Not Short and Sweet: Gender Inequality in a Public Middle School

Extending the conversation about gender inequality to include K-12 school

Passionate about civic education and youth activation. Big fan of iced coffee and Broadway.

Over the course of 2019, Student Voice has been on a Tour of America’s Schools, traveling to connect with students in every corner of the U.S. This transcript chronicles one such conversation at a public middle school in Michigan.

As we’ve been traveling, we intentionally seek out voices that traditionally go unheard and places that are left unseen. This transcript is intentionally long to give full voice to those who trusted us to share it.

We know that the status quo in the education system marginalizes most students’ voices; And we know that even within that context, there are voices that are especially silenced. Those groups include young women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with learning differences, students from low-income backgrounds, English Language Learners (ELL) and others.

We have heard from students like these who have remarked feeling invisible.

During this school visit, leaders of our team, Megan and Merrit, facilitated a roundtable with female students about the gender issues they experience in school each day. For these students, this was the first time many of them had had the time and space to discuss gender, gender inequality, and feminism — giving them a sense of camaraderie and community. Student names have been changed for anonymity.

Merrit: Your principal, when she was talking to me, she just shared that there are some issues where women in class don’t feel like they can speak up and if they do the boys laugh. So what are the things that you’ve experienced?

Elizabeth: I guess boys, when they say something to you, they make everything a joke. But to us, it’s not. If they say something to you and all their friends are there, they all laugh. And you laugh, but inside you take it personally. And it kind of spreads, I guess.

Sadie: It kind of feels like a ‘know your place’ type of thing. When they talk about things between them, but you’re kind of involved in it, and you start laughing, but it’s not funny. It hurts your feelings. Like I’ve spoken up before and I’ve had someone tell me “oh it’s a joke”. And I understand it was a joke but who has the audacity to say something like that? Like they tell us “get back in the kitchen, go make me a sandwich”.

Alexa: A lot of time, say something happens to you or someone touches you inappropriately or says something about your appearance and you try to say something about it, the girls will understand and be like “oh that sucks” but the boys will say “shut up you feminist, it was a joke they were joking”. I think the boys know they’re not joking, they just say “take a joke, take a joke” so that they don’t get in trouble. But that’s not something to joke about it. They wouldn’t joke about a boy’s appearance the way they say it.

Megan: Also, feminist is not a dirty word. A feminist is a person who believes in equality for all people, regardless of gender identity.

Alexa: And they always say, that’s not fair that girls can hit boys or kill a boy but a boy can’t hit them back but that’s not what it’s about. They blow it so far out of proportion. They act like it’s girls saying “boys are BAD, girls are better!” but that’s not what it means at all.

Aaliyah: They’ll also joke about how long it takes us to get ready or something. We’re trying to fit in because we feel like if we don’t fit in then the boys will tease us. Boys don’t have to worry about what they look like or what people are going to say at school. We should be able to be ourselves without people judging us.

Adrianna: Some boys will joke around and insult you and be like “oh, you’re a girl, you can’t do everything a guy can do…. I’m joking! I’m joking!” They know it wasn’t a joke and they only apologize because they know that you took it offensively. We take what they say as meaning it. Don’t joke around with something like that because it offends us.

Sadie: Kind of like what Aaliyah touched on, certain boys have some inappropriate conversations and sometimes you’re just around for it. They don’t know your personal experiences. Sometimes it hits in a certain way. Even if they’re just “joking” around about it, girls fear that. Girls are scared of what boys are saying. They know that and they’re going out there and saying it like it’s normal, like it’s nothing. It’s scary.

Jessa: Back to the boys judging girls, they other day I heard some boys talking about how girls walk and how they stand and how they’re trying to put themselves out there. They’re saying that it looks weird and how they’re purposely trying to show off their butt and show off things. It makes you feel insecure about how you move in school.

Alexa: It’s like Jessa said, something I want to wear a cute outfit or a skirt because it’s cute. And either people will say something that’s creepy, like “your butt looks good in that” or “you’re totally trying to make boys look at your butt”, but no I just like this skirt, it’s a cute skirt, it follows dress code, it’s long enough. It’s not like it’s even a bad thing at all. They just make it such a big deal when girls try to feel pretty. If you wear makeup they act like you’re trying to get all of the guys and it’s just that I like to wear makeup, I like to feel pretty. They’ll always make it something that it isn’t.

Langley: Expectations, I feel like, for girls are very high, like how you dress and how you act. It’s expected of you, so you’re not complimented on it, but if you slip then they’re judging you.

Aaliyah: A lot of times, like with the school dress code, it’s not our problem, it’s the guy’s problem.

Alexa: Yeah God forbid someone sees my shoulder.

Langley: The school is trying to make sure the guys are comfortable.

Sabrina: Last year they were definitely more strict. It was like three fingers for your tank top, but now it’s two.

Hannah: Now they give you warnings before they dress code you. They let you go get a sweatshirt or something. It’s not fair though because some people wear crop tops and it’s obvious that they should be dress coded. But then some people, even when they’re wearing a shirt that covers everything, when they raise their hand and their stomach shows, they get dress coded.

Alexa: I think sometimes there’s a girl who’s been dress coded a few times so they say “oh we shouldn’t do it again” when it’s an appropriate time, like when they’re wearing a crop top. But then you’ll wear an off-the-shoulder shirt and get dress coded. The standard is weird and changes girl to girl. I just wanna know why they do that.

Langley: There’s like no dress code for the guys.

Hannah: The girls who are wearing high waisted pants and a crop top get dress coded.

Sadie: I never wear dresses. I hated dresses, I felt uncomfortable in them. I wore one once and it was huge for me; I was going out of my comfort zone. And I was shamed for it. Someone I was close with shamed me for it. And I’m like, “what is this? I go out of my comfort zone and I’m shamed for it? Where did I get this from?”

Merrit: Are there other spaces, like socially or in the classroom, where you feel this? Do you feel like there is equity in the school with female students being pushed into honor classes or STEM? Are there other issues?

Elizabeth: I guess periods.

Sabrina: Boys always ask, “geez are you on your period?”

Merrit: Is this something you’ve ever had a conversation about, in a formal setting in school?

Sabrina: I’ve told the boys to stop asking that because it makes girls mad, but they do realize that it makes us mad and they just don’t care.

Lauren: Obviously they don’t always realize it because they don’t have one. They don’t experience it.

Elizabeth: Or if you’re in a bad mood they’re like, “oh it’s that time of the month again”.

Alexa: It’s just so annoying when boys are like, “(sigh) girls have it so easy”. And it’s like what?

Sabrina: I’d love to see them try to be a girl for a month.

Megan: Do you feel comfortable walking out of class like when you need to use the restroom?

All: No

Bethany: I hate it when you ask to go to the bathroom and the teacher goes, “is it an emergency?” And if you say yes then everybody knows and if you say no then you’re just sitting there uncomfortable. So that’s annoying.

Aaliyah: I feel like it’s awkward when teachers are in the front and you have to go up in front of everyone. When you leave the classroom the doors are locked so it makes a big noise and everyone looks at you.

Alexa: It would be helpful if the teachers could, under the sink or something, keep tampons and pads. Don’t charge for it. It’s hard to be like “hey teacher, I need to go to the bathroom, wink wink, do you have a pad?”

Elizabeth: And if you go back to your locker they’re gonna ask what took you so long.

Bethany: Especially if you have a guy teacher! That’s just awkward

Hannah: I’m probably not the only one who has been on their period, gone to the bathroom, and has been told to stay after class. I don’t want to stay after class with a guy teacher. That’s uncomfortable to stay in the room alone with a guy teacher because you’re on your period.

Elizabeth: Once the room didn’t have any Kleenex so I asked to go to the bathroom to get Kleenex and they’re like “stay 2 minutes after class!” And I don’t want to stay after class when you’re supposed to have Kleenex in the room. That’s not my fault.

Sabrina: So we only have 5 minutes between classes and teachers always say that we should go [to the bathroom] in between classes. But I have to carry my stuff, go to my next class, go to my locker, and go to the bathroom all in five minutes. So you always have to go back to your locker [to get a pad/tampon] which takes so much extra time.

Alexa: Or you have to take a pencil case or purse with you.

Sadie: This is probably not something that we’ll be able to solve any time soon but I think there should be more of a comfortable thing between girls and guys about what we deal with and what they deal with, too. Because they also have problems. (Laughs) We shouldn’t have to keep it a secret. Yes, it’s personal, but we shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable or shamed for it.

Megan: I think it really all comes back to conversations, we need to talk about these things.

Merrit: And a menstrual hygiene day

Alexa: But then it’s hard because you know that after a boy will come up to you and just say “hahaha”

Hannah: To the embarrassment point, if I’m at my locker and I’m getting a tampon and one falls out of my locker, which is all around guys, they’ll be like “oh my gosh what is that??” I wish they wouldn’t point it out.

Alexa: They also just need to understand more about a girl’s period. They don’t understand that it’s really hard and stuff.

Megan: What is sex ed like here?

Sabrina: Oh it’s terrible. They’re just like “don’t get AIDS guys!”

Alexa: It’s literally like that scene from Mean Girls.

Lauren: In high school we will actually get into it.

Megan: But did you talk about periods at all?

Sabrina: They never talked about things like cramps or physical pain or emotions. They didn’t explain any of that. They just said we’d experience “that time of the month”

Alexa: Boys will be obnoxious and be like “yeah we know what pain feels like, I’ve been kicked in the dick” and that just ain’t it. (Laughs and claps)

Sadie: They’re so clueless, they need more knowledge.

Hannah: There’s just no common sense

Lauren: When they’re around their friends they are totally different people. If you’re individually talking to them they’re nice to you and being themselves. But when you talk to them and they’re around their friends they are so rude

Alexa: It’s like it’s embarrassing for them to have a relationship. They try to act cool around their friends.

Sadie: They care more about their ego than being a nice person. They act like being a nice person will put down their ego.

Jessa: Whenever they are nice to girls, the guys make fun of them. Like “ohh you like her!”

Alexa: I feel really bad for kids in our grade who are actually gay because the boys in our grade, whenever anything happens, will just like “oh that’s gay”.

Langley: I think that with this kind of thing it’s always hard to get through to guys because they’re always worried about how cool they are and their status and, sure, they’ll seem genuine while you’re talking to them, but then they’ll go over to their friends and start laughing and joking about it.

Merrit: Middle school is so hard.

Megan: There’s so much toxic masculinity.

Elizabeth: There’s this one big boy clique and if they don’t like you, everyone in their clique will gang up on you to put you down.

Sadie: If one guy in the group doesn’t like you then the rest of the group is coming for you.

Megan: So let’s talk about solutions, let’s talk about what we can do about all this.

Sabrina: For the bathroom thing, I think we just need to tell the teachers flat out how we feel. Not one on one. We need more than one student there. We could make a code or something.

Bethany: I feel like there should be a basket or something for pads and tampons in the bathroom so you don’t have to go all the way to your locker. And whoever wants to donate can donate.

Alexa: I would donate!

Sabrina: I would too, I need that.

Alexa: Anytime you don’t want to go to your locker you can just use that

Sabrina: And if there’s guys in the hallway and they see you leave the bathroom and go to your locker and then back to the bathroom that’s so awkward. Once someone saw this happen and they were like, “weren’t you just in the bathroom?” And I was like “…yes?”

Alexa: Or something you have to do the tampon shuffle to get your tampon in your pocket without anyone seeing.

Megan: I think that tampons and pads in the bathroom is a great idea and very do-able. It can probably come out of a school budget, too.

Bethany: They already have them in the office it’s just that no one is going to walk all the way to the office. They’re so bad they’re like from the dollar store.

Megan: The other thing I want us to think about is that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to have a period because everyone has it. Do you think the administration can have a class or program or special day to educate to break down the stigma?

Jessa: I just think that they have to address it to the guys, what it’s actually about and what actually happens so that they don’t just assume what happens and use it against us.

Lauren: So we have this class between first and second hour where we get to do our homework and read and i feel like they, for one week, they should dedicate that time to informing the boys.

Sabrina: They need to separate us for the sex ed. When they talked about periods I wasn’t just going to casually mention it. I think they should separate it.

Hannah: I think the guys need to understand that it’s a natural thing that happens to us.

Alexa: There’s a lot of behavior stuff to work through at this school. I feel really bad for the guys who would support us and agree that this is all stuff that needs to be addressed. It would be really helpful if we could somehow weed out the boys doing all the bad stuff and just talk to them.

Sabrina: Yeah, but I think all boys need to hear it.

Alexa: I just feel like some of the guys shouldn’t be yelled at for it.

Megan: Some just need to hear it more than others?

Everyone: Yeah.

Alexa: There’s a couple boys that everyone talks about and we agree that we’re all genuinely scared to be around them. I can think of one specific boy who will grab your thigh or your back or will touch your face. And it’s not just one or two girls.

Megan: So, when that happens, do you feel like you can do anything? Can you talk to a teacher?

Sabrina: It’s so hard to say something.

Hannah: I feel like when you do that, it scares you when they bring it up again later. If they know that you told on them, then it’s scary. They will purposefully make you uncomfortable after and make fun of you.

Alexa: Yeah, or they’re like “oh you went and talked to the teacher. What did you do that for?”

Megan: Do they get disciplined?

Everyone: No.

Alexa: Once I was walking down the hallway and a boy came up next to me and put his arm around me and was looking at me. I kept looking straight and kept walking. This was a full hallway, there were tons of people around me, and no one said anything. His friends were with him and none of them were like “what are you doing? Stop that”. He just kept doing it and I got to my class and had to be like “OK this is my class”. Then he let go of me and it was really weird. I was just like, “what just happened?” There was a teacher standing there and I don’t know if she just didn’t see it but she didn’t do anything.

Merrit: So we need a way to report that behavior in a safe way without retaliation.

Megan: And then they should be disciplined so that they know that it’s not okay.

Merrit: And we need to do all that in a way that doesn’t end up making it worse for you. That’s the hard question.

Sabrina: I feel like we can’t do anything in front of their friends because they’ll over exaggerate it. They take it all the wrong way, they cross the line with everything.

Elizabeth: Personally, someone said something to me and they kept saying it and it was bugging me. I told him to stop but when he was near me saying it, all of his friends started saying it to me. Every single day they walked passed me they would say it. I told the principal because it was getting to the point where they were doing it every day for two or three months. And I told the principal and she took care of it, she pulled them in and told them. But, then, to this day, every day, they asked “why did you tell on me?”

Sabrina: They don’t listen when we tell them. They think they need to hear it from a teacher because they don’t think we’re qualified to tell them what to do.

Alexa: When it comes to them doing something wrong, and they know that they’re doing something wrong, us telling on them for doing it makes them look down on us.

Jessa: Well they always look down on us. They think less of us.

Alexa: They always put down our opinions. They think because we’re girls we’re not as good as them. They’ll be talking about something, like sports, and if you know about the sport or are passionate about the sport and you comment on it they’ll be like “shut up you know nothing”. And if you say that you do, they’ll come at you like, “who is the coach of this random team” trying to make us prove that we’re right or we know what we’re talking about. Why can’t you just trust that I know what I’m talking about?

Hannah: So we all do cheer and all the guys are like , “oh my gosh you do cheer you’re so basic!”

Sabrina: And cheer is so hard they don’t even know!

Hannah: We have this thing where we signed up for our high school classes and activities and there was a part to sign up for cheer. And all the boys joked about signing up for cheer. And for us it’s not a joke. We’ll be walking down the hall reviewing our cheers when we have a game and they give us so much crap about it. Or they’ll say like, “wow your skirt is short” and I mean I’m tall I can’t do anything about that!

Aaliyah: They’ll say “nice view” if they’re behind you and stuff like that. Why do you have to say that?

Sadie: I don’t understand how when we’re touched where we shouldn’t be touched, where we don’t want to be touched, and we stand up about it, how we’re shamed for it. What do you expect to happen? They give us no voice so when we feel we are uncomfortable and try to speak up about it we’re shamed for it.

Sabrina: I feel like there’s some girls who are on the boys’ side 24/7 to try to be cool or whatever.

Sadie: Some girls don’t stand up for what is right because they want to be closer to the boys. They think it makes them more popular. And that will end badly. It’s hard to pick apart the boys who are good and who understand you from the boys who are just trying to get in your pants. I’m being straight up, but it’s true. You can’t pick it apart and it sucks.

Lauren: The boys are obviously influenced by the other boys and I feel like at the beginning of the year there were a lot of good boys but as the year goes on they all get worse.

Merrit: So would you say it’s gotten worse from sixth grade to now? In the last two years they’ve developed really masculine or toxic behaviors?

Everyone: Yeah

Sabrina: Once one guy is in a relationship all the others try to do stuff to ruin that relationship.

Hannah: Like if you see the girl in the relationship talking to another guy they’ll go to him and be like “oh my god she’s cheating on you!” You can’t even talk to a guy without his friends accusing you of flirting.

Alexa: I feel like sometimes guys think that girls are a trophy in a way. They’ll be like, “oh I got this girl look at me!” Or they’ll be like, “I dare you to go touch that girl’s butt” as if touching a girl’s butt makes you cool.

Sadie: I was walking away from lunch and someone, who I would consider a friend, and his friends were walking off to the side, and he comes up to me, and I’m glad he asked for permission because I clearly didn’t want it, and he said “hey I was just dared to slap your butt, is that okay?” and I literally walked away.

Sabrina: At least he didn’t just walk up and do it at least?

Sadie: But just the fact that he even had to ask that.

Alexa: And the fact that it’s a bigger deal that a girl would speak up about it rather than a boy doing it tells you everything you need to know about being a girl in middle school.

Adrianna: So when you’re in a relationship the boys act like they can control the girls. And we’re too scared to speak up because we don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t tell other people because they’ll accuse you of cheating on them. And it just makes me think, is it wrong to have guy friends? I have friends who are girls, what’s wrong with me having friends of the other gender, too? Just drives us nuts that they can be friends with girls but we can’t be friends with guys.

Jessa: And they call us all these names. Once I wore leggings that didn’t cover my butt and they called me a hoe. If you wear a dress that’s a little short they call you slut.

Sadie: It makes you uncomfortable just to be here.

Jessa: I’ll know that I’m supposed to be concentrating on class but I’m just worried that someone else is going to say something.

Sadie: Once I showed my stomach just a little bit and a person who I was close with called me a slut. I cried all day. People were coming up to him saying it wasn’t okay and I still cried the entire day. It was so bad. It was just one word but they don’t realize how much it affects you.

Lauren: This is back on the topics of relationships. I think guys get to chose when what happens. Say a girl asks out a guy, they’ll say no to you because you’re a girl and you can’t ask a guy out.

Sabrina: They think the guy always needs to ask the girl out.

Langley: I feel like there is no filter and all this comes out of their mouths without them caring.

At this point we were running out of time. For the last few minutes, the conversation shifted to focus on actions the girls could take to improve the school climate.

Megan: We’re almost out of time so, Merrit, do you want to run through what we’ve written down so far and see if we’ve missed anything?

Merrit: One thing I think we can easily do is have a conversation with the teachers about the bathrooms. And then having more conversations about women. Also, that can easily be accompanied with a conversation with staff, at least, about classroom time and how they address women leaving the classroom, as well as how they handle periods and those issues. Another thing is how we can use a class period to talk about menstrual hygiene and what actually happens on periods because there seem to be a lot of misconceptions from men about what actually happens on periods. I think there needs to be some sort of space to learn about and how conversations about gender more broadly. Especially if they think that feminism is a dirty word. You’re not hearing a lot in your history classes about feminism and pay gaps and really real gender issues that very much impact women. So you should learn about things that impact women more than they impact men.

Megan: I think we need to have a conversation about how we can report inappropriate behaviors since that seems like a massive issue. The fact that there is inappropriate touching happening is just not acceptable. And administration just might not know that that’s happening. And if they don’t know that that’s happening then that’s a massive issue.

After the conversation ended, the Student Voice team shared a report on the conversation with the school’s administrators, who quickly acted to change the school’s bathroom policies. While these policies may seem small, they, as evidenced by the girl’s conversation, add up to create a school climate where female students feel unsafe and uncomfortable.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of women in positions of power. There are now 102 women serving in the U.S. Congress, the highest of all time, with over a third of them winning their seats in the 2018 election. For the first time ever, women outnumber men in a state legislature. A female candidate won a major political party nomination in 2016, paving the way for six women to follow suit in 2020. Women have reclaimed their space, driven their own narratives, and, as such, the public has engaged in debates and conversations about gender inequality, equity, and representation.

However, often left out of this conversation is how gender impacts a student’s experience in school. Female students have had to forge their own movements in order to have their experiences considered in the conversation. Feeling excluded from the discussion of #MeToo, students created #MeTooK12 to share their stories of abuse and harassment in school. Female students have also taken to social media to protest dress codes they find restrictive and oppressive, in some cases forcing their administrations to act.

What students learn in school, explicitly and implicitly, informs how they see the world and the place they believe they deserve to have in it. If we hope to see women having an equal share of power, we must address the root causes that lead people to believe that they shouldn’t. That begins by discussing gender equity in school and listening to the experiences and stories of female students.