Urgent action needed to tackle gender inequality for women and girls

Schools have a critical role in the issue of gender equality and making sure that all children and young people have the best life chances, a fringe meeting organised by the NASUWT, the largest teachers’ union in the UK has heard.

The fringe meeting on Women and Gender Equality, held at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, discussed the action needed to help secure genuine gender equality in classrooms, schools and wider society.

Attendees heard how women and girls are increasingly facing online sexist and misogynistic abuse, which is impacting negatively on their self-esteem, feelings of self-worth, confidence and their mental and physical well-being.

Addressing the fringe meeting were Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society and Chris Keates, NASUWT General Secretary. The meeting was chaired by Brian Cookson, NASUWT National Officer.

Chris Keates told the fringe meeting how NASUWT’s work over the past decade looking at online abuse has exposed this increasing issue facing women teachers and girls.

She said: “Technology and the internet have transformed learning and the working practices of teachers. Technology is not the problem, it’s the abuse and misuse.

“We have really stark evidence of how women teachers’ professional lives are being blighted by regular incidences of online sexual harassment and threats of violence from pupils and parents.

“Over a third of cases go unreported because they don’t think it will be taken seriously.

“A quarter who do report the incidents say that no action has been taken.

“Schools that fail to take seriously and tackle effectively online abuse for staff also leave pupils vulnerable. Effective measures need a whole school approach.”

Ms Keates also raised the context in schools of this failure to protect women teachers from online abuse, highlighting that it is simply part of a much wider issue of gender inequality.

She said: “Three quarters of teachers are women.

“As a result of the excessive freedoms, flexibilities and autonomy given to schools we now see a pay gap that not only persists, it is widening.

“When a women teacher is pregnant she is shown the door, when she asks for pay progression she is told it’s not her turn and when she asks for flexible working she is told she has no right.

“Older women teachers fare even worse.”

Looking at the issue of sexual harassment in schools, Sam Smethers shared disturbing research which showed the scale of the problem for girls.

This included 59% of girls aged 13-21 having faced some form of sexual harassment in schools, and almost a third of girls aged 16-18 having experienced unwanted sexual touching in schools.

She said: “We need mandatory, good quality, age appropriate sex and relationship education in schools.

“One of the many consequences is that girls do not want to participate in certain activities, such as extra curriculum activities, and they won’t necessarily fulfil their potential at school.

“This links to subject segregation, where less females take subjects such as physics and computing, which are two critical subjects, yet only 22% of females take these at A-level and even lower when you reach degree level.

“Unless we tackle some of these issues of which subject segregation is one of the main concerns, it undermines our ability to close the gender pay gap.”