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Melbourne private school boys’ ongoing sexist culture is unacceptable, but fixable

July 20, 2021 / Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly

It has been 18 months since the infamous St Kevin’s College boys’ sexist chant on a Melbourne public tram. The loud outrage from the public resulted in a range of actions by the school, including a nearly complete overhaul of the school’s senior leadership and the appointment of St Kevin’s first female principal in its 103-year history.

Broadly, the issue also encouraged us to have conversations about harmful masculinities and what it is in our society that makes young men feel entitled to speak with such vitriol about women.

While these debates sparked the school into first, finger-pointing and then action, new findings show that the school still has a long road ahead to create a safer and more respectful culture.

In an act of brave transparency by the principal, a new independent report into St Kevin’s reveals that despite the initial changes made, the school’s culture remains sexist and disrespectful.

The report showed that one-third of staff disagreed that St Kevin’s “effectively supports a culture of respect for women and other genders” while less than half of the students agreed that the college provided effective programs to tackle sexism or young men’s inappropriate behaviour towards other genders.

This supports allegations made by young women that former St Kevin’s students treated them in sexually inappropriate ways, as reflected on Chanel Contos’ website calling for a national petition on consent education in schools.

But violence and disrespect towards women is not inevitable, it is preventable.

The St Kevin’s report has revealed uncomfortable truths that a sexist culture is deeply entrenched in the school, while also providing an important benchmark for the school to track its progress and make significant changes. A roadmap on how the school can “reclaim and reimagine” its culture is also included as part of the review.

But schools are not the only places that have “a culture problem.” This important work expands across workplaces, sporting clubs, universities, TAFEs and across all levels of government.

Schools do however have a key opportunity to reach young people during their crucial adolescent years and shape their attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and behaviours around gender and respectful.

International and national evidence shows that embedding respectful relationships education into all schools, both single gender and co-ed, has the potential to prevent violence against women.

For this to be effective respectful relationships education must take a whole-of-school approach to change, supporting staff through professional learning and committing to a long-term vision.

This means every part of the school community is involved, from the principal, to staff, students and parents.

It means looking at schools as not just spaces for education, but as workplaces and community hubs that can influence beliefs, attitudes, structures and ideas of what is socially acceptable and what is inappropriate.

In order for teachers to be strong role models for students, teachers themselves need to be supported with professional development and training so that they understand violence against women, gender equality, respectful relationships and the part they play in changing culture.

In doing this work, schools will address the drivers of violence towards women, such as challenging gender stereotypes in teaching materials – so that girls and boys don’t feel limited in what they can achieve in life – as well as ensuring their school policies offer equal gender opportunity and that there is equal gender representation across all roles, such as on a school’s board or who is volunteering at the canteen or on school camp.

Young men also need a supportive school culture that shows them that they do not need to conform to outdated stereotypes, and that there are many ways to ‘being a man.’ Research shows that rigid stereotypes about men, such as always being the tough, dominant, stoic type, underpin an unhealthy ideal of masculinity, which helps maintain gender inequality and contributes to violence against women.

Evidence also shows that male relationships that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women is another driver of violence. The sexist chant on a Melbourne public tram is a clear example of that – which we cannot simply accept as ‘just boys being boys’.

Right across our community we need to continue to reject harmful ideas and expectations of what it means to be a young man, especially in our schools, which play such a crucial role in shaping and influencing attitudes and behaviours.

Schools can do this by encouraging young men to reject outdated stereotypes and engage in behaviours that are more respectful, by changing policies and practices or by ensuring teachers and staff model appropriate behaviour. These changes will be evident in book lists, in the school yard and in the visible gender balance in leadership,

Men and boys speaking up or ‘doing something’ when their male friends make a sexist joke or inappropriate remark is also an important part of changing the culture.

We saw this recently with Brisbane Boys’ College Captain Mason Black, who spoke out to his peers about sexual consent, calling on them to “stop being boys” and “be human”.

Mason also said that “every person in this room must not just be an advocate for equality, but in our every action and deed we have to be proactive in stopping the abuse”.

This speech went viral, and while this is positive, it also shows an unfortunate truth, that young men speaking out against violence against women is so rare, that it is newsworthy.

In taking a greater leadership role, men must work hand in hand with women. Talk to them about their experiences, learn from them and be mindful their voices do not overshadow the experiences of women.

Schools, especially single-gender schools such as St Kevin’s, need deliberately create opportunities for young men to listen to the voices of the young women who are calling for cultural change.

While St Kevin’s College has come under intense public scrutiny, we know that it is not the only Australian school that requires significant transformation in order to stamp out the sexism that causes violence against women. All schools and indeed, universities and TAFEs also need to be aware of their responsibility to make sure their institutions are also taking these actions to instill gender equality into everything they do and we congratulate those leading the way

It will only be when we all make changes that we create a future where everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, background, ability or age can live free from violence.

This opinion piece was originally published on News.com.au on 20 July 2021.


Media contact

Shannon McKeogh, Senior Media and Communications Advisor (shannon.mckeogh@ourwatch.org.au or 0412 612 039) 

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline: 

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.” 

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Change. 

About Our Watch

Our Watch is a national leader in Australia’s work to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. The organisation was created to drive nation-wide change in the structures, norms and practices that lead to violence against women and children.