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Sexism in schools: A misrepresented issue

When Dr Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, spoke out early this year about sexist bullying in school that prevents girls participating fully in the classroom, there were several issues that she failed to touch upon.

Dr Bousted stated that girls often feel they have to decide between being attractive or clever because of sexist name calling in schools, and that there are multiple pressures on girls to be thin, attractive and compliant, making bright girls feel unfeminine.

Research also found that these gender stereotypes impeded the uptake of traditionally masculine subjects by girls. For instance, subjects such as science, technology and maths are typically seen as masculine subjects, which can deter girls from partaking in these studies.


Nonetheless, what Dr Bousted failed to address is that sexist bullying does not just occur towards girls, with ‘roasting’ becoming a new cyberbullying craze ‘where girls gang on up boys’.

The form of bullying takes place via mobile apps, such as WhatsApp, Instagram or Facebook, with girls picking on a boy and venting offensive abuse until the victim cracks.


The research, carried out by non-profit motivational organisation, suggests that girls are twice as likely as boys to be both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying, as boys tend to be more involved in physical bullying.

Charlotte Robertson, of online safety consultants Digital Awareness UK, said: “Roasting is done under the guise of good humour, which is why it is so dangerous because it is often done among friends.

“Someone would just lay into someone else and completely humiliate them but do it in a way that is portrayed as humorous – a level up from banter. Girls will roast boys. They will create an online chat room about another boy, they are trying to show bravado and competitiveness”.[1]

Gender inequality in education

Sure, girls are still chronically under-represented in some fields, making up just 14.4 percent of the science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce in the UK.[2] It is hard to get them to choose those subjects because they do not want to appear nerdy, or to stand out in a male-dominated environment. But when they do overcome that hurdle, they often perform better than boys, just as they do in almost every other area of the curriculum.

Though male high achievers continue to outperform female high achievers, an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study showed that boys are 50 percent more likely to fall short of basic standards in reading, mathematics and science.[3] The study also revealed that because boys tend to be more rowdy in class, teachers subconsciously mark them down. In anonymous tests, boys perform better, in fact, the gender gap in reading drops by a third when the teachers don’t know the gender of the pupil they are marking. Boys are also more likely to be excluded, and as a result, they are less likely to apply for university. Last year, a report by UCAS revealed women now outnumber men in almost two-thirds of degree subjects, and that the gender gap in British universities has doubled in the last eight years.[4]


To conclude

If we accept Dr Bousted’s claim that girls are under pressure to be thin, attractive, compliant and quiet, then we risk missing the bigger truth – that for both genders there is still a fear-factor association with academic endeavour. [5] Daring to answer and ask questions in class carries just as much risk of being labelled a ‘geek’ for boys as it does girls.

While Dr Bousted is absolutely right that we need to fight the stereotyping of subjects, gender is just one of many barriers to overcome. Schools – and wider society – need to work tirelessly to promote positive behaviours based on the principles of equality and mutual respect, between all pupils and not just different genders. Maybe if we focussed on what unites both genders rather than on what divides them, there would be more mutual tolerance, and in turn, less bullying.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from all this is that viewing the problems affecting school children in the context of a gender war is reductive. Not only can it mask other much more prominent factors impacting under-achievement, such as social class and ethnicity, but portraying one party as the oppressor and the other as the victim may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.


[1] Javier Espinoza (2016) ‘Girls gang up on boys in new cyberbullying craze called ‘roasting’, expert warns’,   <> [Accessed: 26 July 2016]

[2] Lydia Smith (2016) ‘Girls in STEM: These figures show why we need more women in science, tech, engineering and maths’, <> [Accessed: 26 July 2016]

[3] The Economist (2015) ‘Why girls do better at schools than boys’, <>  [Accessed: 26 July 2016]

[4] Press Association (2016) ‘Gender gap in UK degree subjects doubles in eight years, UCAS study finds’, <> [Accessed: 26 July 2016]

[5] Sally Weale (2016) ‘Teachers’ leader condemns sexist bullying of ‘swotty’ girls’, <> [Accessed: 26 July 2016]


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