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How to help girls stand up to sexism

How to help girls stand up to sexism

The need for us adults to help girls stand up to sexism could not be more apparent after some shocking restuls of a government study. Following complaints from a number of schools in England earlier this year, the government directed Ofsted to perform a rapid review of peer-on-peer sexual abuse and violence in schools and colleges. Ofsted defined this as including:

  • “sexual violence, such as rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault
  • sexual harassment, such as sexual comments, remarks, jokes and online sexual harassment, which may be stand-alone or part of a broader pattern of abuse
  • upskirting, which typically involves taking a picture under a person’s clothing without them knowing, with the intention of viewing their genitals or buttocks to obtain sexual gratification, or to cause the victim humiliation, distress or alarm
  • sexting (also known as ‘youth-produced sexual imagery’)”

The findings weren’t pretty.

Sexual harassment for kids: ‘commonplace’

Speaking to over nine hundred pupils the report revealed “how prevalent sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is for children and young people. For some children, incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them.”

  • 92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers
  • Nearly 90% of girls and 50% of boys disclosed regularly receiving explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see,
  • The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal
  • Girls told researchers that they do not want to talk about sexual abuse, even where their school encourages them to, for several reasons, such as risk of ostracisation by peers or getting peers into trouble not worth it
  • They worry about how adults will react, because they think they will not be believed, or that they will be blamed

As these numbers indicate, it’s not just girls who are affected but the report noted: “Although anyone can experience sexual harassment and violence, research indicates that girls are disproportionately affected.”

When talking about the non-physical stuff, children stated that sexual harassment was “commonplace”. Worryingly, children “reported much higher incidences of sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and bullying behaviours than teachers and leaders tended to be aware of.” It’s entirely possible that if the teachers aren’t fully aware of what’s going on, neither are the parents.

How to Stand Up to Sexism book

What can we do as parents to help our children stand up to sexism?

In our book, How To Stand Up To Sexism, we give suggestions for words and phrases to help girls and women as well as allies stand up to a range of sexism from microaggressions to full-on physical assault. As with any other problem children may have, talking through what they can say in response not only gives them the tools they need, but the confidence to feel they can handle the situation.

In addition to giving them actual words and phrases to talk back to sexism, we can also articulate and reinforce certain ideas with girls that help them cope with sexist comments and actions.

Things to say to your child about sexual harassment

It’s not their fault. Too often, girls are blamed because of what they’re wearing, where they go, how much make-up they have on and even how much they smile. We need to let all kids know that there is no contributory element to harassment, abuse and violence. Girls aren’t “asking for it” and when we imply that, we let the real offenders off the hook.

It’s not their job. Additionally, while the report admitted the RHSE/PHSE curriculum in schools was often insufficient, school girls have enough to do at school without piling on responsibilities that don’t belong to them. Or as one girl said in the report “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys”.

Don’t tell them to prevent sexism. Girls cannot prevent sexism by changing their own behaviour and it’s setting them up for failure to imply that. In addition, we as a society shouldn’t tell girls that the only way we can deal with the guys on the building site or the creep standing at the bus stop is for them to change their behaviours. (This is not to say they should put themselves in danger, rather they should recognise that victims shouldn’t have to do all the work.)

It’s not “just part of life”. Girls don’t have to “put up with” sexism and they have a right to stand up to it. They shouldn’t have to worry about appearing “rude” if someone is making them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or scared.

As the Ofsted report pointed out, it’s not just the responsibility of schools to combat sexism. As parents we can make a big difference as to how girls and boys perceive sexual harrassment and how they respond to it. As with everything else, what they see and hear at home matters. It shapes who they are and more importantly, who they will become so let’s give them the best possible start. The good news is that as parents we can do our part to talk back to these conditions reported by Ofsted.

More on supporting our kids

About Toni Hargis

Author, columnist, feminist. Blogging since 2008 as Expat Mum; founder member of BritMums. Dual UK-US citizen and mother of 3 Yankee-Brits. Repatriated to UK in 2017 after decades in the US. Has been known to say "car parking lot".