I was on my way to work last week prepping for my interview with British feminist author Laura Bates about her book Everyday Sexism when a man told me to smile. A few minutes later -- still not smiling -- it was raining, and I tweeted about my wardrobe confusion. A middle-aged father responded, suggesting that I consider "wearing nothing."
Ironically, it's these tiny "pinpricks" as Bates calls them, that the U.S. edition of her book (and the Everyday Sexism Project which inspired it) is intended to bring awareness to -- and ultimately combat.
Bates launched the Everyday Sexism Project in 2012 after a sh*tty week where she had "several terrible experiences in a really short period of time," from street harassment to groping to being followed home by a man. The common thread? They all felt violating, but a kind of "normal" part of womanhood. She began speaking with other women and decided to create a platform where these sort of experiences could be shared.
Four years later, the project exists on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and on the Everyday Sexism website. More than 100,000 women have used the platform to share their stories of gender-based discrimination. The anecdotes include tales of street harassment, sexist dress codes and subtle workplace digs, and also darker stories of sexual violence, stalking and overt discrimination.
All of the stories illustrate the small and large ways deep-seated, structural sexism plays out in women's lives.
Bates had a lot to say about why both women and men should care deeply about these issues, and what we can do -- on a legislative, institutional and individual level -- to combat everyday sexism.
What made you start the Everyday Sexism project?
The spark was a really terrible week. I was followed home by a man aggressively sexually propositioning me and refusing to take no for an answer, I was groped on the bus by a man, and when I said out loud what was happening everyone else looked away and no one stepped in or said anything, and then I was shouted at by two men in the street as I walked past them commenting on my breasts. At the end of this week it struck me -- if these experiences hadn’t all happened in the same week, I never would’ve thought twice about any one of them, because it was normal. It was just part of being a woman.
And that was a real eye-opener for me, that moment of realizing -- that’s just what it is to be a woman in the 21st century. So I started talking to other women and girls and asking, "Have you ever experienced anything like this?" And I was absolutely blown away by the sheer number of stories. It was every woman I spoke to.
That was a real eye-opener for me -- that moment of realizing, that’s just what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
When I tried to talk about it, I found myself being shut down. People said, "No, sexism doesn't exist anymore, women are equal now." So I started Everyday Sexism because I wanted to bridge that gap between the idea that gender equality has been achieved, and the reality of what women and girls are still putting up with as “normal.”
How do you define everyday sexism?
Sexism is treating somebody differently or discriminating against them because of their sex. And I used the term "everyday" partly because I wanted to point out that this is something that impacts women and girls on every level, whether it’s street harassment, workplace harassment or sexual violence. It is so regular and such a normal occurrence, that there’s a lot of sexism that has become normalized.
As you said, it’s very easy to brush off each individual incident. Why should people care about seemingly small instances of sexism?
One thing the project has shown really clearly is the connection between the "minor" things and the more serious abuses. We’re often told not to make a fuss about street harassment or that we’re getting upset about nothing if we talk about media sexism, but you can see from the stories we receive that these things have a [domino] effect. So, for example, the same words and phrases that might be used against a woman in the street are used against a woman in the workplace or against a victim of domestic abuse. We can also see how incidents can escalate. If a woman rejects or ignores a street harasser, she might find that he becomes angry and sexually assaults her or follows her home.
I don’t think it’s realistic to compartmentalize these things, to say it’s OK to treat women as second-class citizens in one arena, or it’s OK to see women’s bodies as pieces of meat in public spaces, but you have to treat them equally in the workplace. I don’t think it works that way. When you normalize these everyday pinpricks, they create an environment that makes the more serious incidents possible. In the U.S., where three women per day are killed by a current or former [male] partner, I think it’s acceptable to challenge discourse that is suggesting women are inferior to men.
What role does intersectionality play in the way everyday sexism impacts different women?
It’s absolutely huge. From really early on we were receiving entries from people who were experiencing sexism, but they were also experiencing another form of prejudice. You can’t compartmentalize these things, because that’s not how women experience them. Women don't go out of the house one day and experience homophobia or racism, and on another day experience sexism.
We would hear from a disabled woman who was asked to do a pole dance with her walking stick. Or we would hear from a woman who was walking with her female partner and was chased down the street by men asking if they could join in or videotape them. Or from a black woman who was told by a man at a job interview about his fantasies of sleeping with "spicy" and "exotic" black women.
When you normalize these everyday pinpricks, they create an environment that makes the more serious incidents possible.
Those women’s lived experiences are the perfect illustration of why intersectionality is so important in the way we begin to tackle the problem. It doesn’t work to tackle the gender pay gap if you don’t work into your strategy the fact that women of color make so much less than white women. It doesn’t work to try to legislate against domestic violence if you don’t have something within that plan that addresses that disabled women experience domestic violence at twice the rate of non-disabled women.
How does everyday sexism play out at work, specifically?
If you look at the over 100,000 entries we’ve received, the single most common category of entry we receive is from women in the workplace. The workplace is also the area in which people are most likely to refuse to believe that this is happening. In the workplace particularly, there’s a culture of dismissal, disbelief, and silencing, and of women feeling unable to come forward because of economic insecurity. They’re worried about losing their job or being demoted or pushed sideways. And obviously this is an intersectional area. This is something that disproportionately impacts low-paid workers and those with jobs that don’t have security, and who are also disproportionately likely to be single moms and/or women of color.
Everyday sexism in the workplace starts right at the point of interview, with women being asked about their childcare or family plans. It includes sexual harassment, everything from female colleagues’ faces being photoshopped onto porn pictures and being sent around the office, to women being asked inappropriate questions about their sex lives. And then discrimination which might be very subtle, like women always being asked to take notes in meetings or someone making the assumption that a woman is junior to her male colleague, or it might be overt, like a woman being told she won’t be considered for a promotion because she’s considered a maternity risk. (Maternity in itself is a whole area of enormous discrimination.) In the most extreme cases, we’ve also gotten a number of entries from women who have experienced sexual violence in the workplace.
Another thing we hear a lot about is women who go to an HR department or report something to their manager -- which of course, not everyone has recourse to do -- and get responses like, “As a woman in science, do you really want this on your record” or if the CEO is an older man, “Of course he harassed you, what did you expect?”
What has the reaction to the project been like from men?
It’s been very mixed. There has been a huge amount of support from men. A huge amount of men writing to say it shocked them, it’s opened their eyes, they want to be a part of the solution -- especially fathers. There have been a lot of men who say they have been galvanized to join the fight.
I don’t think it’s contradictory to say that this is something that affects men and matters to men, and also say this is something that mainly impacts women.
Unfortunately, there are a small minority of men who have responded with aggression. I receive hundreds of rape threats and death threats from men who are so scared by the idea of talking about equality because of this misconception that talking about women’s rights must mean wanting to take something away from men. The only way they know how to respond is to try to silence you, which is ironic because they do that in incredibly misogynistic ways. I will get messages that say things like “There’s no such thing as sexism, you stupid bitch.”
Toward the end of the book, you have a chapter dedicated to men. How do you think everyday sexism impacts them?
It impacts them hugely. We hear from girls who are being bullied and taunted at school and told they can’t play football, and boys of the same age being ridiculed because they want to take dance and it’s considered too girly. Or we’ll hear from a man in the workplace who has asked for parental leave and been denied it, and in the same week from a woman who has been denied a promotion because she’s considered a maternity risk. These are the same outdated gender stereotypes having a negative impact on people regardless of sex. If you look at the fact that the male suicide rate is far higher than it is for women, that’s a classic example. Because the idea is that men are tough, big boys don’t cry, men don’t talk about their feelings. The flip side of that is that women are emotional, women are hysterical, women are hormonal. And I think men not feeling able to talk about their feelings has a major impact on whether they’re going to reach out for help.
Sexism is in everybody’s interests to try to solve. But sometimes when you talk about that, people say, “Oh well if it’s about equality and it affects men as well, why don’t you call it Equalism, why don’t you call it Humanism?” We need to name the problem to solve the problem. And the “fem” part is in there because it is women who disproportionately face structural and systemic oppression based on sex. It is women who bear the brunt of sexual violence, and have throughout history. I don’t think it’s contradictory to say that this is something that affects men and matters to men, and also say this is something that mainly impacts women.
So how can we combat everyday sexism productively?
We need to tackle this at all different levels. We can be calling on the government to legislate in ways that would be beneficial for women. For example, legislation around maternity pay -- the United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. And then at the organizational level, there’s a huge amount companies can do around shared parental leave and flexible working hours, as well as tackling the gender pay gap. And then I think there is an institutional level, where colleges and universities need to be doing more to tackle things like sexual violence on campus.
At some point, each of us has a moment where we have the opportunity to shift what’s normal.
Then there’s also a whole individual level to this. I think perhaps that individual attitudes towards women is where we need to see the biggest shift. Because we know that legislative change is important, but that it doesn’t always trickle down. We know that sex discrimination is illegal in the workplace, but we also know that women are experiencing it. And I think that’s scary and frustrating, because it’s not an easy or simple fix. But it’s something that all of us can contribute to in small ways within our own sphere, because let’s face it: This stuff is widespread. We will all have a moment where we hear something discriminatory being said at the office, or we see someone being harassed, or we hear a friend making a sexist joke or calling a woman a slut, or we might have children and have to decide how we’re going to talk to our boys as well as our girls about sexual consent.
At some point, each of us has a moment where we have the opportunity to shift what’s normal. And it has to be about all of us taking that responsibility if we want to see a real cultural change.
This interview has been edited and condensed.