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October 20, 2021 Feature

From Dress Codes to Death Threats: Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Schools and Online

By Hannah Hayes

Noriana Radwan started playing soccer at age seven. She dreamed of playing on a college team and launching a career as a professional athlete. In 2014, she won a full scholarship to the University of Connecticut, and her dream was well on the way to becoming a reality. When the UConn women’s soccer team won the American Athletic Conference championship, the exuberant freshman joined her teammates in celebration, jumping and cheering. An ESPN camera caught a smiling Radwan as she briefly raised her middle finger.

In that moment, her life changed. Even though she immediately apologized, she was suspended and banned from all UConn athletic activities and later kicked off the soccer team. Then came the loss of her scholarship, forcing her to transfer to another university midyear. In a letter posted on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website, Radwan wondered whether she would have received such harsh treatment if she were a man.

Across the country and in social media, standards based on gender stereotypes of what is considered “appropriate” behavior for women are being challenged. The harsh discipline and double standards faced by girls and women are increasingly addressed in the courts—from dress codes in the classrooms to the boardroom of major technology platforms, where the sexualized nature of online harassment is often considered part of “free speech.”

Radwan lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against the university in federal court because her defense team was unable to prove that the coach treated a male athlete differently, something that is impossible because college sports are gender segregated, and the coach of a women’s team is unlikely to coach men. “The whole thing smacks of gender notions of expected behavior,” says Jennifer Becker, the ACLU lawyer who coauthored an amicus brief in support of Radwan’s appeal.

According to Becker, the behavior of male athletes showed that objectively more severe conduct was punished less harshly. For example, when a male football player hurled a football into the stands potentially injuring fans, he received a simple warning. “There is a deeply rooted gender expectation of behavior, and women are expected to behave politely,” Becker points out. “The sensitivity for what it unacceptable is different for women and men in any platform or any environment.”

“The argument we brought forth is it doesn’t conform to the behavior of a ladylike manner,” agrees Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “The gesture of raising her middle finger was transgressing this stereotype, which is gesture protected speech, whereas, if it were a man, you would have the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”

In a similar case, a cheerleader was removed from her high school squad because, like Radwan, she exhibited behavior considered “vulgar” for a young woman. In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., 141 S. Ct. 2038 (2021), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cheerleader, who expressed her displeasure at a coach’s decision, while off campus, using “vulgar” language on Snapchat. The Supreme Court held that the school district’s decision to suspend the cheerleader violated her First Amendment rights and that her profanity represented protected speech.

“Our interest was in ensuring the ruling was narrow enough to recognize that the speech in question was protected speech, but schools still must respond to off-campus speech, if it’s discriminatory, harassing, or where there is sexual misconduct,” Becker says.

Digital Double Standards

Technology companies have also been wrestling with the issue of free speech online where social media platforms have been slow to censure hate speech in the guise of the First Amendment. The harassment of women who are outspoken on social media often involves rape and death threats; the result is that some women are silenced because of technology companies’ reluctance to enforce “community standards.”

In 2013, independent game developer Zoe Quinn released a game designed to convey depression through fictional scenarios. The game received positive reviews until an ex-boyfriend posted personal details of their relationship and an accusation that she had sex with a journalist in exchange for a positive review. Quinn became the victim of a torrent of online abuse and doxing—the practice of releasing identifying details like home addresses and family members—as well as rape and death threats. Quinn was forced to flee her home.

“The core of the problem is the transgression of expectations of gender roles and behavior and performance that we’re pretty much all immersed in culturally,” says Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. As an author and activist, Chemaly speaks frequently on topics related to gender norms, inclusivity, social justice, free speech, sexualized violence, and technology.

In 2011, Chemaly and a coalition of feminist organizations launched a worldwide protest to call attention to the failure of Facebook’s community standards to protect women from online attacks. After the protesters successfully targeted advertisers, Facebook responded and worked with Chemaly and others to try and design better response systems and policies. “So the starting point was really to address rape tolerance and violence against women,” Chemaly says.

One problem, according to Chemaly, is that platforms like Facebook use “an autonomous kind of freestanding white guy as their model of how everyone should act online and how everyone would be treated online.”

Facebook had long been tolerant of content such as photos of women being beaten, claiming it was free speech even though it could have been addressed as hate speech. In 2018, Amnesty International issued a report, Toxic Twitter, that analyzed millions of tweets in the United States and United Kingdom and condemned the “unprecedented scale of online abuse against women” in these two countries. On average, the 788 women they studied received “abusive or problematic” tweets every 30 seconds, and women of color were more likely to be targeted.

A global survey from the Web Foundation found that in a survey of 8,000 respondents, nearly half of the women and girls surveyed said they experienced online abuse. Conversely, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) was asked by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to stop blocking people because her office used Twitter for official announcements about policy. In response, she revealed the blocked accounts were not constituents but followers posting images altered and manipulated using artificial intelligence to create pornographic images (known as “deepfake pornography”) and death threats.

Women leaders and public figures often encounter threats on social media for breaking gender stereotypes by speaking with authority. “The backlash tends to be more sexualized and more sustained, often involving threats to themselves and their families,” Chemaly points out. With deepfake technology, women politicians are often turned into “objects of nonconsensual pornography” and endure threats to their families as well as themselves.

In August 2021, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law released a report examining the double standards when it comes to content moderation on three social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They concluded that “communities of color, women, LGBTQ+ communities, and religious minorities are at risk of over-enforcement, while harms targeting them often remain unaddressed.”

The report examined the policies governing terrorism, hate speech, and harassment and found that, overall, the content policies of the three major platforms appeared “imprecise and broad when applied against marginalized communities, yet narrowly drafted and interpreted when it concerns dominant groups.”

“We saw that oftentimes the private rules platforms created result in disparate treatment,” says Laura Hecht-Felella, a New York–based lawyer and a fellow at the Brennan Center. “Social media is a crucial place for public discourse because so much of how we communicate is online, and companies decide what stays up and what comes down.”

The report found that the automated moderation frequently fails to pick up the nuances of community dialogue, and communities of color and other marginalized groups are often censored as a result. “Our conclusion was that policies don’t fully incorporate power dynamics that are inherent in the way our society functions and, as a result, it doesn’t adequately protect marginalized communities,” Hecht-Felella says.

In addition, visual and textual memes and other tactics are used to avoid detection from automated content moderation tools (known as “malign creativity”), according to the Wilson Center for Science and Technology Innovation. The Center identified gendered and sexualized misinformation, such as deepfake pornographic photos, as a rising problem that needs to be defined separately from generic online abuse.

In the Classroom

While courts wrestle with gender bias, free speech, and online harassment, school dress codes are also having their day in court. Stringent dress codes and unequal enforcement of policies have resulted in protests by students and parents, with a charter school in Brunswick County, North Carolina, banning all manner of shorts and pants for girls.

Three female students sued, citing the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and Title IX. In a lengthy opinion, the U.S. district court held in Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc., 384 F. Supp. 3d 579 (E.D.N.C. 2019), that the school’s reasoning that the skirt mandate based on promoting “chivalry” and “traditional values” did not represent community norms, and that the uniform policy caused “girls to suffer a burden the boys did not, simply because they are female.” The ruling rejected the students’ Title IX claims. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that while the state was not subject to an equal protection claim, “claims of sex discrimination related to a dress code are not categorically excluded from Title IX’s scope.” 8 F.4th 251 (4th Cir. 2021).

The National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., investigated 12 schools in the District of Columbia and found that dress codes were unevenly enforced, and girls of color were more likely to be disciplined for wearing “revealing” or “tight” clothing.

Recently, parents and students in St. Johns County School District in Florida protested the sex-specific mandates in the dress code that prohibits clothes that “cling,” show a girl’s shape, or are too “revealing.” The school district is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for potential violation of federal statutes after photos of girls in the yearbook were photoshopped without consent to eliminate bare shoulders and cleavage. According to news reports, 83 percent of dress code violations were issued to girls.

“The major problem with all of the regimes is that it privileges boys’ comfort over girls’ comfort and suggests that boys are incapable of controlling themselves,” Sherwin says. Not only is the onus on girls to “cover up,” Sherwin observes, but the emotional stress of being “dress coded” and pulled out of a classroom detracts from girls’ education.

Discipline is often even harsher for students of color and LGBTQ students as school districts crack down on ethnic expressions and force students to dress according to their gender at birth.

“I do think that it is reflective of the idea that women’s bodies are a distraction,” says Sherwin, likening it to the mentality that women are a party in sexual assaults. Sherwin points to former Vice President Mike Pence’s rule that he never dines with a woman alone and the huge economic implication of such a practice in the corporate world. “This is protecting women out of opportunities,” Sherwin notes.

Whether in the classroom, on the field, or online, the double standards based on gender stereotypes have far-reaching implications. Chemaly points to the “pink ghetto” in technology where women like Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg become the public face of Facebook, yet the programmers and content developers are male. Many reports cite the lack of transparency in social media platforms’ user statistics that would delineate exactly who is being harassed. Meanwhile, the selective enforcement of “community standards” increases the likelihood that women’s voices are being silenced.

“Until their own management reflects a willingness to be introspective and more inclusive, it’s a failure,” Chemaly says. “Even in schools, where women teachers might dominate, the higher up the chain you go, the more men there are. It’s a deep cultural thing, and the U.S. is really reluctant to address its own misogyny and very profound separate sphere ideologies.”

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By Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.