Can schools help rid the world of sexual harassers and abusers?
From Iceland and Israel to Mexico and South Korea, schools around the world increasingly see rooting out sexism as their domain, before it takes hold and expresses itself in workplace abuse or domestic violence. Part 8 of Reaching for Equity: a global series on gender and power.
Reykjavik, Iceland—A little girl named Moey, age 5, makes her way around a circle of classmates, shaking each tiny hand with a firm grip. “Good morning, my dear friend,” she says to the first student in the group, who echoes the greeting and then adds a compliment.
“You are strong,” she tells Moey.
“Your heart shows courage,” the next little girl says to Moey.
Their teacher in this preschool in Iceland’s capital gently reminds them to look each other in the eye when they speak.
After Moey has made her way around the circle, all the girls stand up in their gender-segregated classroom at the Laufásborg preschool, pretending to hold bows and arrows that they fire off into an imaginary forest. They strike warrior poses, and then raise their hands in the air to complete their morning ritual in girl power that begins every school day here. “I am strong,” they yell. “I am strong,” they yell louder. Then finally in a full-throated roar: “I am strong!”
Next door, the boys are forming their own morning circle. They are also taught to look one another in the eye, but they forgo a handshake for a hug. And there is no need to shout about their strength or courage or play warriors, the leaders of this school argue, because society reinforces that for them daily. Instead the emphasis for the boys is on caring and nurturing. “Girls need that extra, ‘I’m a winner.’ Boys need to practice, ‘I’m a good friend,’ ” says Jensina Hermannsdottir, a head teacher at the Laufásborg school. “This #MeToo thing that everyone is talking about – we are doing this every day.”
Welcome to preschool in Iceland, often called the most gender equal country in the world. Iceland has already had a female president and prime minister. It has a new law that requires companies to prove that they offer equal pay to men and women, and another that mandates 40 percent of the seats on corporate boards go to women. Yet Iceland is also trying to educate the next generation, before they become adults, in preschools like this one, where the kids wear red-and-blue uniforms and do creative activities such as paint with their bare feet.
Nor is it alone. Iceland is part of a patchwork of efforts around the world, both big and small, to root out sexism, which schools increasingly see as their domain, before it takes hold and expresses itself in workplace abuse or domestic violence.
There are many countries, to be sure, where such efforts would be culturally inappropriate – even illegal – and some of the gender-education work in even the most progressive parts of the world still riles parents who worry about liberal agendas creeping into classrooms. Most experts say the role of the school is also limited so long as families and societies hold onto traditional stereotypes. Yet there is increasing evidence that the kinds of formal lessons that schools can offer, in which teachers are trained to recognize and counteract old patterns of thinking, can help change how a new generation of young people treat each other.
“These kids are growing up with an awareness that there is an imbalance of power in our society, and they’re being challenged to unpack that and break it down,” says Joshua Forehand, principal at Nuestro Mundo Community School, an elementary school in Wisconsin that has introduced discussions on gender and identity into the school plan.
Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir, founder of the sex-segregated private preschools in Iceland, argues such lessons should start as early as possible because kids develop a gender perspective by age 2. “Life for a small child is chaos, and for them to understand it, one of the first variables they will use is the gender variable,” she says.
At her school, the pre-K set is not only taught to think beyond their prescribed roles – which they do by spending most of the day separated so that they are not limited or pigeonholed by societal norms – but trained in socially appropriate behavior. When the boys stand in line, for example, they are taught to hold their hands behind their backs. Ms. Ólafsdóttir calls it a very early lesson in keeping their hands to themselves.
Variations of these lessons are being taught in schools from Israel to Mexico. The question is: Can they really help rid the world of harassers and abusers?
‘Raising boys who see girls as equals’
On a cryogenic morning in Madison, Wis. – the temperature is below zero and frost edges the windows – Erin Vogel reads aloud to her second-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School.
The story is about Red, a confused crayon whose name doesn’t match his real color: Everything he draws comes out blue. “ ‘He was red,’ ” Ms. Vogel reads, “but he wasn’t very good at it.’ ” She turns to her students, sprawled on colorful mats on the classroom floor, and asks what they think the story is about.
“It’s about, it doesn’t matter who you are on the outside,” one student, Kate, volunteers. “If they see he’s red, and he actually comes out blue, then they just gotta say, ‘It’s OK, he’s different.’ ”
It’s a standard exchange here, part of a broader push by the Madison Metropolitan School District to combat bullying and harassment by fostering empathy and inclusion. The program mirrors what’s going on nationally in the United States: As in Iceland, schools are increasingly incorporating their gender-equality teaching in early years, often at the elementary school level, when more formal lessons begin. The idea is to give students the chance to think about inclusion and diversity as they’re learning to read, write, and solve math problems.
Central to Madison school district’s work is Welcoming Schools, a program of the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It began as a response to the needs of transgender and non-binary students (those who don’t identify as exclusively either male or female) in school districts nationwide, and now aims to address broader themes, such as equality and tolerance across genders.
It is one of a number of programs across the US that has sprung up since the early 2000s as a response to gender-based harassment and bullying among children and adolescents.
Some programs, such as Expect Respect, a program of the SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas, started as support groups for students who experienced either violence at home or abusive dating and peer relationships. Others – including Coaching Boys Into Men, which began in California’s Bay Area, and MERGE for Equality in Florence, Mass. – focus on raising compassionate boys and redefining masculinity. [Editor's note: The story was updated to include the name of the program offered by the SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas.]
Educators say the programs are having an effect. “We are raising a generation of boys who see girls as equals,” Vogel says. “And we’re hoping they’ll grow into men who understand that women have the same rights and deserve the same respect they do.”
Evidence of their success goes beyond the anecdotal. The bedrock of programs such as Welcoming Schools is research that ties bullying at an early age – and especially gender-based bullying – to sexual harassment in adolescence and adulthood. In 2003, an evaluation of the Expect Respect Elementary School project, which sought to address bullying in fourth and fifth grades through role playing, class discussions, and other activities, found that participating students could identify more accurately than their peers what sexual harassment looked like. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the program also raised awareness and – more important – changed expectations about responses to bullying and harassment. [Editor's note: The story was updated to clarify what project was evaluated in 2003.]
Role models for teens
The teen years are often another fraught time for young people, which is one reason some schools in Israel target students of that age. At the Kehila Democratic School, a K-12 institution in Tel Aviv, teachers have incorporated specific classes on gender into their curricula for their high school and middle school students over the past decade.
There is a popular perception that Israeli women are especially strong and independent (see Israeli actress Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman) compared with women in other countries in the Middle East. This is in part because they are drafted at age 18 to serve in the Army alongside their male counterparts. But it is precisely because of the centrality of the military in Israeli life that issues of gender are magnified. Preparation for Army service begins already in high school where a focus is put on boys getting in physical shape for combat roles. The traits of a combat soldier of being strong and aggressive are part of the country’s expectation for what a man should be.
That’s one reason teacher Omer Naor is challenging a group of sixth- and seventh-graders at Kehila to identify strong women figures in history. The students pipe up with a few names – Golda Meir, the first and so far only Israeli woman prime minister; Marie Curie, Yael, a biblical figure. The group then goes silent.
Finally someone offers up another biblical character, Eve.
“Eve is [a] symbol of things that go wrong,” Mr. Naor says. “What other examples, including from mythology, do we have that we see the message is all of the bad things in the world can be blamed on a woman?”
One of the students shouts out: “Pandora!”
“In both [the] stories of Eve and Pandora there is a woman who wants, out of curiosity, to know things, and terrible things follow. Why were these stories written this way?” Naor asks.
“Because they are chauvinistic stories, written by men and for men,” says a girl with long light brown hair. Another girl nearby answers, “Because some cultures think girls are weaker.”
After class, Naor says such lessons equip teens for their transition to adulthood. “They are at the age where they are looking out at the world, seeking out role models and having to choose what kind of person they are going to be. All this at a time when they are so exposed to messages in the media,” including #MeToo, he says. “And even if the message of the school resonates with what they are hearing at home, at school we still need to promote and reinforce these ideas of gender equality.”
Changing the ‘normal’
Sometimes the message they are hearing at school specifically counteracts what they are hearing at home. Deep in one of Mexico’s most important agricultural belts, called El Bajio, in the rural state of Guanajuato, traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained.
It is not uncommon for agricultural workers traveling around Mexico with the seasons to leave daughters in charge of domestic roles. Parental hopes for their daughters are still pinned on their getting married. Such expectations allow a traditional macho culture to flourish.
Mexico has one of the highest female homicide victim rates in the world. According to a 2017 report by Mexico’s National Institute for Women, the Interior Ministry, and the United Nations, men kill at least seven women every day in the country. And the “femicide” rate has skyrocketed with the increase in drug violence: The number of women killed annually in Mexico has more than doubled since 2007, when roughly 1,089 women were murdered. In 2016, the tally was 2,746.
But machismo starts with something much more innocuous – and that’s where Carmen Guzmán Orozco is trying to make a difference. When the teaching fellow first arrived in 2016 at the Telebachillerato Comunitario San Andrés de Baraña, a high school of 140 students outside the town of Silao, she was stunned. “I’d walk by the classrooms and boys would openly whistle at me,” says Ms. Guzmán, who works with Enseña por Mexico, a program modeled after Teach for America that places high-achieving college graduates in public schools for two years.
She found the whistling off-putting, but it was symbolic of deeper, and more worrisome, problems. “Any kind of violence, it’s all considered natural,” she says. “It’s ‘normal’ that an argument ends in death. It’s ‘normal’ for boys and girls in school to hit each other.”
Part of her fellowship includes identifying a problem in her school community and coming up with a project to address it. She chose to launch a class on gender violence, respect, and human rights, which is under way on a recent afternoon as some 30 seniors sit in a circle, examining a black-and-white photo. The woman in the picture is walking down the sidewalk, and a group of men in the background appears to be calling out to her, laughing.
Guzmán asks the students to describe what they see and imagine what might have been taking place when the photo was snapped. “I imagine her getting dressed that morning and feeling very confident,” says one female student, Karla. “But once she gets on the street, these men are interpreting her clothes as something for them.”
“The men think she’s beautiful, but they’re expressing it poorly,” adds a young man named Oscar. “It’s making her uncomfortable.”
The conversation moves to the students’ personal lives: Has anyone ever experienced this behavior? “Yes.” Has anyone participated in it? Hands shoot up again. “Yes.”
It’s rare to find a course like this in Mexico’s public schools, says Daniel Hernández Rosete Martínez, a professor who researches masculinity and violence in education at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. The country’s conservative, Roman Catholic roots mean that few teachers want to broach issues about gender, machismo, or the human body in the classroom. These are topics many feel are meant to be talked about at home.
Gender education and culture wars
Attempts to wade into gender education have stirred up even more controversy elsewhere, inflaming culture wars. In South Korea, which scores 118th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index (compared with Iceland’s first place), the backlash was swift when one elementary school teacher in Seoul suggested that the school needed to do more in the area of gender education.
The woman, Choi Hyeon-hui, and other teachers at the school had, among other things, formed a “feminism book club” as a way to discuss how to teach about gender inequality and discrimination.
“Schools simply teach students abstract propositions such as ‘men and women are equal’ ... but they fail to mention how such equality is violated in real life,” Ms. Choi told the South Korean daily The Kyunghyang Shinmun last fall. “If children grow up repeatedly experiencing the contradiction in the gap between universal propositions and actual life, they become adults who fail to recognize the sexual discrimination or infringement of human rights that occur daily right before their eyes.”
Conservative parents’ groups complained repeatedly to school authorities about Choi, including accusing her of child abuse because of some things she taught in the classroom. She requested sick leave, and the teachers voluntarily disbanded the feminist book club.
While such controversies may not seem unusual in a country with established traditions, the US is hardly immune to them. Many diversity and tolerance programs, including Welcoming Schools, have run into resistance – particularly over topics such as same-sex parents.
In October, an Atlanta middle school faced heavy backlash after parents learned that sixth-graders had been quizzed on sexual identity. A high school teacher in Cambridge, N.Y., was suspended in November for distributing handouts about sexuality and gender. And the conservative parent group One Million Moms in January called for a boycott of Scholastic Inc., accusing the publishing company of marketing “morally toxic” books to children.
“Some parents don’t want their first- and second-graders coming home saying that people can have different family structures,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. Still, she says educators should reach students as young as possible, always in a climate of respect. “You want to start this conversation in kindergarten,” she says. “But it has to be developmentally sensitive.”
A study she co-wrote in 2014 looked at the importance of addressing the gender component in bullying, especially before children hit puberty, when individual differences start to sharpen.
The real change factor
Regardless of when they start the lessons, educators believe they’re getting results. In Mexico, students credit Guzmán’s class on gender violence with helping them recognize problems and patterns in their daily lives that they were unaware of, either as victims or harassers. This includes everything from the tendency to shove siblings to finding the right vocabulary to talk to their parents about wearing skirts and tank tops.
Senior Abernece Valdez, for instance, says her 30-minute walk to school each day has always come with catcalls. “I knew I didn’t like how I felt [when I was getting catcalled] but I didn’t know it was violent,” she says.
Nor did she recognize abuse in her own relationship. “My boyfriend would yell at me. He grabbed me. When we started the workshop, I learned that wasn’t normal,” she says. “Before, I thought it was just what happened, or that I provoked it. In the workshop, I learned that there’s no point where it’s OK to get violent.”
She dumped him.
Her classmate Juan Martin Santibañez had a similar revelation. “When the workshop started, I didn’t think women really suffered that much violence in Mexico,” he says, adding that he is gay and has always considered himself an ally to his female friends. “But then I realized, I had been violent toward my female friends on various occasions, making people uncomfortable without really realizing it. Pinching them or insulting them [based on their gender]. We’re all thinking a lot more about our behavior.”
And that’s important, proponents say, as students’ formal education comes to a close, and they head out into the world, without the protection of school walls around them.
Barri Rosenbluth, a social worker who carried out the CDC study of harassment prevention, says that violence expresses itself differently as children mature. Bullying, which can peak in middle school, often turns into dating violence and sexual assault in high school. Later it’s the kind of harassment that has engulfed the world with #MeToo.
Ultimately, teaching prevention, Ms. Rosenbluth says, is not about protecting a victim or punishing a perpetrator, but empowering society to recognize the flaw. “Students in intervention groups felt more empowered to do something about sexual harassment,” she says. “That’s the real change factor: courageous bystanders.”
• Contributing to this report were Whitney Eulich in San Andres de la Baraña, Mexico; Jessica Mendoza in Madison, Wis.; Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv; and Michael Holtz in Beijing.