Why Spain needs more feminism in the classroom

Why Spain needs more feminism in the classroom

It was a crime that shocked all of Spain: Five men raped an 18-year-old woman at Pamplona’s running of the bulls in July 2016, in a brutal assault captured on tape by the attackers.

The case – known as La Manada, which means “mob” – led to national outrage in Spain, both online and in the streets, and a nine-year jail sentence for the perpetrators.

Taken together with the #MeToo movement, which began in the United States in 2017 and quickly spread around the globe, sexual assault awareness has seen a sudden and dramatic increase in Spain.


Read more: Educación feminista: en los colegios y las familias aún queda mucho por hacer


Young women have joined feminist activism in record numbers, marching to defend the survivor of the La Manada attack, protest violence against women and protect abortion rights.

Last March 8, International Women’s Day, Spanish women staged a “domestic strike.” More people participated in Spanish women’s marches that day than in any other developed country.

The impact of La Manada and #MeToo in Spanish schools, however, has been much weaker.

Gender stereotypes start early

Children as young as six years old already show the strong influence of stereotypes about gender, according to a 2017 article in Science magazine. At that age, girls are less likely to say that members of their gender are “really, really smart” and more likely to avoid activities they perceive to be extremely challenging.

In the long run, the false perception about what girls can and cannot do explains, in part, why women are underrepresented in prestigious, rigorous professions like physics and engineering. They learn very early on that brilliance is a masculine trait.

It doesn’t help that women are almost entirely absent from the images in science textbooks.

Other developmental psychology research has shown that as young as four years old, children choose toys, games and roles traditionally associated with their genders: trucks and playing war for the boys, dolls and playing nurse for the girls.

As an educational psychologist, I know that school is one of the main places that children construct their worldviews. Through play and by observation, they accumulate the experiences that inform how they think about themselves, their gender identity and, therefore, their place in the world.

Games are more than child’s play: When children role play, they’re showing us the social models they believe to be true.

When little girls play house, or nurse, or perform other domestic duties, I recognize it as a sign that they have already internalized the stereotype that women are “natural” caretakers.

And when boys play at war, it can mean that they associate violence with masculinity.

Sexism at school

In an effort to avoid teaching stereotypical gender roles at an early age, some Scandinavian countries have banned fairy tales in schools and sought to use gender-neutral language in the classroom. Toymakers in the United States and United Kingdom have also stopped marketing products to children based on gender.

But surveys show that even in these countries, children still subconsciously hold sexist beliefs.

One in three female British secondary school students has been sexually harrassed. Sixty-six percent have heard sexist language used at school.

The percentage is higher in Spain.

According to a survey conducted in 2017, one in every two young girls has suffered or witnessed sexual abuse, harassment or gender-based violence.

One recent study showed that 56 percent of adolescents – nearly all of them boys – do not believe that gender inequality is a significant problem. Predictably, the other 44 percent of students – those who demonstrate awareness and concern about sexism – mostly comprises girls.

In my assessment, the gap between boys’ and girls’ awareness of gender inequality is compounded when boys and girls are educated separately. Spain, a traditionally Catholic country, still has hundreds of single-sex schools.

It is not uncommon at girls’ schools to hear teachers explicitly instruct their students to act in a way that reflects traditional feminine values.

“Girls don’t do that,” they may say. “Girls don’t carry that. Girls don’t wear this.”

Coeducation matters

If education is the vaccine for violence, as the saying goes, then Spain clearly has a lot of work to do.

It’s only fair to note, of course, that the government officials responsible for developing school curricula and the teachers who write their lesson plans every night are products of this same sexist educational system. They are not necessarily freer of prejudice and stereotypes than anyone else.

But change may be starting to reach Spain’s classrooms.

Feminist organizations and progressive educators in various regions of Spain have begun developing lessons plans and other resource materials that teach boys and girls that they are equal and to treat each other with respect.

The Spanish sociologists Marina Subirats, Amparo Tomé and Nuria Solsona recently published an excellent edited volume aimed at policymakers and educators about the urgency of coeducation in Spain.

In it, the scholars lay out the importance of teaching boys and girls together and push for a more feminist education system in Spain, one that incorporates gender-neutral teaching practices, sexual assault awareness and openness to nongender-conforming children.

“Feminism is the only movement that actually makes visible the violence and oppression under which women in a patriarchal society live,” writes Tomé of her chapter on feminist education.

“This system that also hurts boys by depriving them of their emotional development, expression of emotions, intimate communications and full participation at home and in childcare.”

This article was originally published in Spanish