“Friendly” Gendered Harassment @ School

Posted on September 28, 2020


2018. The first bell rings, and a high school girl walks down the hall, heading for her first hour class.

A faculty member going the opposite direction sees the girl and decides that her facial expression is not giving him pleasure. He gets her attention, then tells her to “Smile!”

She looks confused, but then complies. Her rights have been violated, but in the moment, faced with an authority figure, she feels powerless and complies. She wonders why he feels entitled to tell her how to look…

In the years between 2015-2019, I witnessed this type of exchange twice, and another incident was discussed openly during my class.

Although I explained to the faculty members AND Title IX Coordinator, Kathy Westfall, that telling young women to smile at school is a type of gender-based harassment, they all rejected the notion out of hand.

In the end, the two faculty members (who have left the district) I spoke with reluctantly agreed to stop telling women to smile, but they made it clear that they knew nothing about the types of gender-based harassment that are not a proposition for sex. They did not know why their behavior was problematic.

Likewise, Westfall claimed that she had never heard of this type of harassment, and then went on to make a veiled threat toward me, when she suggested that “men are not the only ones who commit sexual harassment.”

I informed Westfall that, not only was it well-known that telling women to smile is a form of gendered harassment, it had been all over the mainstream media in recent years, due to the attention it got during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the numerous anti-street harassment campaigns in cities and on university campuses.

Armed with her new understanding, Westfall took it upon herself to launch an educational campaign to insure a safe and welcoming environment for students of all gender identities…..JUST KIDDING!

At no time in our meeting did she exhibit concern for students’ rights. Everything about her demeanor and behavior was meant to convey the idea that the real problem was that I was advocating for students to have the right to their own faces! The real problem was that I had responded to a student’s request to explain to a male faculty that his behavior was gender-based harassment!

NO! The real problem is ignorance of gendered harassment, and the solution is not to punish truth-tellers, but to fully educate all adults who work with children about the human and civil rights violations perpetuated by uninformed adults at APS.

As the district works to update the Sexual Harassment policy, it is my hope that they update their knowledge about the types of harassment that are not sexual in nature, but are gender-based.

Along with telling women to smile, gender-based harassment occurs when male coaches tell male athletes that they are behaving “like girls” as a way to make them feel insecure about their athleticism, which I witnessed numerous times over the years from the men who coached my own child in baseball and soccer.

Gendered harassment can occur when a female track coach tells a male athlete that they will not be allowed to compete in a meet because they changed their hair color, which also happened to my son. And it can occur when administrators tell women faculty to wear skirts and dresses in bright colors, which happened to a colleague and me.

Since APS is an IB school, I invite the Title IX coordinators to embrace the IB Learner Profile trait of “Inquirer,” and educate themselves thoroughly on ALL types of harassment, sexual and gender-based, that can create a hostile environment for students, faculty, and other workers.

In his 2017 article titled, “Telling a woman to smile may seem like an innocent request, but there’s a darker undertone,” Matthew Hansen explains the problem: “’Smile!’ is a genteel, almost patriarchal way to seemingly compliment a woman while keeping the gender hierarchy in place, she says. The hierarchy that says it’s a man’s world and women are here to look good in it.

All APS students deserve a safe and welcoming environment, free from gender-based and sexual harassment. With the proper education and effort, APS can become a place like that. I’ll be watching and listening, not only for a new policy, but new practices.

Related Links:

To make a Title IX complaint in Michigan

Core Responsibilities of Title IX Coordinator

The Global Anti-Street Harassment Movement: Digitally-Enabled Feminist Activism

Stop Telling Women To Smile (book) by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com