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6 September 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:39pm

I decided to start walking down the street like a man. Spoiler: it didn’t go well

The man stared in amazement as if I’d appeared in a puff of smoke. Then, it came: “F***ing b**ch, why aren’t you f***ing watching where you’re f***ing going?!”

By Rachel Hewitt

Have you ever found yourself executing a balletic dodge, to skirt around an oncoming pedestrian and avoid a collision? If so, the statistical likelihood is that you are female and your potential adversary is male.

A couple of years ago, I found my feet skating out from underneath me as I hit a puddle whilst darting around an advancing male pedestrian. As I crashed to the floor, he didn’t even look behind him. For me, this was a lightbulb moment. Whilst walking through busy thoroughfares – pavements, tube stations, bottlenecks in shopping centres – I had prided myself on my ability to deftly scan the moving crowd and pick a way through, slaloming around other pedestrians. But, down on the floor, I realised: the man who had just bombed past me was doing no such thing. He was simply pursuing his course, powering forward in a straight line. He and I were finding our paths through public space in very different ways indeed.

So I decided: I would carry out a small experiment. For a month, I would try to counteract my learned tendency to duck and dodge and dart and shuffle around other people. Instead, I would emulate the focus, confidence and power of that white male pedestrian. In the face of collision, I would hold my course.

It did not start well. Within minutes of entering the British Library, a man came racing down the stairs directly towards me. I braced myself and continued climbing. He skidded to a halt one step above me, and stared in surprise. I stopped and met his look. We stood face-to-face for a good 15 seconds, until he slowly side-stepped and I continued to the top of the staircase. Later that day, as I was walking through Kings Cross, a large white man in a blue suit came barrelling forwards, precisely in my line of travel. I winced in anticipation. And he did it, slamming straight into me, staring in amazement as if I’d appeared that moment in a puff of smoke. Then, it came: “Fucking bitch, why aren’t you fucking watching where you’re fucking going?!”

The pattern continued for the rest of the month. In that time, I had only one collision with a female pedestrian, and around two or three per day with men. I was on the receiving end of full body slams, biceps smashed into shoulders, painful brushes against sharp elbows, fractional near-misses, static stand-offs, coffee cups upturned over my coat, mobile phones pitched to the ground, groups of men refusing to part, looks of confusion, bemusement, and anger, a few muttered apologies, a few more stunned silences, and a lot of swearing. It was exhausting. A few times, I capitulated at the last minute. And to be honest, I was semi-relieved when the month was over.

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In the 1970s, experimental social psychologists became interested in the same question: did male and female pedestrians exhibit different behaviour in urban spaces? And their conclusion was a resounding “yes”. Social psychologist James McBride Dabbs Jr was involved in numerous studies that found that women spend more time scanning pavements for obstacles than men (it has been suggested that this is partly because women try to avoid meeting men’s gazes, possibly in fear of provoking intimidating responses). It was observed that women are more obedient to guidelines governing pedestrian behaviour, and that only 10 per cent (compared to 23 per cent of males) would stray outside of painted boundaries of crossings.

Psychologists became interested in “interpersonal distances” – the space that we grant one another as we move around – and it was observed that male pedestrians were given a wider berth by both male and female passers-by, than women. At traffic lights, female pedestrians were seen to be much quicker to move out of the way of men arriving beside them, than vice versa. And men waiting at bus stops were given more space by both female and male pedestrians. Further research showed that men walk faster, and with more power, than women; that men are more likely to pursue their course despite threatened collisions; and that men’s motion is less circuitous, less likely to be perturbed” by other people or vehicles than women’s.

Admittedly, there were problems with the 1970s experiments. For example, two (male) researchers attempted to measure if passers-by responded differently to “physically attractive or unattractive female” pedestrians. Beauty is far from an objective standard for such measurements, and the experimenters’ attempts at defining their terms did not get much further than making a female researcher pull her hair back to make it less attractive”. And, of course, these experiments were conducted 40-odd years ago. City spaces and patterns of human conduct are all subject to change, and to cultural variation. And the advent of mobile phones has had a particularly pronounced effect on walkers’ behaviour.

Nevertheless, more recent studies show significant continuity from the earlier studies’ findings: the interpersonal behaviour of pedestrians (predominantly observed in US cities) does not seem to have changed dramatically since the 1970s. In the USA in 2002, 70 per cent of pedestrian fatalities were male, and a 2013 study showed the death-rate for pedestrians continued to be around 2.3 times higher for men than women (despite the fact that both sexes walked, on average, similar distances per year). The authors speculate that men are more likely to walk into traffic while reading their phones. A 2009 study also observed that male pedestrians are almost twice as likely to cross roads on a red pedestrian light than women, supporting earlier researchers’ conclusions that male walkers engage in more over-confident risk-taking behaviour, and hold their course even in the face of dangerous obstacles.

Research into interpersonal distances in the last 30 years has frequently concentrated on groups. Members of all-male groups have repeatedly been seen to preserve greater distances between themselves than in all-female groups, and some interpreters hypothesise that this is because women are more affiliative than men, either through natural inclination or socialisation. But the effect of such alleged allergy to intimacy among men is that all-male groups take up more space on the pavement than groups of women, and a 2009 study confirmed that such male groups tend to be more scattered. It’s also been observed in the past that “high status groups (eg. groups of men) are less likely to be permeated – walked through – than groups of women, who are more vulnerable to having their boundaries breached. And crowding remains an issue: men are still more likely to invade the personal space of women waiting at ATM machines, than vice versa.

So the research confirmed the anecdotal experience I’d gleaned during my month’s experiment: men walk around cities with more force and speed, and are less likely to be diverted from their direct course, despite the risk of even fatal collisions. They are granted more personal space, whether standing still or walking, and they take up more space in groups. Men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour, and they are more likely to crowd static female pedestrians, and to plough through the middle of female groups. In contrast, the personal space granted to women is smaller and more vulnerable to penetration or breach. Women have longer waiting times for traffic to stop at pedestrian crossings, in which time they’re more likely to be crowded by other men and resort to evasive action. Women spend more time “scanning” the pavement ahead to avoid collisions, and their course of motion is more circuitous and prone to disruption by oncoming pedestrians.

In 1975, James Dabbs concluded that “social power is the ability to move others, spatially or otherwise”. Everything about male pedestrians’ patterns of behaviour expresses the dominance and power typical of “high-status groups” (and it would be interesting to examine the research into differences in pedestrian behaviour according to other intersecting axes of power, such as race and dis/ability). Through an act as simple as walking, men stamp their power onto public space.

All this will come as no surprise to women. We are painfully used to feeling like interlopers in public spaces. When I’m not being barged by male pedestrians, it’s rare that a week goes by when I’m not cat-called, jeered, or even chased by men, while out for a run. It’s easy for women to lose consciousness of how our walking patterns have been shaped in reaction to male power; how we’ve been coerced into adopting submissive, meandering, and powerless pedestrian behaviour. But pavements and streets are political spaces: that’s why marches, protests, and sit-ins, which deliberately disrupt pedestrian flow or reclaim the streets, are so highly charged and effective.

Pavements see the unequal power between men and women played out on a daily basis. I’m not suggesting that this is the next feminist frontier. But walking has the potential to be a pleasurable, life-affirming activity – or at the least, a convenient way to reach a destination – and for too many women it’s instead shaped by fear, intimidation, exhaustion, and powerlessness.

So, men: literally, give over. Look around you, put your phones away, let us pass as we allow you to do, be prepared to walk around us, respect our personal space, don’t crowd us, don’t plough through our groups, don’t take up the whole pavement, and stop jumping red lights. It might even save your life.

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