There’s a lot in the news at the moment about sexual harassment – in Hollywood, in Parliament, at the BBC and in workplaces generally. Most of it relates to the sexual harassment of women by men, though much of the discussion acknowledges that of course, it can run both ways.
I think it does in schools too, especially in primary schools.
I have written about ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ in schools both in this blog and wider. In my view, whether ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ tips in to ‘sexual harassment’ is very much in the ‘eye of the beholder’ – that is, if the person on the receiving end of it thinks it’s harassment, it is.
At the heart of what makes ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ harmless to one person but menacing to another is the exercise of power. But where I think many commentators get it wrong is that power is not a fixed concept, but a shifting dynamic. It does not always reside with for example, authority, as such.
The idea that a hapless young woman who has recently taken up appointment as a junior researcher, let’s say in the office of a long-standing male MP, is somehow at the mercy of his authority and power is to miss the point. Yes of course, on the face of it – an MP is an employer with the power to hire and fire, in a nominally influential position with access to a network of colleagues and contacts. All of which the female might not and probably does not have.
But that ‘nominal power’ can be turned on its head, sometimes very easily and dramatically.
For example, by being publicly embarrassed, challenged or accused giving power and agency to the person in the apparently vulnerable position.
I think many men in schools are in a vulnerable position – particularly young men in primary schools – where they are almost always in a minority and in many primary schools across the country, in a minority of one.
They will often be the focus of attention from female colleagues and female parents alike – complemented by banter, jokes and gossip.
To be fair, most of men teachers I have met over the years don’t think of this as being ‘vulnerable’. Most men I have spoken to think it’s rather desirable!
Many men who have experienced a lot of attention – which has included ‘flirtatious and even sexualised banter’ from colleagues and parents, have said they rather enjoyed the experience – thinking of it as ‘fun’ or ‘harmless banter’ as long as it remained ‘banter’ – though of course many people have met their long term partners at school.
Over my career, I can attest to that. But there were one or two occasions where it was less agreeable and my professionalism was seriously challenged.
One such instance was when I became a head teacher in east London in the mid-1990s.
Within a few weeks of my appointment, a female parent started to take a significant interest in volunteering her time and energy to school activities. She became a school governor; volunteered to maintain the school plants, flowers, gardens; work in the school library; run school clubs and sports teams.
All good stuff one might think – and it was. But it also came with an increasing number of requests to talk to me privately and meet with me in my office, often with a suggestion that any unfinished business could be continued over a coffee or dinner sometime.
I soon became the butt of friendly but nevertheless embarrassing jokes from my sympathetic but relentlessly teasing colleagues in the staff room and with my office staff who would smile knowingly, often giving me a nod and a wink when this particular woman came into school to ask to see me about yet another contrived school matter - and often not taking ‘no’ for an answer either.
On the surface, I was the person with ‘power’ – a man with the authority of being a head teacher. But I was also a new head – finding my feet with new colleagues, parents and children and not wanting to alienate an influential parent who had considerable cache in the school community.
Her ‘flirtatious behaviour’ was obvious to anyone who observed it and though I never ‘responded’ to its intention – or my perception of its intention - my credibility and authority were very much at stake. I was vulnerable.
Flirtatious and sexualised banter in school – it’s a minefield out there – and in my view, especially for men working in primary schools.