Research conducted in Danish schools has established that teachers promote rather than counteract sexist attitudes. How can teacher trainees undo decades of gender stereotypical teaching practices? ESN Haderslev had a chat with Zen Donen from Everyday Sexism Project Denmark.
After TV presenter Sofie Linde made claims of sexual harassment within the media industry last year, the #MeToo movement has finally gained the momentum that it did not quite achieve when the worldwide movement’s first waves hit Denmark in 2017. As a result, sexism has been under scrutiny in all spheres of society, from politics to the media, and in education.
Teachers play a vital role in shaping children’s understanding of gender. Unfortunately, research has shown that teachers have very gendered expectations of children and are in fact promoting gender stereotypes.
According to sociologist Cecilie Nørgaard, Danish schools sustain gender stereotypes in multiple ways, for example by teaching girls and boys separately, thereby reinforcing the idea that girls and boys have different interests and different learning styles, or by seating a girl next to a boy under the assumption that a girl must be a ‘calming’ influence on an ‘unruly’ boy.
As a board member of the non-profit organization Everyday Sexism Project Denmark, Zen Donen devotes much of her time to educating the Danish public about sexism. She emphasises that these gender stereotypes are cultural myths which have no biological foundation.
“When the first female high schoolers graduated in 1906, the headmaster famously remarked that he disapproved of girls being admitted to high school because they ‘could not sit still and had no regard for rules’”, Zen explains. “In 2021 these same qualities are being attributed to boys.”
Teachers have also been found to use sexist language. Zen mentions the use of the word ‘girls’ spats’ (pigefnidder) as a condescending label on arguments between girls, and Cecilie Nørgaard has pointed out the harmful effects of saying things like ‘man up’ on children’s ideas of masculinity.
Fixating on words and language in this manner may seem excessive to some, but even small sexist acts can feed an undesirable culture.
The ‘sexism pyramid’
Everyday Sexism Project explains sexism as a pyramid, where the ‘smaller’ everyday acts of sexism on the bottom tier help to legitimize and normalize the more violent manifestations of sexism — such as harassment and rape — on the middle and top tiers. It is exactly because of this mechanism that the ‘smaller’ acts of sexism should not be trivialized.
“Promoting gender stereotypes or using sexist language may seem harmless, but these things pave the way for more severe acts of sexual violence. They are linked, and reinforce one another,” Zen argues.
Another consequence of a sexist culture is that it prevents lots of young men and women from realising their full potential.
Gender stereotypes tend to be self-fulfilling because not conforming to them has major negative consequences for the individual. “It is a lot easier to succeed if you conform to the expectations the world has of you,” Zen Donen says.
Our preconceptions about how girls and boys should behave and what they should be interested in are not only harmful to individuals but comes at a great cost to society, too. As Cecilie Nørgaard said in an interview with Skolemonitor, “We lose so many Marie Curie’s (physicist) and male carers because we insist on dividing the world into a Mars and a Venus.”
The way forward
What actions can teachers and other actors within the educational sector take to combat sexism?
Below is a list of actions to take, drawing on advice from Zen Donen and Cecilie Nørgaard.
1. Check your own assumptions about what boys and girls “should” be good at or interested in.
2. Challenge stereotypes when and wherever you encounter them, be it in teaching materials or in the statements of students or colleagues.
3. Challenge stereotypical language use such as ‘pigefnidder’ (girls’ spats), ‘drengestreger’ (boyish pranks) or ‘man up’.
4. Raise awareness of how gender norms and body ideals have changed throughout history.
5. Encourage friendships across genders and ethnicities.
6. Use texts, images, film etc. to highlight diversity in genders, ethnicities and sexualities.
7. Review the content and quality of the school’s sex education programme. Make sure it includes education on consent and personal boundaries.
By Lisbeth Burich