OPINION

Girls’ Academic Successes Are Undercut By Sexual Harassment

Christine Blasey Ford introduced herself to America on Thursday as the promise of gender equality fulfilled. She’s a graduate of an elite girls’ school, a successful scientist and a professor who could name-check parts of the brain, and explain their function, as she was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the GOP’s handpicked prosecutor.

She also exuded compliance with old-school rules of femininity. She smiled. She is a married mother hosting Google interns in her home. She’s blonde, and in the words of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), “attractive” and “pleasing.” She said she wanted most of all to do her “civic duty” and to be “helpful.” Mulling a break in her testimony, Ford was deferential, asking senators: “Does that work for you?”

Ford, more than most, has made good on the promise of public gender equality. She embodied exactly what is expected of girls and women today, walking the identity tightwire of being smart but not too smart, assertive but not aggressive, pretty but not sexy, confident but not arrogant.

Yet her exacting compliance with the rules of femininity were still not enough to shield her from vicious attacks on her credibility. Immediately following her testimony, GOP senators dismissed her account as a Democratic ploy, and President Donald Trump tweeted, “this process has been a total sham.”

As Kavanaugh’s nomination churns toward all-but inevitable confirmation, girls have heard a searing message: Your minds may know no limit, but your bodies still don’t belong to you. Even if you do everything that is expected of you, there is a limit to how much power we will give you.

Indeed Ford’s account ― a smart, ambitious girl violated by equally smart, ambitious boys ― is hardly a relic of the 1980s. A new study from Plan International USA confirmed that girls’ public successes are undercut by unremitting sexual degradation.

On one hand, the researchers found, girls have pulled even with boys in valuing a career, and are just as likely as boys to say math or science is their favorite subject. In a remarkable shift, more girls than boys say being a leader is an important life goal. They are as likely as boys to have considered running for public office.

At the same time, in the classrooms where girls supposedly dominate, a majority hear boys making sexual comments or jokes about girls ― not unlike the ones Brett Kavanaugh memorialized in his high school yearbook― at least several times each week. What’s more, three-quarters of girls ages 14 to 19 said they feel judged as a sexual object or unsafe. 

This data shows the paradox of girls’ lives is profound: More high school girls go to college than boys, but not before some 68 percent of them experience sexual harassment in high school.

How far have our daughters come if their entitlement to equality is conditional and doesn’t extend beyond the classroom? 

As the Me Too moment has unfolded, there has been scant public discussion of the youngest victims and perpetrators of assault. As lifelong advocates for girls, we find this puzzling ― and a missed opportunity.

After all, sexual crimes committed by adults do not spontaneously appear in the workplace. The permission to violate another person, and the pressure to remain silent and comply, are first made clear in childhood, where boys and girls learn a social script that positions them to act as perpetrator and survivor.

Early in childhood, boys learn the unwritten rules of so-called toxic masculinity, a performance of manhood that prizes toughness and mocks vulnerability. A “real man,” boys learn, defines his value in terms of conquest, whether it be through sex, money or fists.

Meanwhile, girls learn that to be liked matters more than anything else, including their own feelings.

How far have our daughters come if their entitlement to equality is conditional and doesn’t extend beyond the classroom?

It’s a desire that today’s teen girls know well. In last week’s study, teen girls said they still feel “a lot of pressure” to put others’ feelings before their own. While over half of boys have heard their fathers or other male family make sexual jokes or comments about women, one-third feel pressure to dominate or be in charge of others. Boys, the researchers concluded, are “receiving the same messages as girls do ― that girls should be valued for their physical traits and sexuality rather than their abilities or intelligence.”

By age 18, one in four girls experiences sexual abuse or assault. 

In order to tackle sexual harassment and violence, we have to address the root cause of them. These deeply entrenched norms harm girls and each of us ― youth, educators, parents, and others ― has a role to play in creating a culture that no longer tolerates sexual harassment in any form, and that values and promotes the dignity of girls and all young people.

“For me and my friends, his past is our now,” a 17 year-old girl told a reporter this week.  

At stake when senators vote is not just a Supreme Court nomination. It is a moment to let boys know that their behavior in high school counts. It is a refusal to accept that we only value girls’ voices when they don’t directly threaten the status quo. It is a chance to let girls know that the invitation to equality that we have given them extends to their bodies as well as their minds.

Otherwise, the message to girls is clear: we believe in you. We just don’t believe you.

Rachel Simmons is the co-founder of Girls Leadership and director of the Lewis Leadership program at Smith College. Judy Vredenburgh is president and CEO of Girls Inc.

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