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.


Photograph: Getty Images
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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.