Revealed: eight ways sexism is taking place in schools

Teachers are unwittingly deterring female students from taking maths and science subjects by implying that they are more difficult than other subjects, according to a report published today.

The research from the Institute of Physics is based on a series of interviews with school staff and pupils. It also found that fear of homophobic bullying was affecting subject choice.

“Many of the schools visited were inadvertently reinforcing the notion that certain subjects are harder than others,” the report states. “For example, teachers of other subjects commonly admitted to pupils that they had struggled with mathematics.”

The report, Opening Doors, says that in some cases secondary school pupils were deterred from choosing subjects traditionally associated with the opposite gender because they feared homophobic bullying.

It outlines a series of gender stereotyping issues in schools, including:

  • Timetabling constraints inadvertently reinforcing gender stereotypes. “Subjects were often offered in blocks, and these were usually constructed in a way that reinforced gender stereotypes. While most schools tried to accommodate students who wanted to make choices outside that structure, there was a strong message about the types of courses that are taken by boys and girls.”
  • Many schools gave “little consideration” to gender representation in school displays. “It was common for them to display gender bias and reinforce gender prejudices.”
  • Setting by academic ability often resulted in male-dominated lower sets, which could result in an increase in poor behaviour.
  • Schools used alternate “boy-girl” seating, which was “effectively using the girls as buffers to keep the boys apart”. The report says that girls “noticed and resented this policy”.
  • Staff had observed casual sexism in class, such as cat-calling, sexist jokes and derogatory language. Often senior leaders would assert that there was no problem with sexist language at their school but students would report it as an “everyday reality”. In extreme cases this language “verged on bullying”.
  • Very few teachers had received diversity training.
  • A large number of pupils, both male and female, reported living with a daily barrage of sexist “banter”. These pupils “were aware that some of their behaviours and subject choices are heavily gendered, and often driven by peer pressure”.
  • “Girls and boys routinely felt that bad behaviour is tolerated more for girls than for boys, whereas for violations of the dress code it is the other way around.”

The report also gives schools a list of suggestions, including:

  • Appointing a senior leader as a “gender champion”. This role should include “bringing together the whole school in a coherent campaign to challenge gender stereotypes”.
  • Setting up a “feminist society” to allow male and female students to discuss equality.
  • “Option coordinators” could work with the school gender champion or group to ensure that subject blocks do not force gendered choices.
  • All subjects should be presented equally to students in terms of their level of difficulty. Teachers should avoid talking about their own abilities in any subject.

The recommendations are due to be presented at conference on gender bias today. The conference’s chair, Dame Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of Oxfam GB, said: “We know we have a problem with gender stereotyping of subjects in schools.

“This is particularly an issue for girls in maths, physics and engineering, boys in modern foreign languages and a general underperformance in GCSE grades. The conference is an excellent way to explore what happens in schools and outside, and what all of us can do to change it.”

This evening Dame Mary Archer, chairman of the Science Museum Group, told TES that she believed girls’ disinterest in maths and science as they got older was “something in our culture which is quite engrained”.

“We have a generation of teachers and parents who have been shortchanged in maths and science,” she said. “They may think it’s just easier to get high grades in non-Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects.”

At the Science Museum in London, some 4,000 pupils visit in school groups every year, primarily from key stages 2 and 3. But Dame Mary told TES that she would like to do more to engage older female students with sciences.

“Girls switch off from maths and science around the age of 14,” she said. “Young role models between the ages of 14 and 16 are really important in showing girls that science and maths are for people like them.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “No woman should ever feel that their gender is a barrier to success, nor should they face stereotyping at any stage of their lives. As a government, we are committed to doing everything we can to help women feel empowered so that no career is seen as off limits.

“While we support the work that the Institute of Physics has put into this guide and the advice it offers to help get more girls into Stem, we trust schools to know what is best for their pupils and to adopt the approaches that work for them.”

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