What would an anti-sexism school curriculum look like?

“When I was in school, my English classes studied the works of Tim Winton, David Malouf, William Shakespeare, WH Auden and a whole bunch of other white guys.”

When we talk about preventing men’s violence against women, we often direct the conversation to how we can change adult men’s behaviour. It’s a necessary approach, primarily because there are still so many men (and women) whose experience of acceptable behaviour is influenced by deeply ingrained sexism and cultural conditioning.

We know that 1 in 3 women in this country will experience some form of physical male violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 will experience male sexual violence. We also know from recent research conducted by VicHealth that 1 in 5 Australians think women are partially responsible for someone sexually assaulting them if those women have consumed alcohol. These are horrifying insights into a culture that is often touted as ‘post-feminist’, but whose integral structure is still deeply misogynistic.

So what can we do to change that?

I believe it was academic and musical therapist Whitney Houston who once shared her belief that ‘children are the future’, and no truer (or more obvious) words have ever been spoken. If we want to challenge and change the patterns of men’s violence against women, we need to start with addressing the formative education of our children. After attending a strategic planning session on violence prevention for service providers in the Geelong region earlier this week, I joined participants in agreeing that gender equity needs to be a core part of the Australian national curriculum.

Here are just some ideas that would help Australian classrooms incorporate gender equity into their teachings:

1. Create an equal participation classroom (for co-educational schools)

In her 1991 book Schoolgirls, Peggy Orenstein recounted an anecdote in which a teacher discovered her classroom wasn’t the feminist utopia she thought it might be. Instead, the boys were found to be constantly interrupting the girls and taking up more of the conversational space.

Until we have proven ourselves capable of applying gender equity practice to the way we conduct ourselves in society and in groups, we might need to be directed. Institute a policy whereby girls and boys must take turns contributing to class dialogue and answering questions. Use a tally to track progress if you have to, but monitor participation closely to make sure it’s an equal share of 50/50.

2. Banish sexist language (against both girls and boys)

All violence exists on a continuum, from the most extreme examples of it right down to the casual, daily microaggressions. Language forms a big part of this. Sexist, hateful language can be anything from insulting someone’s appearance to calling them harmful words like ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’, or linking weakness or failure to being ‘like a girl’. A useful tool here is to ask the person issuing the insult to repeat themselves as if you haven’t heard it, or request that they explain the joke as if you didn’t get it. Something about voicing aloud the motivation behind the words rather than just the words themselves helps to highlight the harm (this is a good tactic for anyone to use, not just schoolkids or teachers).

Why is this so important? These things are connected. Intimate partner violence expresses itself in a number of different ways, but one of the constants across all of them is the use of language to demean and belittle its targets. We cannot condone the use of sexist bullying in schools and then wonder why it’s so widespread in adult relationships and workplaces. See the problem, name the problem. Make it understood that sexist language will not be tolerated in your classroom – not even as a joke. Because amazingly, the only people to ever find it funny are the ones not being targeted by it.

3. Make sure whatyou’re teaching is gender equitable

When I was in school, my English classes studied the works of Tim Winton, David Malouf, William Shakespeare, WH Auden and a whole bunch of other white guys. In History, we learned about the triumphs of white men. In Drama, we performed plays written by white men. The one saving grace I had was an English teacher named, ironically, Ms. Grace. For my Year 12 literary journal, she encouraged me to read books by Arundhati Roy, Ben Okri and Keri Hulme – writers of diverse gender, sexual and racial backgrounds.

Why is this not standard practice? I’ve no doubt it’s improved in the last decade or so, but the work and achievements of White Men are still overwhelmingly prioritised in the education of Australian children. The gender inequity being taught here is on such a deeply subconscious level that many people would be hard pressed to identify both it and the problems it creates. If we only value the historical and cultural contributions of white men, how can we hope to create a world in which everyone who sits outside of that boring and generic demographic garners any kind of respect as an equal? People who do not fall under the umbrella of ‘white man’ are not peripheral to the construction and experience of human history.

Assess your own curriculums. Introduce diversity into the classroom. And if you find your attempts to do so are being challenged, demand to know why that is. Because it’s not just important for girls to see themselves valued as equal participants in life – it’s absolutely essential that boys understand that of them too.

Men’s violence against women CAN be challenged and it can be prevented. But we have no hope of succeeding if we refuse to look at our own education system. Together, we can all make a difference – and we should all welcome the responsibility to do so.

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