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From closing the gender pay gap, to giving all women the opportunity to access education, there’s a lot we still need to achieve in the fight for gender equality. While it’s important to work on fixing the big issues, it’s the small and seemingly harmless instances of everyday sexism that are also working to maintain and normalise inequality between men and women. From catcalling to being called a “good girl” as a grown woman, here are five common examples of everyday sexism and how you can respond to them.
For some reason, the simple act of women being out in public seems to give some men (and women) the assurance that they have the right to comment on and even touch women’s bodies. A survey conducted by the not-for-profit Stop Street Harassment found that over 81% of women have been catcalled, groped, yelled at, stared at, intimidated, followed or harassed online. But don’t worry, women shouldn’t be alarmed by any of this, because apparently we should just take these actions as ‘compliments’ and not as creepy comments on our bodies. Unless, of course, you were wearing a revealing outfit, in which case you were obviously asking for attention.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can say if someone harasses you on the street without compromising your safety. However, a good way to humiliate someone who has harassed you in public is to say “What?” or “Pardon?” as if you didn’t hear them. The more they have to repeat what they just said, the sillier they sound. On the other hand, if you see someone being harassed in public and there are other people around, don’t be afraid to speak up. As more people start calling out these behaviours, less people will get away with harassing women, or feel comfortable harassing them in the first place.
Being pressured into doing office housework, asked to organise events, fetch coffees or take minutes. These are all common examples of the ways in which women are often coerced into doing the necessary but low-reward jobs in the office. Unsurprisingly, a recent study found that it’s women who are are shouldering most of the responsibility when it comes to office chores. But it’s a lose-lose situation: while those who undertake such work don’t receive any benefit, if they refuse they face being looked on unfavourably by their boss and colleagues. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, authors of Lean In, wrote in the New York Times, “When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish’.”
So if you notice that you or other women are always being delegated office chores, don’t be afraid to speak up. Write up a roster so jobs are shared equally among the team, or why not volunteer one of your male colleagues for the job?
Women everywhere often find themselves in the awkward position of being called a “good girl” by a customer or by their boss – despite being a fully-functioning adult. While fairly harmless, and usually said with good intentions, infantilising women in this way is pretty condescending and shows they are not being taken seriously as a professional.
If someone calls you a “good girl” simply bark at them (okay, that’s a stretch), otherwise, find a later opportunity to call that same person a “good boy” or “good girl”, and see how they like it. If you’re concerned that one of those responses might result in you losing your job (or you’re worried about sounding insane), try to find a way to respectfully tell that person that being called a “good girl” makes you feel uncomfortable.
Different expectations about the way men and women are supposed to behave are everywhere, but it’s particularly frustrating when they are treated differently for exhibiting similar behaviours. An assertive woman is called “pushy” or “bitchy”, while an assertive man is promoted; an ageing woman is called a “witch”, while an ageing man is called a “silver fox” and can still have an acting career well into his 60s; a man is high-fived for his sexual prowess while a woman is slut-shamed for “sleeping around”; men who work long hours are “workaholics”, while career-focused women are selfish.
If you hear someone exhibiting double standards when talking about a woman, don’t be afraid to call it out. Pulling someone up on their sexism is the first step to creating lasting change regarding the way we talk about men and women.
From their twenties onwards, women find they are constantly asked when they’re going to get a boyfriend, get married and/or have children, as if women’s worth lies only in their marital status and childbearing capabilities. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, this is what most people still believe: that a life without children is a life unfulfilled, that a woman who is unmarried and childless is an “Unwoman”, to borrow Margaret Atwood’s phrase.
If someone takes one look at your ringless left hand and thinks it’s fine to ask you about your personal life and tell you why having children is just so important, you have a few options. If you want, you can choose to answer truthfully, or say nothing at all, but if you want to give them something to really think about, hit them with the following response: “I would get married and have children, but I’m too busy smashing the patriarchy that tells me that my self-worth lies solely in my ability to be a wife and mother.”
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