Everyday Sexism and Girling Up our Kids

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”.

Laura Bates Everyday Sexism - Office Mum
Photo credit: taken at dlr Library Voices event by Ger Holland

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.

Girl Up - Office Mum

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.

Laura Bates Girl Up - Office Mum

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7 thoughts on “Everyday Sexism and Girling Up our Kids”

  1. I sent my children to a mixed school for this very reason. Growing up with family in the North who were catholic I used to hear my Dad constantly state that until they are all educated together nothing will change. I feel exactly the same about same sex schools.
    I hear friends speak of sexism who have sent their girls to girls only schools, because the statistics say they do better. I see my girls emerge from a community school with no doubt that they are equal in every way with the boys in their school.
    But as my eldest has one year left before becoming a teacher I wonder.. for teaching is sexism at it’s best. The number of male teachers is minimal yet they are by far the majority principals. (Shakes head)

    1. It’s funny – I did Cooperation North when I was in secondary school – we stayed with Church of England families in Belfast and students from there came down to stay with us. And I came away with the same opinion as your dad – surely if we were all educated together, the next generation would have nothing to argue about.
      On the single-sex school topic, it’s complicated – mine have ended up in a single-sex school, because we didn’t get a place in the mixed Educate Together school that’s right behind our house (they could literally have walked there without crossing a road!) We applied to 11 schools, and got one offer. We love the school, but yes, I don’t think single-sex schools are a natural state. Secondary will be the same – the only mixed school nearby is completely oversubscribed. So I’ll have to work on them at home.
      It would be fantastic though if someone like Laura Bates went around to the schools here too – I wonder who our Irish equivalent is – Louise O’Neill perhaps.

  2. I find it extremely surprising that you have never experienced sexism. Are you sure?? It’s not my experience of the world, and I am a couple of years behind you, age-wise.

    For a long time, I brushed off experiences I had as an individual’s particular failings/personality traits: “He’s just an ass.” etc.

    Truthfully, however, my experience is that sexism is strongly correlated with success – the more successful you are, the more nonsense to which you are subjected, by not-that-successful men, who would like to outrank you but simply don’t, based on outcomes/results…and who are therefore willing to stoop to play the but-you’re-a-woman-so-I-think-I-should-outrank-you card. Shameless. Very easy for someone to support you in theory, harder once you start succeeding. Objectively asses…but a not-uncommon experience.

    It is, after all, very easy to be supportive or encouraging of people you don’t perceive as a threat. Harder to cheer someone on, if you think they might overtake you, assuming you’re ungenerous in your world-view. Particularly, if there is a nice dollop of sexism thrown in there – trying to win, at all costs.

    1. That’s just it – I’m not sure – it may be that I experienced sexism and it didn’t register, because it seemed normal, as Laura Bates found when she set up the project. But having trawled through years of memories since the talk on Wednesday night, I still can’t think of a single moment.
      I think I was lucky though – I worked in the funds industry in the IFSC, in two different organisations, and both were very, very gender balanced. I managed teams that sometimes had more men and sometimes had more women but usually balanced out at about 50:50 over time. Management positions and senior management positions were the same – very gender balanced. So in any given meeting, there was a half-half mix of men and women, and gender just never came into it.
      It was truly a meritocracy and promotions were always based on ability, never on gender. There was no gender-based oneupmanship in meetings, though of course a bit of it did exist – from men and women alike.
      So for years I thought sexism just didn’t exist anymore – that it was something our predecessors had to put up with. It’s only since I started blogging and writing that I’ve realised how lucky I was in my two organisations. I wish I knew what created the culture we had so I could bottle it!
      I would guess your experience is unfortunately quite common – listening to others, and particularly listening to audience comments at the talk the other night. It’s very sad to think it’s still going on. I wonder how many generations it will take to change it.

  3. It’s frightening how much sexism is normalised by people who when pulled up on a comment would say they are not sexist, they fully support women doing what they wish and no longer being viewed as just a child producer.

    You have been very lucky to have bee part of companies which are so gender balanced, it’s still hard to come across companies like this. Where I work is part of the construction and maintenance industry so traditionally very male dominated with women filling admin positions in the office. Even today I have only seen one female engineer in out company in 9 years and she left because once she had a baby there was no flexibility in her working hours (early mornings, working late at last minute & call-outs over weekend & nights are a common part of the service engineers job) to allow for child care. Women are still expected to “mind” the men in here, I often feel like I leave my child at home and come in here to start minding 20 new children including reminding them to eat lunch and go home at the end of the day. It’s also expected at meetings that if there is a woman present that they will arrange the tea / coffee / refreshments regardless of whether there are less senior men present. I’ve seen female Finance Directors organising this while men who report to them sit and wait to be handed a drink.

    When I announced my last pregnancy I was asked straight up was when would I be returning from maternity leave and when I did return from leave after management failing to adequately cove my position when I was off I was told by the MD of the company not to have any more children as there was too big an impact on my department. This was on top of him announcing at a company meeting that my department had been “hit” by maternity leave (I am the only woman in my department) and so hadn’t performed as well as it could the previous year. I’ve heard of other women here being told that they should put off having any more children and focus on their careers while they still could, something I doubt any man here was told.

    This has turned into a bot of rant but I suppose my general thought on it is that I don’t want my children growing up to believe that getting the tea is women’s work and that men can do what they like when they like with no repercussions.

    I hope for a future where we teach men not to rape instead of teaching women how to not be raped.

  4. Oh my god, the tea-making point gave me the rage – that’s incredible. And what would happen if the women didn’t make the tea – would it just not get made? Would it be possible to just not do it do you think? I know these things are always easier to say from the outside.
    And again, I guess these things often depend on logistics as much a culture – where I worked, tea and coffee were left in the room by reception, and we all helped ourselves, so there was never a need for one person or another to take over.
    But the maternity leave bit – the comment about being hit by maternity leave, and oh my god, being told not to have any more kids – that’s horrendous. I don’t know how I’d react to a comment like that.
    You are clearly a strong and determined person, to be managing through all of that.

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