For Maya, sexual harassment started in the very first week on the job. A newly qualified teacher, she had been hired by a prestigious London state secondary school. But what might have been an exciting first post quickly unravelled, thanks to a school-wide culture of misogyny thinly veiled as “banter”, she says, and senior colleagues who began making inappropriate comments about her body.
“The leadership would say horrendous things that made female members of staff so uncomfortable: [such as] ‘your tits look nice in that top’. I remember a meeting with one of them once, who said things every few sentences, such as ‘if I wasn’t a married man’ or ‘if I was a bit younger you’d be my type’.”
Maya and her female colleagues experienced a barrage of abuse from male students, too. “There was one female member of staff … [pupils] found photos of her on Facebook and Photoshopped them with pictures of penises to [make it] look like she was giving someone a blowjob, printed them off and cascaded them down the stairs. The head’s reaction was to threaten to fire her. Nothing happened to the children.”
Many times over, female staff who reported problems saw no action taken. Maya describes how another close friend “had her phone stolen by the kids, who rang her dad and said: ‘We’re going to rape your daughter outside school.’ She wasn’t supported [by the school] at all, no one was interested.”
Maya firmly believes that the harassment of her and her colleagues by their male counterparts emboldened the pupils. It “rubbed off on the kids”, she says. “You could see how women at the school were perceived. There was only one woman in a leadership role in the whole school and she was bullied out of her position. I think that kind of atmosphere trickled down.”
Students started a campaign of harassment, whereby they would telephone the school reception, posing as parents and asking to be put through to female teachers’ extensions. When the teachers answered, the boys would make “really threatening, lewd comments”, says Maya. “One kid said he was going to rape me; do it down my neck and into my face, or he was going to catch me later on my way to the train; [he] knew where I headed after school.”
When Maya reported the situation to the deputy head, she was told not to say anything in case she was “embarrassed” by the incident becoming public. She asked for the police to be involved and the pupils to be spoken to, but instead the school simply shut down the internal telephone system.
“It becomes grinding,” she says. “You have no idea what to do. You dread going in. In some classes, the boys would be so aggressive it would just be an hour of hell.’”
A year later, Maya left the school, and soon afterwards she left teaching altogether.
Maya is not alone. A recent study of more than 1,200 female teachers by NASUWT, the teachers’ union, revealed that one in five has been sexually harassed at school by a colleague, manager, parent or pupil. Nearly a third (30%) of those who have been sexually harassed have been subjected to unwanted touching, while two-thirds (67%) have experienced inappropriate comments about their appearance or body. More than half (51%) have been subjected to inappropriate remarks about sex; 21% have been sexually propositioned; and 3% said they had suffered upskirting or “down-blousing” (photos taken up their skirts or down their tops).
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The other female teachers I speak to tell strikingly similar stories.
Tara has been a sociology teacher for nine years. Working in a secondary academy, male students aged about 15 asked her for blowjobs and made comments about her breasts. She often felt scared to report what had happened: “I hate to say it, but a lot of the time I ignored it out of fear that it would somehow be seen to be my fault.”
Leyla, a 27-year-old secondary school English teacher, says: “The most significant moments were when a student told me he’d ‘fuck me in my pussy’ in front of other students, and a period of time where a student wrote comments about my blowjob ability in school textbooks.” But, she adds, low-level sexism is also extremely common. “I’ve had many comments on my clothing, hair, makeup or relationship status from male students, in a way that is intended to be demeaning or belittling.”
Milli taught English in both a locally funded secondary school and an academy. She experienced sexism or sexual harassment “almost every day”. A male colleague sexually harassed her at an end-of-year drinks party, and another repeatedly called her “Sweetie”. Male students made remarks about her body and appearance, including “extremely sexually suggestive comments”, and one repeatedly interrupted a lesson to ask her to be his valentine. “When I told him to stop as he was being inappropriate,” she says, “he told me he knew where I lived.” Another time, a student shouted that she had a “nice arse” and left her written notes saying that she “smelt of fish”. When she reported the behaviour to the head of department, she was told to “adjust [her] teaching strategies and not tolerate his behaviour”.
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One pupil at the same school told a PGCE student (a trainee teacher) that “he wanted to anally fist her”. She reported it but no action was taken.
Milli says that during her teacher training she was “taught to expect” such harassment and told it “was normal boys’ behaviour”. “I remember being told to be careful not to reveal any cleavage,” she says, “as it’s very difficult for boys to concentrate when teachers dress like that”.
For Sasha, a 25-year-old English teacher currently working in an academy, sexual harassment is a “weekly occurrence”. She says the majority of incidents come directly from male colleagues. “Male staff constantly suggest that pupils only enjoy my lessons because they fancy me. Sexual comments are also made towards me on a regular basis, including comments about my body. These are said in front of other male members of staff, who laugh along, which makes me feel slightly helpless.” Because the perpetrators are in more senior positions to her, Sasha doesn’t feel able to report what has happened. Like almost everyone I speak to, she says that pupils accept the authority of male teachers much more readily than that of their female colleagues.
The impact of all this is enormous: 43% of NASUWT survey respondents who said they had been sexually harassed reported that they had suffered loss of confidence. Meanwhile, 38% had experienced anxiety and/or depression; 14% changed jobs or moved to a new school; and 18% felt the incident had a negative impact on their career progression.
Recent years have seen a steadily growing awareness of the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of female pupils. A women and equalities select committee report from 2016 revealed that 59% of girls had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year, and almost a third of 16- to 18-year-old girls reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching.
But these new NASUWT figures confirm that the problem extends beyond student victims. And a school culture in which the harassment of female teachers is widespread can only serve to normalise such behaviour, compounding the abuse of students and encouraging perpetrators to operate with a sense of impunity.
Maya believes that the problem cannot be solved until schools start taking these incidents seriously. “Schools play it down because of embarrassment and they don’t want the [bad] publicity… I genuinely believe a major part of the problem is that it was obvious to the kids that there was no respect for women from the staff, no respect from leadership.”
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