High school is a mixed bag for a lot of us. For some, it's a time when we've made long-lasting friendships, had our first loves (and break-ups), and developed skills we'd come to use for the rest of our lives. It's also time when a lot of us are terribly awkward, struggle with time management and responsibilities, and make mistakes we (hopefully) learn from. Looking back on these years, however, makes me stop and wonder: Was I dealing with gender norms in high school? At the time, thoughts like these were unlikely to cross my mind. Now, as someone who identifies as a feminist and has some years of distance from those years, I wonder more and more how strongly gender norms impacted my high school experience.
I went to a public, co-ed high school, but growing up, I had friends who went to private schools who were required to wear gender-based uniforms. As a teenager, I was quick to point out those things as examples of sexism (to be fair, there are actually benefits to wearing uniforms to school). However, I was not as quick to realize the sexism in my own school's dress code. From talking to my female friends, I think this was the case for a lot of my peers: It's in hindsight that we realize how based in gender norms our experiences actually were.
Here are some examples of how many high schools reinforce gender norms:
1. Dress Codes
Dress codes are definitely the biggest thing that come to my mind. While dress codes often do include provisions for male students, they are typically much more restrictive in terms of what girls wear. When girls violate the dress code, it often results in punishment in the form of humiliation. For example, girls are often asked not only to change their clothing, but to put on something designed to humiliate them, such as the teenage girl told to wear a "shame suit" after violating her school's dress code.
While the mindset behind policies like these may be to discourage other students from also violating the dress code, it's still problematic because it sends the message that publicly shaming girls for what they wear is acceptable. It also sends the message that instead of focusing on their education, the other students should focus on the girl's public shaming. And let's not forget the problematic message it sends to young men, too: Michael Kasdan at The Good Men Project summed it up nicely when he wrote,"What we are saying to boys is that girls are a distraction to you, that you cannot and are not be expected to control yourself and your hormones."
2. Deciding Who You Can Bring to Prom As Your Date
The first time I read about this, I remember feeling shocked, but it's apparently an issue that comes up all too frequently. There have been numerous instances of LGBTQ students not being able to bring a date of the same-sex with them to formal dances, like prom or homecoming. This sends a message to queer students that they need to conform to heteronormative values to feel comfortable and accepted in their school. In terms of formal dances, the dress code issue sometimes pops back up as well, when schools don't allow female students to wear tuxedos, for example. Making policies based on outdated gender norms has the potential to really stifle students at a time when they should be exploring themselves.
3. Gender-Based Bathrooms
This is a major topic of discussion in general right now, but definitely affects high schools as well. Remember how much time you spent stressing every single day in your school? Imagine, along with all of your other stress, that you feel uncomfortable going to the bathroom. For students who are transgender, or are simply questioning their gender, going to the bathroom can be a source of anxiety and fear if the bathrooms are only "Male" or "Female." On the bright side, some schools are taking steps forward to make their bathrooms more inclusive, either by offering gender neutral bathrooms or allowing students to use whichever bathroom aligns with their gender identity.
4. The Assumption That Girls Are Bad at Math
The stereotype that girls are bad at math and science has been around for a long time. Apparently, some teachers are even affected by this idea. Research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that elementary school teachers scored girls lower on their math tests when their gender was identified. When the girls took the test anonymously? The girls' scores went up, some surpassing the results of the boys. Of course, this is not to blame individuals, or put all the blame on teachers, but this example does represent the ways structural and systematic ideals affect our daily lives. When women comprise less than a quarter of those working in the STEM field, it's definitely a signal that we need to rethink the way we talk about women and the sciences.
All in all, when we talk about gender norms, it's important not to focus on who we're blaming, but rather, what we can do to create positive change and solve the issue. Gender norms effect women in our every day lives, as well as specifically in our workplaces and even when we interact with our families. My suggestion to rectify these situations is to attempt open, honest, and non-confrontational dialogues about gender norms and how they negatively impact women. When gender norms affect girls as young as high school (and arguably, even younger), it's definitely time we explore routes for change.