Stamping out sexual harassment in elite private boys’ schools

A Monash University study has found female teachers in elite private boys’ schools are vulnerable to sexual harassment due to the school’s status and unique constructs, and recommends a restructure of policies and practices to combat this behaviour.

The study, conducted by researchers in the Faculty of Education, interviewed 32 female teachers from three elite private boys’ schools in Australia to examine the ways in which sexual harassment was taking place in these settings.

Sexual harassment continues to be experienced by many in Australia. According to a 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission survey , 72 per cent of Australians aged over 15 have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes. As part of that survey, 23 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men said they had been harassed at work.

The Monash University study analysed accounts of female teachers in the three unidentified schools done as part of a broader doctoral study. Their interviews were analysed to discover patterns of practice, repetitions and circulations of discourse and modes of interactions.

Researchers paid particular attention to types of vocabulary used, such as idioms, sayings and sexist remarks.

Several female teachers noted the role of "teaching as a business" at these high fee-paying schools, and that the parents are like clients because they are "paying an awful lot of money" and "there’s a lot of pressure that because you’re selling a very expensive product that people want a return on".

Teachers reported that criticising students was discouraged, and teachers were encouraged to keep the parents "on side". Some teachers who had to admonish students for derogatory sexual jokes or behaviour were subsequently called to a meeting with a supervisor. The researchers say this raises the question whether "boys are mobilising parents-school relations to act as a cover for sexual harassment".

The study also found sexual harassment went beyond the reach of the school grounds and was often experienced in virtual settings, such as Facebook and other online forums. Female teachers also experienced disbelief and denial from other colleagues and some early-career teachers even reported self-blame when an incident took place.

The study authors say: "If elite private schools are run like ’businesses’ and ’bad news’ can spread, then it stands to reason that market pressures might lead administrators to play down or ’disappear’ sexual harassment before these incidents come to parents’ attention."

"Our contention in this paper is not the homogenising claim that all boys harass their teachers, but that sexual harassment is the hidden product of heteronormative ’machinery’ that organises relational life within elite private boys’ schools."

Lead researcher, Dr George Variyan from the Faculty of Education, says it’s important to understand that the female teachers’ accounts of sexual harassment can’t be removed from the broader cultural, social, political and economic contrasts that influence these schools.

"Our findings illuminate how sexual harassment in elite private boys’ schools is to an extent based around historic, cultural and site-specific aspects, however, they are also influenced by modern educational policies," said Dr Variyan.

"This evidence suggests that the current policy settings, that encourages transactional relationships and market sensitivities for schools, is likely motivating the erasure of gender oppression in elite private boys’ schools. These research findings raise both ethical and political questions that demand a broader overview of both practice and policy."

The paper identifies that implementing remedial programs alone is not a solution to stamp out this cultural issue, rather the researchers suggest that school leaders and policy-makers alike need to come together to find an alternative solution.

"These conclusions have significant implications for school leaders and policy-makers, because both practices and policy-settings are arguably complicit in the ongoing production of gender oppression. At the very minimum, it merits broader transparency around teachers’ experiences in these schools," said co-author Professor Jane Wilkinson from the Faculty of Education.

"This ecology of discourses and practices, if not understood and tackled radically, will likely only continue and see female teachers continue to experience sexual harassment in the workplace," added Professor Wilkinson.

To view the research paper, please visit: https://bit.ly/3D5TjnQ

Dr George Variyan recently spoke at the Australian Council for Educational Leaders , 2021 VIC President’s Research Seminar Series.

Hande Cater
Monash University
T: +61 3 9903 4840 E: media@monash.edu

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