Challenging narrow gender norms 

New education professor addresses the gendered aspect of school bullying

By Karen Herland

Elizabeth Meyer integrates the unspoken part of pedagogy. Magnifying glass

Elizabeth Meyer integrates the unspoken part of pedagogy.

Recently, a Mississippi high school opted to cancel prom rather than let 18-year-old Constance McMillen bring her girlfriend to the event.

McMillen is being blamed for ruining the students’ senior year and has been forced to come out on national television, albeit with the strong support of her family.

School has always been a battleground between the popular kids and the geeks. Occasionally, those conflicts become nasty or violent and educators need tools to protect the victims of bullies and help young people navigate potential explosions.

Using a feminist framework, Elizabeth Meyer, who recently began teaching in the Department of Education, has identified gender as the source of a lot of conflict in schools. “Harassment often is reinforcing traditional expectations of gender behaviour and interactions,” Meyer said. “It is repeating narrow gender norms.”

Last year, Meyer published Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools. The volume outlines three different types of gendered behaviours.

The first is sexual orientation harassment that targets gays, lesbians, bisexuals and anyone not perceived to be heterosexual. McMillen being an obvious example. Her desire to wear a tux to the event also leads to Meyer’s second type — gender nonconformity harassment. This singles out young people who do not present themselves in gender-normative ways, regardless of their sexual orientation. The third is sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical. Meyer also addresses cyber-bullying, a necessary nod to the ubiquity, tyranny and power of Facebook among adolescents.

Meyer sees a clear connection to policy as well. School bullying has become a focus for school boards and parent groups across North America, and that attention, and changes in its treatment, has helped to reduce incidents. However, she says, even as incidents of bullying have dropped, incidents of sexual harassment and homophobia are on the rise.

Meyer underscores the importance of addressing these issues. “If we don’t name and talk about these things, we can’t dismantle them,” she says, referencing Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, the power of that which is kept invisible.

That power affects educators themselves, who are often embarrassed or uncomfortable addressing the gendered or sexual element of the conflicts that arise amongst their students, or who fear that they themselves will become targeted for addressing homophobia or gendered harassment in a school setting, according to Meyer.

Her book, based on the doctoral work she completed in 2007 after conducting in-depth interviews with eight teachers in the U.S. and Canada, provides some strategies for naming and addressing the problem. She’ll be following that up with a text book, due out in April with Springer press.

The text will address “the basics for educators and youth workers who want to teach in a more diverse way, addressing the range of backgrounds, experiences and sexualities in a classroom.”

Meyer previously worked as a researcher with the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, as a new faculty member; she is making connections with others across disciplines. She is a fellow at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and will be speaking about her research on March 25 as part of the institute’s new Feminist Café series. The event is from 4:30 to 6:30 in H-535 and will be an interactive talk based on current events and questions from the audience.

Meyer continues to blog about these subjects, with no lack of examples from the headlines.

One blog is at Psychology Today and the other at the Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy. She also microblogs on Twitter.


Concordia University