Schools are still discriminating and it has to stop
1st April 2017
Words by Jess Alchin
Image: Still from Puberty Blues series
As March 2010 turned to hot, sticky days after heavy rain, the mystery in my grade was why the school had separated us according to sex. It was my final year of high school, during the spare period usually reserved for catching a nap or texting under the table. The ceiling fans whirred and the wall-to-wall carpeted classroom filled up with the buzzing sounds of noisy students. We were all wondering, “What were the boys doing?”
The teachers quieted us down, and we resigned ourselves to sitting through a guest speaker’s fashion tips for job interviews. For forty minutes. Eventually the sweet relief of the school bell called us out into the hot yard for morning tea, but the boys still hadn’t returned from their cryptic class. It wasn’t long until they whirred back to S block in a tight band of testosterone-fuelled energy.
“So, what did they make you do?” One girl asked her boyfriend, already rolling her eyes. The boy grinned and shook his sweaty hair at her.
“We’re learning self-defence,” he boasted.
“Are you serious?” She said. He shrugged and just looked at her, already oblivious.
The news spread instantly, the fires of injustice coupled with the ramifications of such a divide that saw the rumoured break-up of said couple.
For the rest of that semester, the boys and girls were separated twice a week to cater more closely to our clearly defined gender roles. The female students endured a series of guest speakers who spoke to our assumed interests; we endured hair and makeup advice for the end-of-year formal and a talk from a local skincare expert. The male students continued their education in self-defence.
At the time, most of us were unaware of feminism as a movement. But we felt a strong sense of unfairness, bottled up with fear for the future, anger at the school, anger at the boys, and a sense of shame at what we had been reduced to. Each class further piled bricks on the invisible barrier separating the boys and the girls. And the second-wave of unfairness were the whispers of ‘she needs to get over it,’ when that same girl still wasn’t talking to her boyfriend.
"For the rest of that semester, the boys and girls were separated twice a week to cater more closely to our clearly defined gender roles. The female students endured a series of guest speakers who spoke to our assumed interests; we endured hair and makeup advice for the end-of-year formal and a talk from a local skincare expert. The male students continued their education in self-defence."
Despite several teachers listening to our complaints and promising to take it to their superiors, nothing changed. We felt unprepared then, and seven years on, Australian schools still aren’t doing enough to combat the gender imbalance.
A mere 8% of 16-19 year old girls feel that they are always treated equally to boys, according to last year’s study by Our Watch and Plan International Australia. Just one in six girls who participated in the survey said they were always given the same opportunities to get ahead as boys. Everyday examples of sexism add up to problematic social norms and ways of thinking that are incredibly harmful. Research shows that violence against women begins with normalised behaviours geared at a gender inequality.
It isn’t new information that sexism is a serious issue in Australian schools. Social media exacerbates the problem, with two cases in particular receiving a lot of media attention last year: The Melbourne Grammar School ‘tinder boot camp’ video and the Brighton Grammar Instagram ‘young sluts.’ In both situations male students identified, humiliated and objectified young female students through YouTube and Instagram.
To be clear, when schools and the media attempt to label instances like these as ‘bullying’ problems, they are shying away from the truth; these problems arise from systemic sexism. The actions of the students involved are rooted in misogyny; born from disrespect and spawned into dehumanising their female peers.
At present, very few primary or secondary schools in Australia include any feminist curriculums. The Respectful Relationships Curriculum (2016) in Victoria deals with some issues of inequality and violence against women, but has received heavy an all too typical criticism from conservatives.
One promising initiative is the Fightback program from Victoria, which has hopefully gathered momentum through Breakthrough, an initiative by the Victorian Women’s Trust late last year. The Fightback program, a resource created after a group of students at Fitzroy High School formed a feminist collective in 2013, offers educational frameworks to teach ‘everyday feminism.’ The program covers basic gender equality, understanding objectification and the use of sexist language.
The teacher behind the collective, Briony O’Keeffe, notes that a lot of feminism is aimed at middle class white women. She says the framework aims to give perspective to gender discrimination, acknowledging other forms of discrimination both men and women experience.
When the girls at my school weren’t allowed to learn self-defence, we didn’t have a word for the type of pigeon-holing we were experiencing. I remember a friend of mine crying in the bathrooms one day after class. Looking back, I now realise the whole situation had suddenly brought to her attention that she could not control her own safety in public spaces. The majority of the students at my conservative private school led a privileged, sheltered upbringing, but this instance showed us what male privilege looked like when played out under the governance of an education institution. At 16, it sent a message to the female students that we were inferior and not worthy of individual, un-gendered choice.
Near the end of Grade 12, we were finally provided with some insight as to why the girls hadn’t been taught self-defence. The head of the high school allegedly said the girls couldn’t participate in our school dresses, and that we wouldn’t have enough time to change into sports uniform and back to ‘day uniform.’ Apparently remaining in sports uniform would have been out of the question. It was a rationale formed on practicality, but a cop-out nonetheless.
The conversation around inequality in schools needs to stay in the public awareness. Recently, a few Australian schools have brought in options for uniforms that don’t fit gender stereotyping. Sadly, most kids still have no choice and must fit into the traditional boxes of homogenised masculinity and femininity. The current state of play, which requires a vast overhaul, infers that if you don’t fit squarely into a binary, forget about feeling included.
The fight starts at a basic level with research proving time and time again that everyday sexism is linked to male aggression, domestic violence, and inequality both in and outside workplaces. The most sickening thing for me was realising the reason we weren’t allowed to learn was the exact reason we needed to be taught.