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.

  1. American Association of University Women. (1990). Shortchanging Girls: Shortchanging America. Greenberg Lake: The Analyses Group Incorporated.

  2. Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence. University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota.

  3. The Toronto Sun. (March 25, 1992). "Sexual Hassles Plague Schools."

  4. 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.

  5. Spender, D., p.105.

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