Do single-sex schools create hotbeds for misogynistic behaviour?

Do single-sex schools create hotbeds for misogynistic behaviour?

Below’s what Jennie Hill learnt about culture after years of teaching driver education in a wide range of different schools. 

When you work in a different secondary school every few days, as I do, you get a fascinating insight into their differences.

Although I’m generalising, I’ve found that schools tend to have different “vibes”. Religious schools differ from public, country schools from city, small schools from big.

And, of course, single-sex schools differ from co-educational.

When I work in schools for boys, I gain a unique perspective about boys that I believe many of us wouldn’t see. This is because I’m not only female but female teaching about driving: a subject not only traditionally taught solely by male trainers but one where some males actively object to being taught by a woman. I challenge boys’ ideas of gender norms, and their behaviour towards me reflects this. In my experience, I’ve found that teaching boys about driving can become a microcosm on how they feel about gender issues in general.

I’ve had no problems teaching driving to all-girl groups. Quite the opposite: they’re thrilled to encounter a woman working in a male-dominated field who treats them as equals in their learning. I don’t normally have problems in co-educational schools either, which is because boys who’re around females every day are un-amazed by women. Yet although I’ve worked in some all-boys schools where students are mature and respectful of women, my experience of these is the exception rather than the norm.

So I don’t look forward to working in all-boys schools, and therefore wasn’t surprised about the news recently that violence at residential university colleges is still rampant. Horrified, of course, but not surprised. The Red Zone Report includes graphic descriptions of the abuse, assault and rape of women and sometimes of other boys, almost universally carried out by young men. The report’s release was followed by a graphic 60 Minutes story which aired Sunday night, which also focused on the appalling lack of action taken by these residences to stop the violence.

I believe there’s a correlation between all-boys schools and the violence at university colleges. Many students attending these exclusive colleges come from wealthy families and have attended private schools which, in Australia, are often single gender. And because many of these schools can be places for boys to learn misogynistic behaviour and toxic masculinity, it’s unremarkable that boys carry these beliefs into how they treat girls (and other boys) when they start university.

I’ve taught in many schools where boys’ behaviour is clearly toxic. The worst boys school I ever taught in was a large Catholic school. At this school, I was actively afraid for my safety: not because the boys were violent, but because they simply disregarded an older, smaller female body. Walking down the corridor to get to the room I was to teach in, I was constantly in danger of being trampled or flung into walls. They simply didn’t have any respect for me as a person.

In the classroom, they were almost impossible to teach: dismissive, noisy, constantly interrupting. They swore and told crude jokes, and a couple simply refused to participate. I’m a good teacher and teenagers are usually engrossed, but overcoming calculated disrespect is exceptionally difficult. Then, my co-instructor took a group outside for some training in a car. He was with a group standing beside our course car when a young woman drove past. One of the boys called out loudly “Show us your tits”. She heard and looked around at the group in horror, and the whole group howled with laughter, thoroughly chuffed that they’d embarrassed her. My instructor was appalled, told these boys so and terminated the session. Later, he told the school’s year level coordinator about the incident, who dismissed it as “boys will be boys”. This school had no interest in their students’ sexist behaviour whatsoever. Suffice to say, we’ve never been back.

Our experience there was extreme, but unacceptable obnoxious behaviour is common in many similar schools. Paradoxically, while the general assumption would be that the worst behaved students would be at public schools (particularly those in low-socioeconomic areas) that’s not my experience. It’s at expensive, usually religious, boys’ schools where my job is most difficult and where poor student behaviour is widespread.

I feel this disrespect of women occurs in schools for boys firstly, because it appears to relate to the example set by the school hierarchy. If the management of the school is misogynistic, this filters down to the boys. And yes, this is related to the religious nature of most private boys’ schools. Since religion itself is innately misogynistic, why are we surprised if and when boys learn the same attitudes?

Secondly, society itself is co-educational. Boys need to learn that women are, in fact, regular people. I think it’s more important than their Year 12 marks. And boys who aren’t around lots of women often fail to learn this. I’m amazed, therefore, when others are tremendously surprised when boys who interact with few women are unable to view them as fully human. And that such men who go on to gain positions of power in business, religion and government then refuse to adequately employ, promote, mentor and pre-select women, and often refuse to respect them, too.

Thirdly, boys tend to idolize certain role models among their peers. They’re taught, via society’s emphasis on sport, money as a measure of success, and the military, to hero-worship a certain type of leader: alpha males who gain power by winning over others. Boys who reflect these values are often feted in their schools and other boys hero-worship and copy them. If this isn’t deliberately counteracted, boys may then fail to learn how women and girls (and the less-alpha boys) fit into their artificially noxious view of the world.

For these reasons, all-boy schools must change how they educate boys. The cult of misogyny that many of them accept and even reward must shift. And as the abuse and rape of young women in university colleges is largely a religion-based scandal, it should be treated with the same seriousness we’ve recently focused on child sex abuse. Investigations must be fast and quickly followed by solutions. Otherwise, these schools and the university colleges are little more than enablers for this violence. Finally, we must question more seriously why these schools soak up so much government funding and whether they deserve any of it when, in my opinion, they also do so much avoidable harm.

We reap what we sow, and Australia is currently reaping the results of a poisonous culture of entitlement, white male privilege, and toxic masculinity.

For the sake of all girls and young women, these schools and university colleges must do better.

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