A little less than two years ago, I started a project called Everyday Sexism, which invited people to share their daily experiences of gender imbalance. I started the project because when I tried to talk about sexism, I was told again and again that it wasn’t an issue any more – that women were equal and I needed to lighten up, and stop making a fuss about nothing.
Twenty three months later, over fifty thousand people from all over the world have proved those arguments wrong. They have demonstrated unequivocally that everyday sexism is a very real and serious problem, affecting the lives of women and girls, men and boys, often on a daily basis. The stories we received came from people of all ages, nationalities and walks of life.
We heard from a schoolgirl who was so young when she first experienced serious sexual harassment, that when the men who shouted at her referred to her genitalia, she didn’t even know what they meant. From a female engineer who was dismissed in the workplace as a “cute little girl”. A designer whose boss told her he would never employ an unattractive woman. A doctor who was told by a senior consultant to sit on his lap if she wanted his help interpreting an x-ray. A man who was ridiculed by his colleagues for wanting to share parental leave with his partner. A sixteen-year old girl who said it didn’t matter what she did with her life, whether she became a teacher or a doctor, because she felt that as a woman, she would only be a success if she was “sexy” and “hot”. A student who suffered groping from her lecturer in silence because she wanted to excel at programming. A child who experienced systematic abuse from a family member but was disbelieved when she tried to speak out. An elderly woman who carried the burden of her rape in silence for her whole life, because society had taught her it was her own fault.
The stories revealed that for many women sexism combines with other forms of prejudice, resulting in a kind of double discrimination. Like the disabled woman who was asked to do a pole dance around her walking stick; the transgender women who regularly suffered extreme abuse in public spaces; the woman who was told she was only hired so there would be a “sexy Asian in the office”; or the woman who described repeated, aggressive sexual advances from men offering to ‘turn her straight’ when she went out with her female partner.
What the testimonies reveal, again and again, is that these varied experiences of sexism, harassment, assault, discrimination and rape are not isolated incidents, but exist on an interconnected spectrum. The same ideas and attitudes about women that underlie the more “minor” incidents we are often told to brush off or ignore are also at the root of greater inequalities and incidences of sexual violence. For example, the same words and phrases used to a woman who was catcalled in the street were also directed at a victim of sexual assault. A woman who tried to ignore her harasser found that he followed her home and assaulted her on her own doorstep. Women trying to succeed in the male-dominated environment of politics have to contend with a media that objectifies them, reporting on their bodies and clothes instead of their policies.
The treatment of women in one sphere has a clear knock-on effect on behaviour towards them in other areas.
So, to reflect an inter-connected set of problems, we also need a joined-up solution. It won’t work to take measures to increase the representation of women at the top levels of business and politics unless we also challenge the media’s repeated presentation of women as dehumanised sex objects. It won’t work to tackle workplace discrimination, if the moment people step outside the office they exist in a public space where sexual harassment continues to be accepted as the norm. Our efforts to tackle gender imbalance will be more effective if they take into account the way that sexism intersects with other forms of prejudice.
This problem is like a mosaic, and no individual, organisation, or government can solve it alone. But the different solutions are as varied and diverse as the different manifestations of everyday sexism, and each one of us has it within our power to play a part in changing the landscape.
Individual governments can ensure that strong, clear legislation is in place to criminalise and penalise domestic and sexual violence and all forms of discrimination. But they can’t magically change the cultural normalisation of sexism. What we need is a major societal shift in our attitudes and behaviour towards women, so that political and legislative efforts translate into real impact on the ground.
Businesses can address sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the workplace with zero-tolerance approaches, staff training and victim-centred reporting processes. Schools and can educate young people about issues such as consent and healthy relationships and Universities must react decisively to incidents of sexual assault on campus. Families can address issues around sexual assault and respect for others with both boys and girls. Organisations can support this work by providing resources, materials and training.
And individuals have a vital role to play in helping to combat the normalised, socially ingrained sexism we all encounter on a regular basis. By shifting the way we perceive and treat women in our own sphere, we have a knock on impact on the way they are treated elsewhere.
Taking responsibility for this change falls to each one of us, whether it is a university student challenging “banter and jokes about rape on campus, a colleague taking a stand against workplace discrimination, or a bystander intervening when they witness sexual harassment in the street. Men who perhaps rarely witness sexism or harassment and are largely unaware of the problem because they would never dream of perpetrating it themselves can play a vital role in helping to combat it once they have been made aware. The focus should not be on dictating how victims should react in a given situation, but working to prevent the situation from arising in the first place.
Within this process the importance of listening to women’s voices is paramount. For centuries, women have been silenced – through ridicule, dismissal and fear. Countless Everyday Sexism Project entrants specified that this was the first time they had ever told their story. Many described trying to speak up, only to be told they were probably overreacting, or imagining things. Some had reported serious workplace harassment to a human resources department, only to be told to get on with it if they wanted to keep their jobs. Some spoke of hiding sexual abuse for the sake of family honour. Others had spent years finding the courage to speak out about rape, only to be asked “Had you been drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “Did you lead him on?”
Often it is women themselves who are best placed to direct useful action to combat gender inequality. Grassroots projects that put local ownership and knowledge at the centre of their initiatives can inform and support the work of bigger organisations. Although the entries we have collected from our 18 project branches around the world suggest that many experiences of gender inequality are universal, culture and context also mean that there are different unique challenges to overcome in different areas and at different times. What helps to combat the problem in one community will not necessarily work as a “one size fits all” solution. Listening to women’s voices is crucial in finding the way forward.
But this issue is not just about women. It is not a “women’s issue”. It is a matter of human rights. To describe sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence as “women’s issues” side-lines and reduces them, neglects male victims and lets perpetrators off the hook. One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. For many women, sexism and sexual harassment are simply an accepted part of everyday life. These are problems of epidemic proportions, yet they are often so normalised that they become part of the wallpaper. Tackling gender inequality is in everybody’s interest, and it must be everybody’s responsibility.
We can’t do it alone. Our voices are loudest when we raise them together.
Now watch “Shouting Back” by Dan Reed, a film about the work of Laura Bates and the Everyday Sexism project:
“Everyday Sexism...” by Laura Bates will be published by Simon & Schuster on 10 April