What is the Everyday Sexism Project?

On 18 July, I received two emails that broke my heart and strengthened my resolve. The first described the daily existence of a teenage girl who, for largely religious reasons, chose to dress modestly, believing that beauty is as important inside as out. No big deal right? Wrong. As a result, she said:

I’ve had people call me hideous, mock me for expressing feelings towards the opposite sex, and outright laugh in my face for believing I could somehow be beautiful and value myself on the inside as well as outside. People judge me on my image and I have missed many opportunities for new connections because of it. Just because I am a woman my image is treated as the only thing that should define me and that should matter. This is the concept of sexism that haunts me in everyday life and I despise it.

Fight Sexism.jpgThe second email was from a woman who shared a similar experience – she too had discovered that failing to conform to the increasingly narrow ‘idealised’ female image dictated by the media and magazines resulted in stigma, social exclusion and missed opportunities. She said she had “unusual hair and tattoos”, and described her daily experiences in an office environment:

I find myself ignored, shunted out of conversations, passed over and generally made to feel unwelcome, even though I have earned my right to be there. Even though I have to apply myself twice as hard for half the respect…

I feel that my gender would be ‘manageable’ for others without having to contend with my appearance and vice versa. If I was a man with crazy hair and tattoos, that’s just eccentric or artistic but for a woman, it’s seen as somehow unfeminine and unseemly, too much of an ideological challenge.

She went on to describe her frustration that it was social acceptable to treat her like this, an account that, by now, I found achingly familiar:

So I feel unsupported, beleaguered and just terribly depressed by the whole situation. At no point have I been judged according to my work or my personality. This should, by professional standards, be deemed unacceptable yet it continues… I don’t feel like I can… break the ‘clique’ or find any level of respect.

But I’ve worked too bloody hard to give up now so I have to find some plateau either ignoring it or challenging it…the latter would mean some level of fallout and that is not something I relish.

But it didn’t end there. This writer, who identified herself only by the pseudonym ‘Story’, went on to share more. She described an experience of sexual assault at a previous job, which was “brushed under the carpet” by employers who neither took her allegations seriously nor supported her after the experience.

The stories I have collected reveal that sexism is endemic – socially, professionally and publicly

These emails echo hundreds of others I have received since I launched the Everyday Sexism Project just over three months ago to collect women’s experiences of day-to-day gender inequality. The aim of the project was to disprove those who say that sexism is no longer a problem, that equality has been achieved, and that women speaking out about sexism are overreacting, being uptight or humourless. I aim to prove that the scale of the problem is much greater than many people think, and that sexism is a serious issue that needs to be tackled.

Three months, tens of thousands of visitors and over 2,000 stories later, women from all over the world have raised their voices to expose a problem that exists, ingrained and often ignored, at almost every level of society and in almost every sphere of our daily experiences.

The two stories I received that day threw into sharp relief two extremes of responses – those that described the relatively ‘small’, everyday incidents that gradually grind women down – the daily expectation to conform to media ideals of appearance, or the constant, confidence-sucking suggestion that attractiveness is a woman’s sole value – and those that described severe individual experiences of assault, attack and rape. Increasingly, as the stories have flooded in, I can see a connection emerging between the two.

The stories I have collected reveal that sexism is endemic – socially, professionally and publicly – with stories ranging from abusive comments about maternity leave, driving ability and ‘macho’ sportswomen, to horrific accounts of victim-blaming and physical assault. With the entries all in one place, it’s very easy to draw correlations and connections between these experiences, and it becomes impossible to separate the atmosphere created by the more ‘minor’ instances from those that escalate towards sexual violence and domestic assault.

Ash campaign.jpgA huge number of stories recount sexual harassment in public places, from descriptions of public masturbation and tube carriage groping to breast and crotch grabbing and constant, ever-present catcalls. One account explained: “It makes me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, and takes away the feeling that I am in control of my body.” Another explained how predatory street harassment can feel: “Your eyes, your eyes; they follow me like wolves, everywhere.” It becomes less and less difficult to imagine how the disrespect and devaluation of women that is caused by such treatment (and its normalised acceptance in public on our streets) might be related to escalated versions of the same sentiment, in the form of sexual assault and domestic violence. Even the language echoes this deeply disturbing connection, hovering hauntingly between objectification and attack as one entry explains: “‘You alright dahlin’ quickly turned to ‘you’re a bitch. Why do you gotta be like that? Come on.'”

Accounts of workplace sexism are also devastatingly abundant. One DJ explained that the level of harassment, groping and sexist insults she faces at every gig make her feel “powerless, small and humiliated and it makes me dread the work that I once loved”.

Meanwhile, a sales assistant described how “if you worked in the ground floor department and you didn’t wear heels or you didn’t put enough make up on, they’d either send you home, give you a minor warning, or send you to work on a different floor.”

Several city workers described their exclusion from client meetings held in strip clubs and recounted outright abusive misogynistic comments. Others wrote to explain how difficult it was to challenge the sexist atmosphere: “Reporting things like this simply isn’t done if you want to go far within the firm. Not only that but it is so normal – people are used to it and they just get on with it. It is completely mirrored across city firms of friends and co-workers I know of.”

The overwhelming message is that speaking out against sexism in society results in a painful and damaging backlash

Objectification of women is another common negative experience, with women drawing attention to the sexist coverage of female politicians, Olympians and other women in the public eye. These media-driven ideals translate into real-life experiences too, with one writer explaining: “As a fat woman, the messages that are sent to us everyday are that people who are attracted to us are fetishists, and that we should be grateful for any attention we do get – even rape.” One account, describing the omnipresence of media images of thin, flawless women and the struggle to deal with unwanted harassment and insults from men, asked: “Is there something wrong with me? Am I less of a person than a man is? Less of a human being? That is how I am made to feel every day.”

From students who had to sit mutely through tutorials with professors who wore black armbands to mark the day women were admitted to the college, to bar staff being forced to dress in baggy clothes to avoid unwanted attention, the overwhelming message is that speaking out against sexism in society results in a painful and damaging backlash, forcing women to find their own coping mechanisms instead. One shop assistant recalled: “Every time I went up a ladder in the stockroom… [my manager would] smack my rear end. I needed the job, so I didn’t say anything for a very long time.” The many stories that describe how “alright darling” turned to “slut” or “fucking bitch” when women dared to react against harassment, prove that many forms of sexism are so normalised that just speaking out against them is often stigmatised.

This backlash, and the overpowering strength of the message that women should shut up and put up; that we have to deal with this because it’s the way it is and we shouldn’t be rocking the boat; that there is no recourse to public protest in a public sphere that fails to accept the existence of the problem, is vividly familiar to me.

The decision to launch the Everyday Sexism Project was a slow culmination of hundreds of small, normalised experiences, of the slow and painful realisation that society valued me differently and treated me differently on the basis of my gender.

I set out, not to solve the problem outright, but to prove that it existed

It was the result of conversations with professional friends, whose accounts of gender imbalance in city jobs left me first unbelieving, then amazed, then frustrated, then finally furious at the injustice of their treatment. And the thing that got under my skin the most was not the treatment we experienced in itself, but the lack of any option to protest against it.

These women in city jobs simply shrugged when I asked what they could do to report the problem, explaining that they simply wouldn’t ‘get on’ in the firm if they protested – that it was accepted, the norm and a necessary evil to survive in the boys’ club atmosphere of the boardroom. And, in a different way, I experienced the same brick wall myself – when harassment occurred in the street there was no response from passers by, no help or protest, simply a blasé acceptance of the practice as perfectly normal and accepted.

Warning - Men Working.jpgWhen I protested to male friends I was invariably told to calm down or stop overreacting. When I heard sexist comments on the radio or the television, they were laughed off or not mentioned at all. When I looked at the shelves in the newsagents and saw rows and rows of women’s breasts and naked torsos, there was no acknowledgement of the strange inequality and the loud message about the value of women that they presented. The story about the women’s Olympic beach volleyball team being allowed to wear extra clothes in cold weather seemed to raise no eyebrows when it featured on the front page of The Times – which called the event “more famous for its bikinis and pert bottoms than the actual sport”.

I began to realise that the problem couldn’t be tackled because so few were acknowledging it. So I set out, not to solve the problem outright, but to prove that it existed, and to make sure that nobody would tell us we couldn’t talk about it anymore.

I expected some resistance; questioning, antagonism even. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the vitriolic backlash of hate mail, threats and misogynistic abuse that poured into my mailbox for days on end. The backlash and stigma against reporting experiences of sexism in the real world was magnified and amplified by the strange kaleidoscope of the internet, until it crystallised in my inbox into graphic accounts of domestic abuse, horrifying misogynistic rants and threat after threat of rape and death. Ironically, of course, the abuse only served to prove how desperately the project needed to exist. I defy anyone who says sexism is no longer a big issue for the modern woman to read any one of the hundreds of messages of hate I received in those first few weeks. But I am still here, and the project remains live, because I stand with the thousands of women who have been brave enough, and angry enough, to share their stories with me in the hope that the world will listen.

Every threat I have received has been outweighed a thousand times by emails like the one I received from the woman who identified herself only as ‘Story’. She wrote to say that the simple experience of sharing her story was “truly emancipating”, that “you’ve made me feel supported and I can’t tell you how much that means to me”. And if even one person feels that way then the project has been worthwhile. But I hope it will have an even greater impact.

The diversity of experiences we have collected proves that sexism is a problem faced by women at all levels of society and in many different cultures. We have collected stories from Mexico, France, Pakistan, Germany, the US and Canada; from elderly women in mobility scooters coping with jibes about their parking, to parents experiencing sexist stereotyping of their toddlers before they are even old enough to read.

Already the collective voice of the project has provided has yielded results. Allies from around the world, many of them men, have written to express their eagerness to see the problem exposed, while activist Peter Tatchell and actor Ashley Judd have publically pledged their support. But if we are going to really prove the scale of the problem and truly fight the normalised acceptance that allows these incidents to remain so prevalent, we need to hear from many more women and make their stories heard. Please add yours at www.everydaysexism.com today.

Image of stencilled graffiti on a door, reading “FIGHT SEXISM,” with a woman raising her fist in the air, uploaded by Flickr user HerrWick. Image of a message written on a takeaway coffee cup: “I JUST WANT A COFFEE, LEAVE ME ALONE!” (above this is written “www.ashcampaign.co.uk”), uploaded by Flickr user Alex Castro. Final image of a sign on a fence reading “WARNING MEN WORKING” uploaded by Flickr user ianqui.

Laura Bates is contributor at Women Under Siege and the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of women’s day-to-day experiences of gender imbalance. She has written for the Women’s Media Center, JUMP! and the Feministing community.

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