labour policy will be assessed for its impact on women. 
Labour’s election manifesto shows that Labour wants to address the crisis in the public sector. 

And Jeremy Corbyn has been clear about the importance of trade union membership and activity. 

But women are going to need much more. And we will be demanding it. A good place to start would be a serious commitment to tackling sexism in society. 

Anti-discrimination laws exist, but they need strengthening. The recent legal victory by Unison, which ruled employment tribunal fees illegal, is a crucial step in removing the barriers to women accessing justice when they’ve been faced discrimination at work.

But there is a cultural problem that will be harder to shift. The casual sexism in society, the sexual objectification, the minimising of sexist behaviour is a problem everywhere but it shouldn’t be present anywhere on the left. 

Women have a right to expect higher standards from people engaged in struggles for equality and justice. Too often our brothers let us down.

The TUC report Still Just a Bit of Banter? details the alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some 52 per cent of women polled by the TUC experienced sexual harassment at work. Although a problem for all women, it is more prevalent for younger women and those in insecure work or in male-dominated workplaces. 

For black women, it intersects with racism and racist tropes. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was a man — in most cases, a colleague but often a third party such as a customer or a patient.

Crucially, only one in five women reported the harassment to anyone. The reasons why women didn’t report it ranged from shame to fear of negative consequences for their job. 

And who can blame women for fearing victimisation? We only need to look at Harvey Weinstein to see how the power dynamics at play in sexual harassment can mean the end of women’s careers.

We need to build a serious trade union campaign to make demands on our own organisations and politicians to ensure that our equality laws are understood by all and are enforced. 

We need the government to collect data on sexual harassment — plenty of other countries do and it would allow us to properly research the causes, monitor the prevalence and put strategies in place to bring it to an end. 

We need the reinstatement of third party harassment legislation, which was repealed in 2013, to make it easier for the many women working in sectors such as the NHS, hospitality and retail who face harassment from customers or patients to hold their employers to account.

We need to extend the full range of statutory employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract. 

This would remove discrimination for atypical workers and address issues regarding zero-hours or temporary contracts. 

We need recognition and facility time for trade union reps. They need to be trained and resourced to be able to respond to and address complaints of sexual harassment. 

As a movement, we also need to raise the consciousness of our reps so that they are able to spot harassment in the workplace and ensure that women feel empowered to report it and take action. 

The government is consulting on this issue. If everyone reading this paper sent in a response and got their colleagues and union comrades to complete it too, we could start to build a drive for change. 

Sadly, as the National Education Union found, sexism is also prevalent in schools. In the past, schools have been able to ameliorate the worst excesses and make space in the curriculum to educate and challenge. This is no longer the case.  

The NEU survey It’s Just Everywhere found that 54 per cent of girls and 34 per cent boys say they have witnessed someone using sexist language while 30 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys have personally been described using sexist language. 

And it’s not just a problem in secondary schools where 64 per cent of teachers say they hear sexist language weekly and 29 per cent daily. For primary schools the figures are 45 per cent and 15 per cent.

The atomisation of education system, now fractured by academies and free schools, has broken a strong network of governance that used to ensure issues like racism and sexism were tackled systemically. 

Now these issues are delegated to outside organisations of varying standard on drop-down days so a box can be ticked for Ofsted. This is not good enough.

The catastrophic funding cuts mean there’s no money for what some term “fluffy learning,” with the focus being entirely on the “basics” as if helping children live respectful, equal lives isn’t a basis for a healthy society. 

The increasingly macho nature of the education regime is modelling oppressive behaviour.

Changes to initial teacher training mean teachers aren’t being trained in these areas and many complain they just don’t know how to tackle it. 

The NEU is committed to tackling this. Next week 200 people are attending our conference on Challenging Sexism, but we can’t do it alone. We need everyone to be part of making sexism a thing of the past. Please help us.

Kiri Tunks is NUT vice-president, NEU.


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