Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism Project, discusses Everyday Sexism at TEDxCoventGardenWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Laura Bates on Everyday Sexism at TEDxCoventGardenWomen
About 18 months ago, I had a really bad week. I was on my way home from work one night, and it was one of those hot evenings where the traffic was at a standstill. And as I walked down the road, and the cars crawled next to me, some guys started shouting out of their car windows about my legs, about the things that they’d like to do to me. And I ignored them, and I carried on home, and I got on with it, like you do.
And then a few nights later, I was on the way home, on the bus, quite late at night, and I was on the phone to my mom. And I thought, at first, that the guy next to me just accidentally brushed my leg with his hand. And I carried on talking to my mom.
And then I realized that actually, he was grabbing and groping my leg and moving his hand up towards my crotch. I stood up to move away from him, but because I was on the phone, I vocalized it, in a way that I don’t think I would have done otherwise.
So I said, “On the bus, this guy’s groping me.” And everybody on that bus looked out the window, or looked down at their feet, or looked at their phone. Certainly nobody stepped in, but more than that, there was a real sense of, “Why you’re making a fuss about this, woman? You know this is your issue, deal with it; don’t make us have to think about it.” And that immediately made me feel ashamed. It made me feel like maybe I’d done something wrong, or I shouldn’t have been out that late at night, or I shouldn’t have been wearing what I was wearing, and all of those thoughts that that reaction triggers.
And again, I carried on. I went home, I didn’t mention it. I got on with it, like you do.
And then a couple days later, I was walking down the street in broad daylight. There was a big truck that was being unloaded, scaffolding was coming off the back of it, and there were two guys working together. And as I walked past, one of them turned to the other and said, “Look at the tits on that.” Not “her,” “that.” And they started discussing me as if I wasn’t there, even though I was one meter away, and I could really clearly hear them.
So the thing that really hit me about these three incidents was if they hadn’t all happened in the same week, I never would have thought twice about any one of them. And I started asking myself why that was: Why was this so normal? Why was I so used to them? And I started thinking back about hundreds of incidents that had happened over the weeks and months and years that I’d never said anything about to anyone, because it was normal.
And I started talking to other women and asking — the women I knew, older women, younger women, women I met — saying, “Have you ever experienced anything like this?” And I honestly thought that one or two women would have a story. That one or two people would say, “Yes, a few years ago this thing happened,” or, “I once had a job where this happened.” But it wasn’t like that. It was every woman I spoke to. And it wasn’t a few years ago, this one incident. It was hundreds of things. “It was on my way here, this happened, yesterday this happened, most days this happens.”
But just like me, until I asked them, they’d never told those stories to anyone. Because they were used to it, because it was normal.
So I started trying to speak up about this, because I was kind of realizing there was this huge problem, and I started trying to talk about it, and again and again, I got the same response.
People said, “Stop making a fuss. Women are equal now, more or less.”
And if women are equal now, then to talk about sexism, to complain about sexism, must be overreacting. Or maybe you don’t have a sense of humor, or maybe you need to learn to take a compliment, or maybe you’re a bit frigid or uptight and you need to learn to take a joke.
And I thought, maybe they were right, maybe women are equal now, more or less; perhaps I was overreacting. So I thought I’d look into it, I’d interrogate that claim and I did. And these are some of the things that I found: Women are equal now, more or less. Except that in our Houses of Parliament, where the policies that affect all of us are debated and defined, less than one in four MPs is a woman. Women make up one fifth of the membership of the House of Lords. The UK comes joint 57th in the world for gender equality in Parliament.
And then I looked into the law, and I found that just four out of 35 Lord Justices of Appeal, and just 18 out of 108 High Court judges are women.
So I decided to look at the arts. And I found that it was reported in 2010, that out of 2,300 works, one of our most prestigious art institutions, the National Gallery, had paintings by just 10 women. I found that at the Royal Opera House, it’s been over 13 years since a female choreographer was commissioned to create a piece for the main stage. And that out of 573 listed statues up and down the UK commemorating people of interest, just 15% of them are of women.
I found that fewer than one in 10 of our engineers is female, less than half the proportion of France or Spain; that our Royal Society, one of our most prestigious scientific institutions, has never had a female president, and just 5% of the current fellowship are women. And that whilst women make up 50% of chemistry undergraduates, there’re only 6% six of professors. I found that women write only one fifth of front page newspaper articles, but 84% of those articles are dominated by male subjects or experts. That women directed just 5% of the 250 major films of 2011, and that only one in five UK architects is female, yet 63% of them report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace during the course of their career.
And then I looked into the crime statistics. Women are equal now, more or less. Except that in the UK over two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. There’s a phone call to the police every minute about domestic violence. Every six or seven minutes, a woman is raped, adding up to over 85,000 rapes and 400,000 sexual assaults every year.
In the UK, a woman has a one in four chance of becoming a victim of domestic violence, and then a one in five chance of being a victim of a sexual offense. And worldwide, one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.
So I decided that that argument that women were equal now and we shouldn’t be making a fuss, really didn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, it seemed to me that it really was time to make a fuss.
So I set up a simple website because I realized we couldn’t solve a problem if people refused even to acknowledge that it existed, and that what I really wanted people to have was that experience that I’d had of seeing these things kind of rolled out in front of them like a map, and realizing how much there was and how bad it still was.
So I set up a very simple website called “The Everyday Sexism Project,” and I asked women and men to add their experiences of gender imbalance on a daily basis; anything from the tiny niggling normalized things, all the way up the scale. And I didn’t have any funding or any way of publicizing it, so I thought that maybe 20 or 30 women would add their stories, and I hoped that it would build a sense of solidarity, and help to raise awareness.