Mind the data gap: why do so few women report sexual harassment on the London Underground?

Women account for the majority of public transport journeys in the capital, but men are more likely to report when they have been victims of crime.

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A few years ago, Liv Wasson was taking the London Underground home from work. As she sat in a quiet carriage she could feel someone staring at her. Looking up, she realised there was a man sitting across from her. Even when she met his gaze, he wouldn’t stop staring. Eventually, he moved to sit next to her, maintaining his stare. “I felt so helpless because, well, I don't want to report it to the police because nothing happened. And if you do go to report it, they immediately ask you, is it severe?” said Liv.

In a survey carried out by Transport for London, 90 per cent of women harassed on transport never report it, while only one sexual offence is reported for every two million passenger journeys. “Anecdotally, the majority of women will tell me they have been harassed on the Tube, but according to police data, this isn’t true. How can that be?” said Liv.

In London, women account for the majority of public transport journeys (though they are are more likely to take the bus than the Tube). Women are the demographic most likely to work in jobs such as cleaning or nursing, which involve antisocial hours and therefore night-time travel, and are also less likely than men to own a car. Yet according to official police statistics, men are more likely to be victims of crime when taking public transport. “We saw that figure and thought, there’s something missing here,” said Liv.

In February 2020, Liv, 24, and her best friend Caitlin Sim, 25, set out to close this information gap. The pair, originally from Belfast, co-founded Visible. Inspired by the work of the feminist campaigner and author Caroline Criado Perez, the new platform aims to make it easy for women to report harassment on the Tube in order to close the gap in missing police statistics. Eventually, the platform hopes to acquire enough data to understand when and where women fall victim to harassment.

The platform focuses on age, gender, race, and location for each incident. “I don't think there's any service that is really measuring who the incidents are happening to on a demographic base,” said Liv. “We're really trying to make sex disaggregating the data an easy thing to do. We want to see trends and then work from there.

“When we have enough information, we want to, potentially, work with the government or police to share trends that we have found. Like, 'Look, at 10am on the Central Line, someone has always been harassed,' for example,” said Caitlin.

[See also: How the world was built for men]

A survey conducted by Visible found that 76 per cent of women believe there is no point reporting harassment on the Tube, despite 41 per cent saying they have made a change to their clothing, their commutes, or the times they travel due to harassment. Through focus groups, Visible found that a majority of women offered information about what they were wearing when harassed, even if they were asked not to.

“There's this grey area for how women see certain types of harassment. They blame themselves or say it wasn't bad enough, it wasn't severe enough. This is just one of the things you put up with as a woman living in a busy city. We want to stop these micro-aggressions being normalised to a point where you just kind of have to get used to it, or you learn not to make eye contact,” said Liv.

Liv recalled an incident that happened to a close friend. “She was followed off the Tube and chased up the escalators, but she didn’t think it was bad because nothing serious happened. Harassment on public transport has happened to a lot of women and we do mental gymnastics trying to tell ourselves it isn’t a big deal.”

Current mechanisms for reporting harassment on public transport are limited. TfL launched its Report It Stop It campaign in 2014, encouraging travellers to report their experiences of harassment, but Visible says the system is outdated. “To report an incident, you have to text. This doesn’t make sense if you are on the Tube with no service,” said Liv.

“One of our biggest practical goals is taking the burden off women, so they don’t have to wait until they’re above the ground to be able to report this thing," she continued. "When you feel the most vulnerable we want you to be able to report it, as soon as you go through it. I think that really puts the power back in our hands.”

“We don’t report harassment because we feel stupid, like we are making a big deal out of nothing. At least they didn’t touch us or at least they didn’t hurt us,” Caitlin added. “We wanted to make something that takes the burden off women. Something that is easy, gives closure and shows it's recorded.”

So far, the platform has received reports from women of every age group. Even during the pandemic, while the Tube service ran a reduced service, women were still reporting incidents of harassment to the platform.

“Even with all these restrictions, even though people are having to stand two metres apart and wear masks, women are still being cat-called and grabbed,” said Caitlin.

“We want people to know that they have been counted, that women are contributing to something bigger. We want women to report everything, no matter how small, no matter how large.”

[See also: Jonn Elledge on why the Conservatives should not blame the TfL crisis on Sadiq Khan]

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor. 

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