Women working in boys schools and schools with male dominated cultures:

Are we ready for our #metoo moment?

While improvements in gender equity are slowly making changes in workplaces and society in general, our education unions work with members to tackle male dominated cultures which still exist in many schools. IEU Victoria Tasmania Branch Officers, Therese O’Loughlin and Marit Clayton have specific responsibility for gender and equity issues, including training and policy development. Here they outline the key problem areas and point to ways schools can build gender equality.

Issues of sexism and inequality in society are at the forefront of discussions about how to make our workplaces safe and respectful for everyone. A recent survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed that two in five women and one in four men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This is not a ‘women’s issue’, it is a societal issue and is driven by underlying inequality. Education is a key factor in initiating change and this has prompted a questioning of the culture of inequality and sexism in many boys schools and co-educational schools with a very masculine culture.

Less than a year ago St Kevin’s College, a Catholic boys school in Melbourne, was at the centre of some very public scandals and allegations of a culture of sexism and misogyny which included the filming of a group of students on a tram singing a salacious chant about women. St Kevin’s is not alone.

The public behaviour of these particular boys has prompted a questioning of the continuing culture of inequality and sexism in many boys schools and co-educational schools with a very masculine culture, and an examination of what can be done to change this.

The IEU has been working with members in co-education and boys schools to examine what they are experiencing, why they think this is happening, and what are the barriers to changing culture.

Below are issues our members are talking about:

What our members working inboys schools are experiencing

  • It’s a boys school – get used to it
  • Male colleagues stepping in to sort out the ‘issue’ and thinking they are doing you a favour
  • There are no women in leadership
  • Male voices being heard in the school – female voices overlooked
  • Boys feel we are nagging, mumsy
  • A boy lifted my skirt with a pencil when I was helping another student and had my back to him.

The issues women face in these work environments arise from leadership culture, appointment practices, interactions with students, with staff, with parents and the underlying culture of the school. Underpinning all of these are gender inequality and sexism and the ways unequal attitudes toward women manifest in the workplace.

Responses from members on why this is happening

  • Unchallenged gender assumptions
  • Tendency to favour people with the same background/experience/style as the male executive
  • Too many senior male staff in the school want to be liked, mates with the boys and aren’t above having a laugh with the boys at a female teacher’s expense
  • Desensitisation to the behaviour
  • Old boy culture
  • Parents enable/protect/defend
  • Disconnect between teachers and leadership. Leadership team are often unaware or unsupportive of the needs and concerns of teachers
  • School reflects broader societal attitudes that men are more powerful and often excused for things
  • We now have more females on exec but five out of six Year Level Coordinators are male so there is a very masculine perspective on all behaviour issues
  • A lack of leadership on these issues and insufficient consequences
  • An ingrained culture of misogyny and underlying hatred of women in a very military based staff
  • Sport is the most important thing and the rest doesn’t matter as much.

It is not just in schools where these attitudes prevail. In 2018, The Australian Human Rights Commission launched a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and the report released earlier this year, Respect@Work, contains 55 recommendations around what needs to happen to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Recommendation 10 recommends that all Australian governments ensure children and young people receive school-based respectful relationships education that is age appropriate, evidence-based and addresses the drivers of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment.

What members believe are the barriers to changing culture...

  • The refusal to believe anything is wrong
  • Old boy mentality
  • Entrenched behaviours and lack of acknowledgement that anything is wrong
  • The entitled males are in power and don’t want to change the system because it suits and benefits them
  • Lack of leadership and structures that allow for change
  • Finding male allies in the school to assist process of change
  • Lack of policies and procedures in this space
  • The difficulty of changing long established traditions and culture
  • Good men are in every school – they need to speak up
  • Blindness from those who are not directly impacted
  • Women accessing leave, particularly parental leave or part time arrangements which then limits their ability to move up the hierarchy and puts the brakes on their careers. They are taken less seriously and seen as ‘in and out of the system
  • No systems in place to support female teachers who stand their ground and call out behaviour. They are often shamed, made to feel guilty or targeted
  • Change comes from the top
  • Schools are ripe for a #metoo moment.

Tackling gender inequality

The St Kevin’s College union sub-branch has begun the process of addressing the cultural factors which contribute to gender inequality. IEU members are committed collectively to cultural change and to a fair, transparent and authentic process of engagement with the school.

Through a lot of work as a sub-branch, they have created two representative IEU working groups – one is a women’s group, the other, importantly, includes a member of the leadership team. These groups will report to the principal and to the consultative committee.

A recent and significant development at St Kevin’s is that, for the first time in its 102 year history, the school has appointed a woman as Principal.

Cultural change will not happen overnight at St Kevin’s or any other school. The challenge is how to address the issues and implement effective and long term change.

Gender equality is a human right and extends to all workplaces across the country; without it, everyone is affected as it perpetuates a culture of sexism and inequality.

Schools, as places of learning and innovation, should be leading the way in terms of providing safe and healthy communities. To do so they need to be able to recognise gender inequality and have structures in place to deal with it including prevention strategies.

For IEU members in boys schools the first step is to consult with women members. The facilitation of a Women’s Rights at Work (WRAW) chat is a great way to connect with each other and to talk about the issues of gender equality and the actions that might be taken in response.

We know that schools are different and any plan about how to address issues of gender equality must take into consideration the uniqueness of that school and workplace.

What is gender equality?

Gender equality is when people of all genders have equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities (the end goal). It is the equal distribution of resources based on the needs of different groups of people (the means to get there).

What are the solutions?

The solution is a whole of community approach and a commitment from leadership at all levels. There are some specific strategies that we need to build into an overall approach.

Using a gender lens

This involves assessing a given situation for gender equality issues, for example, the gender composition in decision making roles; promotions of women to leadership positions; the evidence of gender equality across organisational systems policies/procedures/practices; job descriptions and performance criteria; the availability and utility of flexible working arrangements, family and caring responsibilities for women and men.

Professional learning opportunities

Training that develops knowledge, attitudes and skills for gender equality and the prevention of gendered violence is key. Training should have a clear purpose, reflect staff needs and be delivered in a way that enables worker participation.

Topics should cover:

  • gender awareness
  • gendered violence
  • active bystander
  • conscious/unconscious bias

Support for young men and boys

Young people are soaking in gendered attitudes and expectations from their environment and it is time to talk openly about gender in boys schools. We also need to talk to students about race, class, sexual orientation, and other intersectional issues. We want young men to know and value gender equality for themselves and for all people in their lives. It’s not simply about behaving when they are outside the school gates in their school blazers. Schools are in a unique position to engage young men to achieve gender equality in both their public and private lives.

Pathways to change

There are many ways a school can make progress: publicly demonstrate a commitment to gender equity and help to engage the workforce; engage women in the consultation, planning and delivery of events, and invite women as guest speakers; hold events and activities that focus on women’s leadership and voices to promote gender equality; consider linking the event to broader campaigns to prevent violence against women, such as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women/16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

A workplace culture that supports gender equity can be seen in workplaces that are aware of the importance of gender equality and respectful relationships, ready to talk about gender inequality, gender stereotypes, and violence against women. Such workplaces are:

  • open to doing things differently, and
  • committed to taking action to build a fairer workplace.

Creating a supportive workplace culture takes time and requires multiple and mutually reinforcing strategies. Three critical strategies that underpin workplace culture change work are involving workers, engaging leaders, and involving women and men.

We need to fix the systems and the norms that perpetuate gender inequality – and our schools are great places to start.