I write this blog, in a thoughtful but largely light hearted way, about the things that toddlers do that push our buttons. But something really pushed my buttons this week: when I read that in 2016, young women are still being told to take responsibility for a man’s unwelcome gaze or actions.
A deputy principal at a school in New Zealand, called a group of 15 and 16 year old girls into a meeting, and requested that their school skirts are worn no shorter than knee level. On the face of it, it’s not an uncommon request in schools, nor is it inappropriate for a school to have a dress code. In fact many moments in life call for a dress code: weddings; funerals. But the reason the request was made was to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff.”
Parents and commentators have been (quite rightly) outraged by not the request itself, but the reasons behind it, saying that it sends a message to young woman that they are responsible for the actions of a young man (older men too apparently who are seemingly too distracted by a short skirt to teach). It also sends a message to the young men (and again the older ones) that their behaviour is uncontrollable, that they have no responsibility over their choice to look, or to behave appropriately.
I was reminded of that debacle caused in 2015 after a (male) Nobel scientist said that the problem with women in the lab is that they cause men to fall in love with them, then cry when criticised. Or police campaigns that seem to imply that it’s a women’s responsibility to not be attacked on a night out.
We are 16 years into the 21st Century on this planet, but some people are still enforcing the notion that it’s a woman’s fault if she receives unwanted, or unpleasant attention. What happened to teaching our young people about consent? What happened to encouraging the next generation that they can help achieve gender equality through respect for one another?
I often read articles and blogs about how to engage with our children to teach them to be respectful and kind to each other. I have many friends who are mums and dads who I believe will educate their children about consent, and encourage them to talk and communicate effectively. It starts when they’re little: I’ve written before about how powerful our words are and what a profound effect they can have. I can only hope that every child has someone in their life who encourages caring consensual behaviour, and would agree that this particular person’s archaic message is just that: outdated.
In 1928 the Equal Franchise Act was passed giving women over 21 the right to vote. In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed to prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women. In 2016, let’s not wait for an act of parliament, let’s just talk to our children about equality and respect and consent. Let’s not enforce the message that we don’t all have a choice how to behave; we choose how we treat people. We make choices about our behaviour. Let’s choose to encourage our children to respect each other. Regardless of skirt length or gender.