How Gender & Harassment Affect A Girl's Education

Being a teenager is never easy, but according to a report by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), a disturbing number of teenage girls have experienced harassment, and on top of the physical and mental toll this takes, it affects their ability to receive an education. Titled "Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout," the NWLC's report surveyed more than 1,000 girls nationwide between 14 and 18 years old, looking at the barriers they encounter in school that ultimately lead to dropping out. Although factors like ethnicity and sexual orientation heavily influence these barriers, the report found that discrimination is so widespread that one in six girls reported being harassed since Election Day on Nov. 8, 2016. Next time someone says they don't need feminism, direct them to the NWLC's report — for girls, not even places of learning are guaranteed to be safe.

According to the survey, 21 percent of girls reported being kissed or touched without their consent. This rate was higher for respondents of color, jumping to 24 percent of Latina students and 23 percent of Native American students. LGBTQ girls reported the highest rate of all (38 percent). They were also more likely to report non-consensual sex — 15 percent of LGBTQ girls said they had had unwanted sex, compared with six percent of girls overall. In one of the most unsettling findings from the report, nearly a third of respondents reported surviving sexual assault or violence.

Harassment isn't only sexual in nature. The report also found that many girls of color have been called racial slurs; between one third and half of respondents reported the experience. About a quarter of LGBTQ students said they had skipped school because they felt unsafe, and they more likely than their heterosexual peers to report being harassed or bullied since the 2016 election, a date which appears to have emboldened hateful sentiment across the nation.

There's a popular perception that girls and boys start on an even playing field at school, but the learning environment is affected by factors outside the classroom. So how does all this impact a student's ability to receive an education?

For one thing, girls may miss out on school entirely. In addition to LGBTQ students, survivors of sexual assault and homeless students were more likely to report absences because they felt unsafe at school. Researchers point out that girls who experience trauma may develop behavioral problems, which may be misunderstood by school authorities, and they tend to be distrustful of adults, including teachers. Furthermore, it's difficult to concentrate on school when you're experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, which were reported by 67 percent of respondents overall and 91 percent of sexual assault survivors.

Meanwhile, the report found that certain students of color, particularly black and Native American girls, are at a far higher risk of suspension compared to white students, and they're more likely to attend under-resourced schools. Many also worry about their friends or families being deported. Considering the current president's animosity toward immigration, it's a valid concern.

Taken together, the NWLC's report paints a disturbing picture of what it means to be a teenage girl in the United States today. Girls disproportionately experience harassment and violence, and over time, this contributes to what researchers call "school pushout." Last year's presidential election has also influenced the way we talk about gender equality — not necessarily in a good way. Only time will tell how the president's clear lack of respect for women will impact the girls growing up today.

That being said, the report's results aren't all bad. "Despite the obstacles they face, girls are resilient and optimistic about their future, and many see themselves as leaders," researchers wrote. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to seeing what the next generation of women leaders will accomplish.