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Building gender equality from the playground up


Sissies are on their way out on British playgrounds. At the government's request, guidelines produced by the country's Institute of Physics for the Department of Education have been sent to schools in England, and will recommend that teachers strongly discourage sexist language at school. The aim is to make it as socially unacceptable as racist language.

Girl on playgroundThe crackdown will target phrases such as 'sissy', 'man up, cupcake' and 'you're being a girl'. Teachers will be appointed as 'gender champions'. Volunteer squads of girls have already been appointed in some schools to monitor their fellow pupils' use of sexist language.

The backlash has, as expected, been swift. Internet forums are replete with admonitions from members of the public furious at the erosion of so-called free speech. Accusations of an encroaching nanny-state mentality and the death of resilience are rife. Yearnings have been expressed en masse for the good old days, when children could be children.

But the guidelines are a welcome tool in the long and exhausting fight for female equality — and Australia would do well to consider adopting such procedures for its own playgrounds.

Sexist language is as powerful an influence on the perception of women as are the images used relentlessly to represent them. When boys and men insult other boys and men by suggesting they are girls, the notion that females are weak and malleable, second-class citizens, is thoroughly cemented.

According to Professor Peter Main of the Institute of Physics, 'Sexist language has a considerable impact, but in our research we found that it was often dismissed as just banter and was much more common than teachers were aware of.'

Dismissive though most people are of such 'banter', when used repeatedly it creates a pattern where thoughts and expressions influence action; it builds a solid foundation for children's future attitudes towards women. The language children learn on the playground (and at home) informs their values, and if casual sexism is invoked during childhood, boys will be more likely to grow up into sexist men.

'We cannot condone the use of sexist bullying in schools and then wonder why it's so widespread in adult relationships and workplaces,' writes feminist commentator Clementine Ford in an article that envisages an anti-sexist curriculum in Australia.

'See the problem, name the problem. Make it understood that sexist language will not be tolerated in your classroom — not even as a joke. Because amazingly, the only people to ever find it funny are the ones not being targeted by it.'

In Australia, some progress has been made in reducing the apparent tolerance for the use of pejorative language as descriptors of women. This was highlighted recently when supercar driver David Reynolds referred to the all-female team at the Bathurst 1000 as a 'pussy wagon'. The deeply sexist characterisation of women was swiftly dealt with: Reynolds apologised, and was fined $25,000.

Yet when Fair Work Commission vice president Michael Lawler used the word 'cunt-struck' on ABC's Four Corners earlier this week, commentators focused more on the ABC's brazen decision not to bleep out his phraseology, or on the thrill of learning a 'new' word, than on the use of a vulgar and profoundly sexist term on TV by a high-ranking public official.

While he appeared to use the slang word for female genitals in a literal sense, it is most often used as the most derogatory of insults — worse by far than that other disparaging term, 'dick'. When we allow the use of such offensive language to go unchallenged, we approve of it by default.

Lawler should have been immediately called out not just as a potential fraudster but as a user of highly offensive, sexist language — and therefore, quite possibly, as a sexist.

It is precisely this culture that uses women's gender and their body parts as terms of offense that will be tackled with guidelines such as those issued in the UK. And they'll go further still: in combatting gender stereotyping, it is expected the consequent change in culture will lead to the enrolment of more girls in traditionally 'male' classes (economics, computer science, physics) and more boys in traditionally 'female' subjects (English literature, foreign languages, psychology).

And with subject choice one of the causes of the yawning gender pay gap, such grassroots efforts will contribute enormously to the creation of a truly equitable society — right from the playground up.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based journalist and award-winning travel writer (Best Foreign Journalist for India, 2015 (India Tourism Ministry), Best International Story over 1000 Words, 2015 (Australian Society of Travel Writers), Best Travel Story about the AGM Host Destination, 2015 (Australian Society of Travel Writers)).

Playground image albasaurasrex, Flickr CC

Topic tags: catherine marshall, sexism



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Existing comments

Gender semantics has an important role in relating to eg gays with dignity as persons versus hurtful slang. Nonetheless, such has no part in gender equality conditioning re gay marriage and ilk. while nonetheless maintaining dignity of individuals as persons.

Father John George | 22 October 2015  

Quite a number of years ago now, Australian feminist Anne Summers wrote a book "Damned Whores and God's Police". The title of the book should give us a clue as to how sexist language is used to categorise women. By using sexist language, men then categorise themselves. It also reduces women to stereotypes where complexity is brushed aside. Language is very powerful. Respect for each other doesn't grow from rules strictly enforced but from seeing the other person in all their weakness and complexity (that word again) and still finding their humanity to be appealing. We won't disrespect each other when we can see our own vulnerability.

Pam | 23 October 2015  

Great piece! Thank you! Addresses the salient issues that are being ignored in our society.

GAJ | 23 October 2015  

Insightful article, Catherine. Thank you.

Emma Rossi | 23 October 2015  

Nothing degrades women more than the pornography that is swamping Australia. Will similar steps be taken to censor it as are being rightly applied to sexist language? My question is rhetorical. The answer is clearly, "no."

grebo | 23 October 2015  

What's physics got to do with it?

Gavan | 23 October 2015  

"Yearnings have been expressed en masse for the good old days, when children could be children." Ah yes, those fond memories of the innocence of children in the 1948 kindergarten playground where five year old boys went in chase of five year old girls so they could catch them and pull their pants down. Early training for gang rapes!

Janet | 23 October 2015  

Gender equality? Did someone forgot to tell God about it when he set about making men and women or is it just another bit of irrational man-made rubbish?

john frawley | 24 October 2015  

John, I wonder why you refer to God as 'he' ? If that isn't gender bias then I don't know what is! But this has been part of our culture for so long that the majority of people don't pick up on it as being gendered. This is something that females have to face every day - the fact that we are not recognized as being made in the image of God How would men fare if God was referred to as She and all women were created in her image - leaving the men out of the equation?

Helen | 24 October 2015  

"This is something that females have to face every day" Helen have you done a global scientific survey on how many females of the opposite sex give an Adam's fig about inclusive Scripture?

Father John George | 25 October 2015  

Don't families and schools already have moral guidelines? I think a government-controlled monitoring system is bound for failure (simply from a cynical point of view and the hypocrisy that our governments often don't walk the talk). And in response to the insulting language used on Four Corners, I don't appreciate censorship of foul language - especially in this context where it revealed a snapshot of the true character of this man.

AURELIUS | 26 October 2015  

Father John George, I don't know how someone could maintain their "dignity as persons" when they are told they suffer from an "intrinsically evil" orientation. And no, I haven't conducted a global scientific survey, because I know from experience. And the fact you don't give a "fig" (a disguised vulgarity) shows you might have benefited from some playground moderators when you were a child.

AURELIUS | 26 October 2015  

So does that mean feminists will cease using that vulgar term 'sausage fest' whenever they come across a situation where, in their eyes, women are under-represented? As well as the perennial favourite 'boys' club', of course? And dickhead -- will that be stamped out too? Or is this another one-sided 're-education' program?

Fred | 28 October 2015  

Fred good points, though "Richard head" and innocuous "BBQ" perhaps and other harmless euphemisms! As a housemaster I once suggested former euphemism, initially it spread like wildfire, but quickly died out requiring resort to perennial demerit slips [pace Royal Commission]

Father John George | 29 October 2015  

The other facet of sexist language is that girls and women learn to be 'lesser', to be 'other', to be less than human, because the human measure is the male. The white male usually. The promotion of anti-sexist language in schools is to be applauded. It's a good first step.

Karen | 30 October 2015  

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