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Challenging sexism and gender stereotypes in education

Written By: Karen Jones
5 min read

What is sexism?

Psychologists and experts on sex discrimination have studied sexism to understand its underlying causes, how it is exhibited, the behaviour it encompasses and its impact on people. We know that sexism can be exhibited in different ways. Sometimes it is very obvious, blatant and involves hostile behaviour, such as verbal abuse or sexual harassment. It can also be more subtle or even covert, making it less easy to identify and challenge.

Sexist language and sexist bullying in schools

Little research exists on sexism targeted at children or young people in education settings. This has changed recently in light of growing evidence of sexist language and sexist bullying in school communities (Girlguiding, 2018; NEU and UK Feminista, 2017; House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016; The Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009). This includes, but is not limited to:

  • comments to reinforce gender stereotypes that typically stem from beliefs about the inferiority of a sex
  • comments that seek to demean, ridicule, intimidate, isolate or harm others, innuendo, lewd comments, sexual remarks about clothing, spreading rumours about a person’s sexual reputation, sexualized name calling or sexually abusive terms, sexual jokes or taunting
  • comments or sexual remarks on a person’s bodily appearance, sexual objectification – treating a person or parts of their body just as an object of sexual desire or a commodity without concern for their personality or dignity
  • transphobic bullying that often stems from a hatred or fear of people who are transgender.

What do we know from research?

In 2017 the National Education Union (NEU) and UK Feminista commissioned research into pupils’ and teachers’ experiences and views of sexism in schools. Anonymous surveys went to pupils and staff, and discussion groups were conducted with secondary pupils. Surveys were completed by 1,508 secondary school pupils and 1,634 teachers at secondary and primary schools in England and Wales. The findings revealed that gender stereotyping is a typical feature of school culture, and use of misogynist language is commonplace in schools:

  • thirty-four per cent of primary school teachers witnessed gender stereotyping on a weekly basis in schools and 54 per cent on a termly basis
  • thirty-six per cent of females, compared to 15 per cent of males in mixed-sex secondary schools, felt that they had been treated differently because of their gender
  • forty-five per cent of primary school teachers experienced or witnessed sexist language at least on a termly basis; 15 per cent on at least a weekly basis, and the majority (77 per cent) said that this involved boys making inappropriate comments to girls
  • sixty-four per cent of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools heard sexist language on at least a weekly basis and 29 per cent on a daily basis
  • sixty-six per cent of female pupils and 37 per cent of male pupils in mixed-sex sixth forms had experienced or witnessed sexist language in school
  • only six per cent of pupils reported sexist language to a teacher
  • only 27 per cent of secondary school teachers said they would feel confident tackling a sexist incident if they experienced or witnessed it in school.

Evidence from another poll of 16-18-year-olds found that 71 per cent of boys and girls said they hear sexual name-calling, such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ used towards girls at school daily or a few times a week (End Violence Against Women, 2010).

Teachers and pupils reported poor knowledge of how to tackle this damaging behaviour. Only 22 per cent of female pupils in mixed-secondary schools thought their school took sexism seriously enough. Seventy-eight per cent of secondary pupils didn’t know if their school had a policy to tackle the problem. Similarly, 64 per cent of secondary teachers were unaware or unsure of policies or practices. Only 20 per cent had received training on how to recognise and tackle sexism in initial training and 20 per cent through CPD (NEU and UK Feminista, 2017).

It can be difficult to know how to respond to sexist language. It is sometimes dismissed as ‘banter’. By downgrading the problem or ignoring it, we inadvertently reinforce the view that sexist language is acceptable. Ignoring the problem normalises it.

Challenging unacceptable language

There are many ways you can challenge unacceptable language. The following examples have been recommended by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) (2009, p. 28):

  1. Dismissive response
  • “I’m not going to listen to language like that.”
  1. Questioning response
  • “What makes you think that?”
  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “Let’s talk about why people think like that.”
  1. Confronting response
  • “Language like that is not acceptable.”
  • “A lot of people would find that offensive.”
  1. Personal response
  • “I‚’m not happy with what you said.”
  • “I find that language really offensive.”
  • “What you’ve said really disturbs me.”
  1. Organisational response
  • “The school doesn’t tolerate language like that.”

Watch your language!

Findings from research by the NEU and UK Feminista (2017) also show that in interactions with pupils, teachers’ sometimes inadvertently reinforced gender stereotypes in the comments they made to students. For example, a female student was told it was okay to fail mathematics because girls are better at expressive lessons. Boys in one school were regularly told to ‘man-up.’ Boys were often allocated class tasks such as lifting tables or boxes, while girls were told to leave those jobs for the boys and sort out books instead.

Act on your own gender stereotypes to transform your practice

The school environment is a good place to communicate messages about gender equality to counter sexism and sexist language. By reflecting on your own deep-rooted beliefs, values and practice, you can identify and act on your own gender stereotypes.

  • Treat sexist language in the learning environment as unacceptable at all times. Use codes of conduct to communicate norms and expected behaviour. Involve children in this activity.
  • Refrain from using sexist language yourself.
  • Present curricular subjects equally to pupils in terms of their relative difficulty and refrain from making remarks about how easy or difficult a subject is or whether a child is suited to it because of their gender. This also applies when offering praise or encouragement.
  • Expose pupils to counter stereotypical role models, for example, diversify wall displays with a gender balance of portraits of people, such as male and female alumni, famous scientists, mathematicians, historical figures, sports people. Include positive examples of counter stereotype role models in lesson planning. Involve pupils sourcing and producing this material.
  • Create an inclusive learning environment by encouraging pupils to listen to and respect each-other. Encourage diverse perspectives to be heard and give then equal airtime.
  • Listen to pupils who raise issues. Be sensitive to their circumstances. If you don’t know how to deal with their issue, seek help from someone who can help or advise you.
  • Avoid tokenism when constructing teams or group work. Don’t use pupils to manage behaviour in class, for example, by sitting girls next to boys to prevent boys from misbehaving.


All schools should have a policy to counter sexism that includes the use of sexist language. While many schools have such policies, research suggests teachers are not fully aware of school policy. Have you read the policy in your school?
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