That's what she said: the experiences of women in "lad culture"

We have all been complicit in this everyday sexism, and now it's time we all changed.


When I was a student at University of Strathclyde, I studied politics. I was actually told by one man that “women don't do politics”. In a separate instance it was expressed to me that women students who dress in a low cut T-shirt are “just asking to be raped”, and should take responsibility for that.  My eyes were firmly opened to the worrying level of sexism that women in education have to deal with.  I think it probably spurred me on to where I am today. Last year I was elected the Women’s Officer for National Union of Students.

Today NUS is releasing new research -  That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of lad culture in higher education . I’d like to use this blog to allow some of the women who were brave enough to take part in the research to speak. By this I mean I would like to impart to you some of the examples used to illustrate the stories shared and the genuinely upsetting experiences of women respondents who took part from all over England and Scotland.

Interviewee 10:

I think that’s the misconception, that they’re these rough lads from rough backgrounds who have no respect for women, well they’re not, they’re everywhere, they’re in all parts of the country.

Participant I:

In lots of tutorials I’ve had lots of banter… I do Politics and History and within that there tends to be a slight focus on feminist theory at some point. It’s always the time when the lad comes out. It’s just like shit jokes and stuff like that. For example, if you try to make an announcement in [a lecture], everyone will immediately start shouting stuff… Something along the lines of being a ‘shit feminist’ or something. That kind of ‘another one of those man haters’.

Participant G:

We got them all to line up on the floor on their hands and knees and they just got pelted with eggs, flour, oil, water, washing up liquid, silly string, squirty cream by all the older girls, the girls who were second and third year. We made them do bobbing for apples in a thing of baked beans, cat food, Worcester sauce, chilli powder. It was revolting, it was really, really, disgusting and I felt so uncomfortable but there’s is nothing I could really do about it because they had done things last year that I voiced opposition to and it didn’t make a difference.

Participant P:

In first year there were definitely club nights which were advertising this image of slutty girls… trying to have this image of girls who are going to put out whatever, using them as bait for the guys to come.

Participant I:

I was on a bus once… there’s a lot of buses in [my city] with a lot of lads… they started making quite horrific rape jokes and [there were] quite a lot of individual women on the bus and you could see that everyone on the bus was really uncomfortable with this as you would hope most people would be. They could kind of sense it, but they were like ‘wahaay blah blah!’ like firing them off. And someone made a particularly horrible one… and there was kind of like a mood change and one of the guys was like, ‘Don’t worry ladies none of us have been convicted yet!’ and… [it was] like ‘you guys just can’t take the banter.’ And it’s not banter, it’s people’s real lives.

Interviewee 8:

[Laddish behaviour] generally makes me not want to go certain places, [or] talk to lads I’m friends with on their own.

Do any of these stories sound familiar? I think that they resonate with most students, men and women. In 2010 NUS published the “Hidden Marks ” report which produced the staggering statistic that 68 per cent of respondents had been the victim of one or more kinds of sexual harassment on campus during their time as a student.  That’s What She Said builds on this revelation with an exploration of the depth of feeling surrounding the phenomenon of “lad culture” and how this can facilitate negative student experiences.

It was really hard to read the research if I’m honest. It’s difficult to comprehend that in a society where women have fought so hard, and advanced so far that we are still subject to ridicule in areas that are deemed progressive such as university life. But what’s particularly stomach churning for me is that most of this ridicule is filed under ‘banter’ and if you’re questioning it you are somehow devoid of a sense of humour.

Now it’s time to stand up and take responsibility, collectively across the higher education sector, across the women’s movement and accept that nobody will change this but us. To this end I am proud to have yesterday sent a letter to Jo Swinson urging her to convene a summit of relevant organisations to tackle the problems which have been identified.

The Everyday Sexism Project, Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), Universities UK (UUK), support our call for a summit to address the problems identified by the report. British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) have also committed to participation and it is our intention to enlist as much support as possible throughout the women’s movement and organisations which are relevant to the higher education experience until action is taken.

It’s time to realise that we have all been complicit, all played a part in acceptance, and we must now all play a part in change.


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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood