I’ve never personally experienced any sexism. Or at least not as far as I can remember, which may mean it has happened, and I’ve brushed it off as a normal, unremarkable, everyday thing. And that’s exactly the point Laura Bates was making when she set up The Everyday Sexism Project in 2012, a platform for women to talk about their experience of just that – everyday, casual sexism. The kind of comments and catcalls that women had started to accept as normal.
I’m guilty on occasion of underestimating the extent of a problem if it doesn’t affect me personally. I’ve never experienced a gender pay gap or gender discrimination at work, so it’s taken me a while to believe that gender quotas are necessary for example. And being honest, when I haven’t been a victim of discrimination, I don’t always like being told I’m a victim. But I have come to realise that kids and teens today are growing up in a world very, very different from the one in which I grew up, and that sadly, my own experience (or lack thereof) of sexism is not indicative of what’s ahead for my kids.
So when I heard Laura Bates would be in Dublin, speaking in the Pavillion Theatre Dun Laoghaire as part of DLR Voices, I wanted to go along – not just to hear her speak, but to find out, as a parent, what I can do to help my kids navigate this scary future.
Introduced by Sinead Gleeson, Bates explained why she set up Everyday Sexism and went on to talk about her visits to schools in the UK, where she speaks about sexism. She told us about the boys she meets – she said that at seven or eight, boys are open to anything and believe girls can do everything. But by 15 or 16, many are somehow hardened to the message, and make comments about “women asking for it” when rape is discussed. She talked about one school, where the boys wolf whistled in unison as she left. And another where she heard that “rape is a compliment” and “it’s not rape if she enjoys it”.
She told us about the girls she meets – the students who say they don’t experience sexism, but go on to admit that they’re often called “slut” and “slag” and groped on buses – they just didn’t see that as sexism because it has becomes so normal.
She talked about parents, disconnected from the online world, who can’t fully understand their children’s problems, and wonder why they don’t just delete their Instagram accounts if they don’t like the comments. But of course, switching off just isn’t a realistic option in today’s world, much as it seems the sensible thing to do.
She talked about politics, and why it’s still seen as a man’s game, and how men are perceived as leaders but women as ballbreakers – not helped by the media. She mentioned Hollywood, where successful business women are “usually played by Sandra Bullock, who has no time to meet a man until she literally collides with one and he melts her cold heart.”
She talked about social media, and the democratisation of speaking up and being heard about feminism, and the online abuse that women experience there.
She talked about statistics – like men applying for a job when they have 60% of the qualifications, whereas women wait until they have 100%. Or that when 30% of a room is female, men think it’s 50:50, and when it’s really 50:50, men think they’re outnumbered – because it’s just not the norm.
She quoted former UK NUS Women’s Officer Kelley Temple, who when asked “Should feminism make space for men?” replied “Men need to take the space they already have in society and make it feminist.”
Powerful stuff. But scary too, especially for anyone in the (entirely female) audience with kids.
But Bates pointed out that it’s not all scary – change is happening. There are women everywhere connecting and comparing and discussing and aligning. There is empowerment in realising that there are other people having the same experiences. So perhaps it’s that new world that our kids can grow up in. But I’ve realised that we can’t sit and wait and hope for that to happen – we need to start talking to them now. As Bates said, there are two things we can do. We can keep trying to stop it – to stop sexism in business and in politics and online and on the street. And we can give girls the tools to navigate.
Afterwards, I bought a copy of Bates’ book Girl Up, and stood in line to have her sign it. I chatted to a woman in the queue, who pointed out that it’s not about women building confidence so much as not losing the confidence they have as children. Food for thought.
I decided then that I’ll try my own Everyday Sexism project – I’ll try to say something every day to each of my three kids that will help deter the notion that sexism is OK or that girls can’t do every job boys can do. It seems to me that just not being sexist myself isn’t enough – I need to proactively talk about this with them. Influences are coming from places far beyond our own four walls, and the world is very different to the one in which I grew up – wearing Docs and paisley shirts to Wesley, and talking to people in real life – trends come and go, but the online world isn’t going away anytime soon.
When it was my turn to get my book signed, I asked for it to be dedicated to my three kids. They’re too young to read it now, but I’ll give it to them when they’re older. Or maybe everything will be fixed, and I won’t have to.