Educating for Change
Even when the young women were
able to identify incidents of sexual harassment, they often did not report it
because they felt that school officials were unlikely to respond. For example,
a student who complained about male students continually lifting up her skirt
in class was told to return to her seat and stop interrupting the lesson. She
stopped wearing skirts to school: "I only wear pants, I tell you!" Another
young woman had to endure a male student putting her book down his pants and
making sexual propositions while the teacher looked on. In her words, "What can
you do when the person in authority doesn't do a shit about it?"
"[The guys] would play this game ...
whoever passed by between them would be the one that they'd have sex with. If
it was a pretty girl they'd say, "Right on, you've got her!" If a Black girl
walks by they'd go, "Oh my God, this and that. She's got such a big ass. ..."
They'd put her down majorly. "
It is not my intention to blame teachers for the level of
harassment that goes on in their schools (unless, of course, they participate)
but to stress that such harassment needs to be acknowledged and confronted.
This is no easy task. Like students, many teachers are not informed about
sexual harassment; some experience it. But when sexually harassing behaviour
goes unchecked in schools, a crucial barrier to young women's equality remains
firmly intact. Certainly, educators cannot be charged with the sole
responsibility for eliminating sexual harassment, but they can challenge the
attitudes that promote it. Developing policies and educational programs on
sexual harassment, providing safe and supportive spaces for female students,
and challenging harassing behaviour at all times are positive steps.
But in general, educators need to re-examine the focus of equal
opportunity initiatives that are geared primarily to "fixing" female students.
As the stories of these young women so clearly point out, the most significant
barrier to equal education lies not in the girls, but in those who do not wish
to accept them as equals (5).
The perilous situation of female
students is shocking when one considers that the commitment to gender equitable
education is lauded as a primary objective of most school boards. The accounts
of these young women are clear warnings that something is wrong. It seems that
the road to equality we've carved is so fraught with cracks and barriers that
young women move with trepidation, if they move at all. At the same time as
they are inundated with messages about their unlimited opportunities, many are
feeling increasingly confined as they restrict their behaviour to avoid sexual
harassment. Equal opportunity has increased young women's access to education
but sexual harassment is keeping them unequal.
Tackling the problem of sexual harassment in schools may be the
crucial key to providing equal education for girls. As one student so clearly
articulated, when we start dealing with sexual harassment "that's when equality
will begin. That's when we will really start being equal."
June Larkin is a post-doctoral fellow at the Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and an instructor in the Women's
Studies Program at the University of Toronto. She is author of a forthcoming
book, Sexual Harassment: High Girls Speak Out, to be published by Second
Story Press in the fall of 1994.
American Association of University Women. (1990).
Shortchanging Girls: Shortchanging America. Greenberg Lake: The Analyses
Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence.
University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota.
The Toronto Sun. (March 25, 1992). "Sexual Hassles Plague
Spender, D. (1980). "Gender and marketable skills: Who
underachieves in maths and sciences?" in D. Spender (ed.) Learning to Lose:
Sexism in Education. London: The Women's Press.
- Spender, D., p.105.