"As one of a very small number of girls in a sea of a thousand uniformed boys...": Emma Lenton tells her storySophia Luu

First things first: I’ve got some explaining to do. I am a girl, and have always identified as such, and for the first five years of my time in the secondary state education system I attended a mixed gender school. But due to my awkward combination of A Level subjects, a lack of teachers, and the fact that Time-Turners unfortunately do not exist in this universe, in order to take all the classes I wanted I ended up spending my two years of sixth form being ferried backwards and forwards between my own school and an all-male school about a mile away.

I took two A-Level subjects at the latter, and was one of four girls in a Spanish class of nine students, and one of three girls in a History class of 25 students. My mixed school wasn’t exactly a utopia of gender equality, but my experiences of sexism there paled in comparison to what I experienced being one of the only girls at an all-male school.

As one of a very small number of girls in a sea of a thousand uniformed boys, I had anticipated being stared at from time to time. What I had not anticipated, however, was the verbal harassment I received, almost always from younger students, on a regular basis – this is something women around the world experience daily when walking down the street, but was not something I had ever expected to happen at school. A female friend from my mixed school was in the same situation as me, so we stuck together at all times in an unsuccessful attempt to deflect harassment. Turning up to lessons late in order to avoid walking through the school gates with hundreds of boys was standard practice, as was walking through restricted areas in order to avoid the crowds.

“I kept my head down and my mouth shut through countless instances of injustice, and it was exhausting”

But the most worrying instances of sexism were those that I experienced in the classroom with students my own age. Many were things that I’d already experienced at my mixed school, but they happened on a far more extreme level, and were perpetrated by boys who were old enough to know better. The boys would make unsolicited critical comments about the girls’ appearances and behaviour; words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ were thrown around frequently. When working in groups, the boys would interrupt the girls or disregard their contributions, and talk disparagingly about feminism whenever it was brought up. On one occasion, during a class debate, a guy made a rape joke, which was met with laughter from most of the class and silence from the rest – including the teacher. This guy would later become head boy of the school.

The motto of the school was apparently ‘per ardua ad alta’, or ‘striving for excellence’, but ‘boys will be boys’ would have perhaps been more apt. Laddish behaviour and sexist ‘banter’ were usually ignored by teachers – at the very most, such instances would be met with a stern “calm down, boys”. Sexist behaviour was so normalised that fighting back felt futile – in any case, I didn’t want to be labelled a troublemaker by my teachers, or a ‘feminazi’ by my classmates. I kept my head down and my mouth shut through countless instances of injustice, and it was exhausting.

I am incredibly grateful to my school for giving me the opportunity to do all the subjects I wanted, and my rage-fuelled feminist awakening early on in sixth form was partially a product of the incessant misogyny I experienced at the time. But was it worth it? I honestly don’t know – and even then, does it matter? All I know is that my experience only confirmed what I had always believed about single-sex schools: segregation is not the answer to sexism. Separating boys and girls may temporarily shield girls from sexist bullying, but educating boys in an all-male environment allows sexist attitudes to thrive – attitudes which they will take with them into the world when they graduate, and attitudes which will hurt the women around them

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