8 things it's never OK to ask a woman in public

If you’re one of those gents who’s unsure how to deal with the presence of pesky females ‘in the community’, worry not. We’ve put together this short guide on how not to act when you encounter a woman-type creature.

Women: they’re bloody everywhere these days, aren’t they? Seriously, it’s got to the point where you might even start believing that they amount to more than a minority. And it’s certainly got to the point where day-to-day interaction becomes inevitable. What’s a bigot to do?
If you’re one of those gents who’s unsure how to deal with the presence of pesky females ‘in the community’, worry not. We’ve put together this short guide on how not to act when you encounter a woman-type creature in some of those scenarios where contact becomes a real and terrifying possibility.

So, without further ado: here are eight things that it is never, ever OK to ask a woman in public.

1. “Shouldn’t you be at home with that baby?”

Sainsbury’s got in trouble for this recently, when one of their employees approached customer Sabina Latto, mother of six-week-old Myles, and told her that she “shouldn’t be out of the house with a baby this young” in “a place like this”. For those of us who believed that Sainsbury’s wasn’t the equivalent of a needle-strewn smack den populated mostly by rabid cannibalistic dogs, the concerned employees’ words may well have made us think again. Fortunately, however, it turns out that it wasn’t the particularly dangerous branch of Sainsbury’s that has the problem, but the particularly bigoted employee (a charming human being who then went on to question where the father was.) This incident is, of course, shockingly bad PR for the supermarket chain prized for bringing us the glory that is the Basics range. They issued a public apology, but we bet baby Myles’s mushed-up spag bol comes from Tesco now, and it’ll be a while before their cut-price cheese spread (tagline: ‘A little less cheesy, still spreads nice and easy’) loses its bitter taste in our mouths.

2. “Are you sure you want that glass of wine? You may have not noticed that you’re pregnant.”

When heavily pregnant Jane Hampson asked for a small red wine at a pub in Liverpool, the moralistic barman refused to serve her, saying that: he “couldn’t have it on [his] conscience”. The bar manager later apologised, saying that his young employee had believed it was illegal to serve alcohol to pregnant women (perhaps because they have an under-18 physically attached to them?) but nonetheless, the disgruntled recipient of his attempt at an intervention would have been perfectly within her rights to tell him where to get off.

Attitudes such as this have their logical roots in the assumption that, once a woman is pregnant, she becomes but a baby vessel incapable of independent thought. Rather than being able to make lucid, rational decisions about how to behave during her pregnancy and, y’know, life, the nation’s busybodies assume that her decision to go jogging/stay at work/eat sushi requires immediate intervention. Indeed, a pregnant jogger last year told how she was called a “selfish cow” while out running in the park. NOW CAN SHE SLEEP AT NIGHT? (Answer: she can’t, her bump is mahoosive.) Needless to say, there are also much darker incarnations of this logic out there – just consider the case of a pregnant woman in Wisconsin being jailed for admitting to having had a painkiller addiction in the past.

3. “Spit or swallow?”

FYI, Creepy Guy in Tiger Tiger When One of Us Was 18: this is never a polite question to whisper into a woman’s ear on the dancefloor, especially when it’s accompanied by the insertion of his tongue into said orifice a few seconds later. Likewise, it’s never OK to shout it out of a taxi at a girl in a short skirt, and then call her a slag when she refuses to answer. This also goes for:

4. “Wanna sit on my face, love?”

No, man in the white van on the Holloway road going at 80 mph, she really, really doesn’t. And zooming off like that before she gets a chance to respond is a coward’s way out. Look, we appreciate that it’s rare for a catcaller to put a woman’s pleasure first, but what kind of answer were you hoping for, really? “Why yes, kind sir, that sounds like a fabulous idea. Indeed, I was just on my way to my University Summer Ball, why don’t you accompany me afterwards so I can introduce you to all of my friends?” To you, it may seem like a generous offer of cunnilingus. To her, it’s creepy street harassment. We can’t believe we even need to explain this.

5. “Are you on your period or something?” and/or “Are you feeling hormonal?”

This question is particularly irritating when asked in the workplace, as though a woman’s frustration with a particular project has nothing to do with professional disagreement and everything to do with the fact that she’s about to shed her womb lining/is shedding her womb lining/just finished shedding her womb lining. Beware: if you accuse women of being wild uncontrollable harpies with wandering wombs, then they are perfectly within their rights to behave like them and answer your query through the medium of violence.

6. “Why don’t you put them away, love?”

This question is clearly rhetorical, so the answer, “Because they’re my tits, not yours” is unlikely to make much of an impact. The asking of this question is almost always accompanied by the kind of lecherous leer that makes Terry Richardson look like a member of the Beavers and implies that, actually, he doesn’t want you to put them away at all, but bury his drool-ridden chops in them.

7. “What’s your bra size?”

Unless this is a kindly Marks and Spencer sales assistant wielding a tape measure (in which case she knows whatever you respond is probably wrong anyway), this question is off-limits as far as strangers are concerned. Likewise, approaching a colleague and asking her if her tits have got bigger, or asking a woman what colour knickers she has on. Thankfully, since the decline of the landline, women have fewer heavy breathers to contend with (if you’re wondering what happened to all the finger-sniffing heavy breathers and flashers, the answer can be found in the dildo section of any Ann Summers in the country) but the knickers question remains a classic catcall for the kind of perverted loser whose only contact with ladies’ smalls has been delicately fingering the faux-satin thongs at Victoria’s Secret shortly before being ejected by security.

8. “What are you doing here?”

She may be a woman in a hardware store/at a scientists’ conference/in the MPs lift at the House of Commons, but just because she doesn’t look like your narrow idea of a plumber, politician or IT technician, doesn’t mean that she isn’t one. Similarly, asking if you can speak to her husband or partner because an explanation of the inner workings of the car’s engine is just going to be too much for her is not only completely unacceptable but makes you look like a complete caveman. If she’s there, then chances are she deserves to be, and she has the skills to prove it.

Sainsbury's is no place for women with babies, according to one unhelpful employee. Photo: Getty.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.