As a staunch feminist, it’s surprising how often I’m unable to stand up for myself and other women. I always seem to have a nasty case of l’esprit de l’escalier, thinking only of what I should have said or done after the moment has passed. Five encounters this week have brought this problem into stark focus:
- I had a meeting with a senior academic who spoke entirely in male pronouns and adjectives.
- I saw two teenage boys call a 12 year old girl a whore.
- I got felt up in a pub while having a quiet drink with colleagues after work.
- The barista from my local cafe asked how my bed was, at the top of his voice, in the middle of a supermarket.
- A male colleague told me the reason my boss had suggested I hold off on submitting a grant application was because “he wouldn’t want to be embarrassed.”
Here’s what I should have done in each situation:
- I should have walked out of the meeting.
- I should have called the police.
- I should have said “touch me again and I’ll break your arm.”
- I should have started buying my coffee somewhere else. (The bed comment was, in and of itself, entirely appropriate, given our previous conversations about my having recently moved countries. The tone, however, was decidedly sexual and seemed designed to make me uncomfortable)
- I should have said “The university didn’t bring me half-way around the world to be embarrassed. They brought me half-way around the world to kick arse. And I’m going to start with yours!”
But I didn’t do any of these things. Instead, I stayed in the meeting, I kept walking, I took one step to the left, I said I’d pop in later for a pastry, and I mumbled something about the actual reason my boss had suggested I delay my application. Because, like most women, I’ve been socialised to be polite, to avoid conflict, and to blame myself for the bad behaviour of men. Even my use of the word ‘should’ in the previous paragraph is a reflection of the way women are taught to feel shame for situations entirely beyond their control (for more on the relationship between should & shame, read Brene Brown‘s great work).
Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and feminist scholars from a range of other disciplines have documented these problems for decades, but little has changed. It’s 2016! I am a white, well-educated, financially independent woman, living in a first world country, and these were my experiences in just one week! Women of colour, women with little education, women who are financially dependent, and women in developing countries face so much more. Decades of policy and legislation have also worked to address these problems, but the pace of change is glacial.
I know this post won’t change anything, but as a female academic with a public presence, I feel I have a responsibility to document my experience. This is not my academic area of expertise, but it is my lived experience and giving voice to lived experience is an important step in any movement toward change. Experiences like these (at least the first and the last one) also make it difficult for me to do research in my area of expertise, which is the wellbeing of people with dementia and their carers. I am not alone in this, with female academics the world over trying to do amazing research in environments that can only be described as hostile. So although this post doesn’t change what’s happened, it does add my voice to the growing chorus of women saying “Enough!” and, for today at least, that’s a good start.
Postscript – 25th May
I stopped for coffee on my way to work this morning and, completely unprompted, the barista apologised for the way he had spoken to me last week. It takes balls for a middle-aged man to admit he was wrong and I was genuinely impressed by his apology. I’m also grateful to the barista’s girlfriend who, when he told her what had happened, agreed that it was not his finest moment (and, I suspect, suggested he make amends). So I’m calling this a win!