What girls suffering at school means for society

Together Equal is a social enterprise focusing on equality. Here, founder Sarah Aird-Mash shares her experience of working with schoolgirls whose life chances were at risk because of the gender inequality they were experiencing at school.

Equality classroom

We’ve just spent five weeks at a local state secondary school working with a group of twenty 15 year old girls with behavioural challenges including mental health issues, self harming and truancy.

The school is very supportive, so it takes a lot for them to exclude someone, but there were concerns with all of these girls. As the school was really struggling to engage with them the last hope was independent intervention, so they gave us a call. 

Our program aimed to reconnect with these young women who, for a variety of reasons, were at risk of being let down by the education system even though the school works hard at creating an inclusive, diverse environment and prioritises their pupils above all else. 

As the sessions were viewed as ‘better than school’ (and took place during the school day) the girls joined in, some more enthusiastically than others, with the debate. Our sessions are really interactive as we focus on engaging the students in meaningful conversations and creating a safe space is a vital first step for us. The process is gradual and as we slowly got to know each other we started to make some real breakthroughs.

The damage done by sexism

Without exception the evident marginalisation in the group was caused by low self-esteem and self expectation. The underlying factors for these feelings are complex, and take in the social and economic conditions of the girls’ families, along with their own mental health.  The most striking takeaway that emerged, despite the school’s best efforts, was that the girls keenly felt the additional weight of gender stereotypes on their shoulders. 

The girls told us they felt uncomfortable speaking up in class as boys would ridicule them or speak over them. They felt a pressure to look and act in a certain way to avoid teasing and name calling. The girls felt hypocrisy was at work; girls speaking up in lessons were labelled as mouthy or a ‘know-it all’, whereas boys speaking up were deemed clever or confident.

Adults would often dismiss the ridiculing behaviour as ‘boys being boys’. The girls told us that when they confided in friends or adults about experiences or worries they were not believed or their experiences were brushed off as them being ‘too emotional’. It became clear their classrooms were not a safe environment in which to share their thoughts.

The school is proactive at addressing behavioural issues amongst students – for example bullying or racism – running one off assemblies with contributions from the police or subject matter experts.

But the girls felt this was a short term band-aid on the problem, quickly forgotten by perpetrators, and sought more impactful and long term solutions, such as teachers challenging behaviours and topics regularly being discussed during morning tutor time. They feel that parents do not completely understand how the world is changing and the adults around them would benefit from training and information from professionals. 

Sadly, some felt it was ‘too late’ for them, but not for the next generation. They strongly felt that working with the boys AND the teachers at the school would make an impact. Unaware that we already run such activities in primary schools, they also suggested programs targeting kids and teachers pre-secondary school so that attitudes and language are challenged from an early age.

As is obvious from their suggestions for improvements, the outcome from the program was that the girls had re-engaged with the challenges they were experiencing, felt listened to, and, as a result, felt empowered enough to suggest solutions. We were able to make the connection that the school hadn’t been able to. As a result, we’re talking to the school about the next year and how we can help them further.

The cost to society

Research has found that, if children are excluded from school, outcomes from them are likely to be poor. Only 1% of excluded pupils will go on to achieve 5 good GCSE grades and are more likely to experience imprisonment or homelessness.

Not dealing with the root cause of a child’s poor behaviour costs the taxpayer billions of pounds.  Every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.  

Which is why our social enterprise believes it is so important to focus on equality of every kind. Together Equal programs are free to schools and funded through sales of our Conversation Cards and corporate workshops that help people find their voice, present confidently, and create a diverse and inclusive environment which resonates throughout their whole culture.

We’re working towards equality for all by creating conversations that build and challenge awareness of the inequalities prevalent in society. 

Sarah Aird Mash met Karen Lynch for mentoring through Expert Impact. For more info, click here.

Image by 정수 이 from Pixabay