Anti-Sexist Education: A Struggle that Begins in the School System


“Boys, go to the construction corner and the girls to art”; “Sit like a lady”; “Loud, with a man’s voice!”; “Boys, go build the set.  Girls, can you help the boys, please?”  These are only a few of the quotes taken directly from the teacher’s evaluation process of 2015.  Along with data like this, there is much evidence demonstrating that formal education in Chile is built on a foundation of historical sexism.  Although feminists and others who try to promote a gender perspective have struggled long and hard to eradicate sexism in education, these experiences are only now beginning to take shape within the established system, and they have a clear objective: to avoid the cultural upbringing that normalizes gender violence.

By Maria Jesus Ibañez and Manuel Toledo-Campos / Translated by Anthony Rauld

On October 19th, thousands of women participated in the “Not One Woman Less” march, organized in Argentina during the aftermath of the femicide of sixteen-year-old Lucía Pérez.  In Chile, 22 cities joined in the outcry against male chauvinist violence, and in Santiago alone, 50 thousand people poured into the streets holding up the names of the 40 women who have been murdered during this year alone.  Lorena Astudillo, spokesperson for the Violence Against Women Network of Chile, says that many media outlets have been asking the same question repeatedly: “What needs to happen for this to stop?” Astudillo’s answer was that, “we need a cultural shift that has to begin with our youngest (…) an end to the sexism inherent in our education system.

Maria Elena Acuña, an academic and researcher of gender issues from the social sciences department at the Universidad de Chile, agrees. Acuña holds that in the current context it is necessary to determine the extent to which our schools reproduce gender norms. “I think it’s fair to say that no one wants their daughter to live through 50 years of gender violence, and if you’re the parent of a boy, you probably don’t want him to reproduce that violence either.  I think it’s important to state the issue in these stark terms.”

Furthermore, although women are clearly the ones who suffer more of the violence directly, Acuña reminds us that it is also a system that affects disproportionately those people who transcend conventional gender identities. “They also suffer considerably and they experience quite a lot of violence in these schools, which discipline students into specific feminine or masculine models,” explains María Elena Acuña.

Acuña asserts that the first step is to recognize that there is a real problem in our society; “and in order to confront it, the educational system must decide on a solution, and not make matters worse.”

What follows are three school initiatives that have decided to tackle the problem and move towards an education free of sexism.

A Community Against Violence

In 2014, Paillaco launched an initiative called “The Incorporation of a Gender Perspective in Education”—only two weeks after the femicide of María Elena Fuentealba, which occurred in that municipality, in the Los Ríos Region.  What was its main objective?  In Mayor Ramona Reyes Painaqueo’s own words, “so that we never have to regret the fact that one of our women has been killed by someone who claimed to love her.”

Day care, preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and a secondary school have all since participated in this program.  From the start, the work has been long-term, aimed towards the idea of “coeducational” schools that “question the inherited patriarchical models, and examine their hidden structures, objectives, and curriculums,” explains Camila Flores, who is in charge of the program’s design.  This last element of the program invites us to examine the so-called hidden curriculum, where male and female teachers implicitly enforce unequal social relations, where men are overvalued and women are underestimated, especially in subjects like mathematics and physical education.  The same goes for language and the textbooks, where women are made invisible and made irrelevant.

Flores asserts that as a response to the workshops that have been created to raise awareness and sensibilize people with respect to sexism, male and female teachers have begun to recognize a degree of sexism in their own language and in their own classroom management practices.  “For example, the boys would be sent to complete a task that involved strength, while girls were sent to clean.”

Today, preschools have a gender equality wall where parents are depicted engaging in tasks that transcend the typical patriarchical roles of “woman who manages the home” and “man the bread-winner”; or “sensible woman” and “strong man”.

Flores says that what this initiative hopes to achieve is cultural change, “it doesn’t try to find the answer in higher test scores, but rather it’s after a much slower and much more subjective kind of change.”  For her, working with the entire educational community, especially the teachers, has been crucial.  Flores recalls that, “first, many reacted by saying, ‘why should we worry about this, isn’t this an upbringing issue? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the test scores, or on the college entrance exams?’ or complaining about ‘another program when there’s so little time’…”

Currently, more than half of the male and female teachers of the municipality believe that it is important to include a gender perspective in education.  Almost two years have passed and the idea of educating people in order to prevent violence and move closer to gender equality is still this community’s goal.  “Things are happening, and we see that Paillaco is changing.  Each preschool, elementary school, and high school progresses according to its own expectations and its own spaces, we understand that each one is a distinct universe and deserves particular treatment,” affirms Flores.


The Anti-Sexist Support Group of 

Esperanza Díaz is a history and geography teacher at the Rucalhue School in Hualpén (Biobío Region) and four years ago she decided to form the Women’s Support Group of Rucalhue with the help of the counselor of the school.  Currently, there is also a Men’s Support Group and a Parents Support Group, but it was the student groups that have inspired the idea of an anti-sexist education within the schools.

“The school is an institution that is inherently very masculine and patriarchical, so this was a chance to provide opportunities for the relief of some of that built-in pressure,” explains Díaz in relation to why this space was created within this coeducational, state-supported school establishment.

The support group meets every fifteen days and it is meant for students from fifth grade to senior year.  The idea is that within this space, a totally different atmosphere can exist, where instead of vertical teaching, there is horizontal dialogue instead.  The issues talked about are quite diverse, although for the most part they reflect what the students want to discuss, and “which are not usually discussed in this masculinized coeducational school environment,” like for example, women’s history, sexism in education, sexuality and violence.

“The girls have rebuilt themselves using a different orientation, one that doesn’t lend itself to the subordinate, traditional roles that are usually assigned to them, and at the same time they feel empowered to speak more openly in class and are more conscientious of the machismo that they now try to avoid, including the competition that exists between them.  They also become more confident in calling out male and female teachers when they are being sexist,” says Díaz.

Due to the success of the workshop, the school decided to encourage the creation of two new groups; the female students, who wanted the men to also be exposed to these kinds of ideas, promoted the men’s support group with vigor. “Today, male and female students talk about patriarchy, feminism and violence, and these have become important issues for them, and that is also anti-sexist education,” explains Díaz.

The teacher recognizes that the support groups have helped establish issues within the school, but there is still evidence of a hidden sexist curriculum that requires the attention of the whole educational community. “They often comment that the boys are the ones who share their opinions, and that the more structured girls are placed next to the messy boys, or that the girls are forced to wear skirts, while the boys wear pants.”

In light of this, Esperanza Díaz highlights the importance of questioning the “traditional” in order to generate change. “What the classroom can accomplish is limited, the hour and a half I have to teach history is not enough, and shouldn’t be enough, we have to come up with other ways to connect with the students and address other issues in a critical and transformative way.  And for me, that’s what the women’s support group is all about, a space that allows you to catch your breath in this highly oppressive system.”


A School in Transition, a Diverse School

As the students filed into the different classrooms at the Robles School, in Villa Alemana, a student approached the office with a document in his hands. “He was bringing a psychological report that read ‘gender identity disorder,’” recounts the school director Ana Donoso, of an episode that occurred at the start of the year.  The student involved was an eighth grade transsexual boy who was, at that moment, entering into a process of transition backed by this school in Valparaíso.

“Back then, we were focused on equal opportunity and equal experiences for all, but we were not so familiar with the issue of the hidden curriculum”, remembers Donoso, who never supported the idea of treating that student’s sexual identity as a disorder, and who, in fact, and together with the educational community, sought immediate outside help for the student, who had indeed sought help, and in this way amend what was clearly an example of sexism brought on by a general lack of knowledge available to deal with the issue.

“The first thing we did was to put together a general awareness session for the whole school community in relation to transsexuality, gender identity, and sexual orientation,” explains Donoso. “It was a very long session with students, teachers, staff, and parents, and it was necessary because we had to be there for one of our students—who was born a girl, but who now was a boy.”

From then on, the school has continued working towards the eradication of sexism. “It has been a difficult journey, which has meant workshop after workshop, training, and a complete revision of the school curriculum, and we’re still working on it,” explains the school director, who also adds that they are no longer using textbooks since they haven’t passed the test, “everything is explained from a masculine and heteronormative perspective.”

We’re now very concerned about all kinds of details, from the everyday school environment, beginning with preschool, to the infrastructure of the school, which today includes multisex bathrooms that are used by all of our students, male or female. “We started to develop models for curricular activities that took into account the concept of gender in all of its possibilities, and this kind of work can be applied from preschool on,” explains Donoso.

One of the biggest surprises for the school director has been just how natural these changes have been felt by boys and girls, and the youth, whether it be in the context of the workshops or in the transition process of their fellow transgender students—who have asked to be called by their new names and to be treated in accordance to their new gender identity. This has occurred despite the fact that, by law, these students’ actual names appear only in parenthesis next to their official names in the attendance lists and on official documents.

“As school director I have discovered just how hard the transition process is for a transgender student,” affirms Donoso, who has followed closely what her transgender students go through. “Some of them are anxious and impatient about the changes they expect to live, and we have to accompany them and contain some of that anxiety.  Others experience the process more patiently,” explains Donoso with respect to this very difficult process, which takes place in the context of a wider system that continues to put up obstacles for them, despite the progress being made at this particular school.

“When she was attending the first training sessions, the psychologist said: ‘When a family has a transgender child, the whole family is transgender. And if the school has a transgender boy or girl, the whole school is transgender.’” She adds, “that’s right, deep transformations take place not only with the student, but also with the school. If you decide to make it invisible, then you will never understand, nor will you open yourself to change.  We choose visibility and therefore we choose to change,” concludes the school director.


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