Schools Need To Recognize Girls’ Leadership

Outdoor education

We are still teaching girls that they should “become confident” by doing what they are told to do and by making other people comfortable.

American girls, we hear repeatedly, lack confidence. According to a study conducted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, by high school, girls—particularly white girls—are less likely than their male peers to feel and act like leaders. They are less likely to run for office in high school, and less likely to support other girls.

Not only do they lack confidence, but so does everyone else in them, especially boys. High school students are least likely to give community power to white girls as student leaders, with young white girls being the least supportive of each other. Girls aren’t born less confident, but they are growing up and leaving our schools that way.

The Harvard study concluded with a series of recommendations for schools, including “Provide girls with real, meaningful opportunities to take responsibility for others…Girls will develop confidence and the desire to pursue leadership when they take on problems that are meaningful to them. Look for programs that include: youth-led projects or initiatives and programs that give girls opportunities to choose causes that matter to them.” (Italics mine.)

This, it turns out, is harder to do in meaningful ways. Ask anyone if they support girls’ leadership and they say yes, but without meaning to, too many schools are actively doing the exact opposite. When it comes to hot button issues that girls are increasingly taking up—dress codes, rape on campus, racial inequities, media representations, mass incarceration—school administrators frequently take issue with what girls are saying to them. Topics that are close to girls are often labeled “inappropriate,” “unbalanced,” or “politically untenable.” In high school, knowing that, as the researchers put it, “awareness of gender discrimination may be related to less implicit, unconscious bias against girls as leaders,” teaching students about bias, prejudice, discrimination, and sexism openly and thoughtfully rarely happens.

Take dress codes, which cause conflicts in schools every day. Frequently, these conflicts center on the idea that girls “should respect themselves more,” or “are sexualizing themselves.” And yet, the very same schools whose dress code rules and enforcement sexualize girls are unwilling to educate teens about media consumption, sexual objectification, and the influence of porn chic on mainstream culture. The last thing dress codes are about is clothes.

A similar dynamic happens around showing the movie Miss Representation, about sexism in media and its political effects. I approached more than a dozen schools about showing this film and what I heard repeatedly was a variation of, “We can’t show it to boys because we don’t want them to feel bad…” or “guilty,” or “like it’s their fault.”

“We’ve certainly shown it to fewer all-boys schools than I would like,” says Jennifer Siebel Newsom, creator of the film. Five years after its release, the film is still screened regularly. In 2015, The Rep Project, which she heads, released The Mask You Live In, which examines how America’s narrow definition of masculinity is harming our boys, men, and society. “Audiences are finding that the two films work in tandem and that gender stereotypes hurt all of us,” Newsom says.

When people see The Mask You Live In, “men buy into the idea that gender issues are their issues and get excited to join the movement. We then follow up with screenings of Miss Representation and the whole group begins to understand the cultural forces at work and starts dismantling toxic gender norms together.”

While this is heartening, the distasteful reality of this dynamic is, frequently without anyone intending it, that until there is an “equal” benefit for boys, it doesn’t matter, we’ll toss the girls and their “issues” and “dramas” in as a bonus.

This is certainly the case with rape, and not just in schools. Sexual assault didn’t really capture the mainstream media’s attention, until, frankly, the rapes of boys and men were evident. Media did not sit up and pay attention until the Sandusky sexual assault case and the crushing reality of rape in the Catholic Church and the military became undeniable. These cases shed light on how abuses of power, entitlement and authority, something feminists have been explaining for decades, enable rape.

The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses and the Title IX movement, is one of the ways that communities can learn more about the subject, from the perspective of survivors and their efforts to make change. Despite critics’ desire to make this film about false accusations (with one exception involving a public figure, no accused men are named), it is about the widespread institutional failures, so amply documented, of American college campuses.

One concern that adults and schools have in showing the film is that institutions “look bad.” If they do, however, it is because they failed in demonstrable and egregious ways. The message for girls is a strong one about ownership and responsibility. The students in the film are committed to improving their schools, so that others do not experience what they have. They didn’t take on scorn, harassment, shaming, anger, and public and family pressure because they hate their schools, or want to drag them through the mud out of vindictiveness. They came forward because they love their schools and understood the fundamental injustices of what is happening.

Filmakers Dick Kirby and Amy Ziering report that thousands of requests have been made for screenings across the country, even at schools specifically named in the film. High school and college students want information, discussion, and tools, but adults remain reluctant. If Miss Representation makes adults fall back uncomfortably on “he said/she said” worries, this film would make them positively break out in hives over the possibility of false rape allegations.

While false allegations can and do happen, and are awful when they do, they happen at the same rate as false claims about any other crime. It is important to remember that fewer than 3% of rapists in the United States ever see the inside of a jail. A boy is more likely to be raped in college than he is to be accused of rape, but these facts barely make a dent in public understanding. The idea that gender inequality might be baked into our educational institutions is a hard pill to swallow.

When administrators talk down to kids, when they say, not in words but in actions, “We are unwilling to tackle gender and racial inequality,” or “It’s a women’s issue, not a community issue,” the fundamental approach is to pit boys and girls, their needs and “equality” against one another instead of tackling the premise—binary sex stereotypes and their manifold harms—itself.

“School needs to be a safe place. And how can it be a safe place if discussion about things like slut bashing, street harassment, revenge porn, and rape is ‘off limits’ and ‘inappropriate,'” says Katie Cappiello, one of the co-authors of SLUT: The Playwhich traces the experiences of a 16-year-old girl after she was sexually assaulted by three friends.

When students, almost always girls, broach the topics of slut-shaming, dress codes, rape, consent, coercion, race, class, and gender they’re laying claim to leadership, feeling that they have the right, as members of a community, to say what is important to them, to engage others to listen and talk and, most importantly, to define norms. This is particularly true of some of the most difficult topics, such as rape.

When students press schools to pay attention to gender-based violence, they renounce the idea that mute, paralyzing victimhood is the only option for victims, male or female, and that active resistance to a culture that wants them to be silent is their right.

We are still teaching girls that they should “become confident” by doing what they are told to do and by making other people comfortable. But racial justice, dress codes, and anti-rape activism all claim that girls and women are entitled to shape the cultures in which they live.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

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