Laura Bates Tackles Sexism With Everyday Sexism Project [Interview]

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Some people might say, “Sexism is over,” but countless examples happening every day prove that women are still often treated unfairly. UK writer Laura Bates started the Everyday Sexism Project to show that sexism is still around, it’s a big deal and it needs to be challenged.

People are encouraged to submit descriptions of sexism they experience or witness, including sexual assault, gender stereotyping, demeaning comments and more. Almost 50,000 stories have been submitted so far, which shows the scope of sexism that still exists and that both men and women can behave in sexist ways.

Likewise, a shift in women’s rights can also be brought about by both men and women, because working toward gender equality benefits everyone. I spoke to Laura about her inspiration for the Everyday Sexism Project, how you can get involved and the positive changes she’s seen as a result of the project.

ACT: Can you tell us about why you decided to start the Everyday Sexism Project?

LAURA: It was an accumulation of experiences, really, that all happened very close together. There were guys shouting at me while I was walking home from work. Later, I was on the bus and it was quite late and the guy sitting next to me started stroking my legs. Because I was on the phone with my mum at the time, I said, “This guy’s groping me.” I stood up and I noticed that everyone on the bus looked away. No one said anything or stepped in. It sent a message of: “This is normal. Don’t make a fuss.” A few days later I was walking down the street and one man said to another, “Look at the tits on that.” They started discussing me as an “it.” Again, what struck me was the normalization of it: They weren’t worried about me hearing them.

If these things hadn’t happened so close together, I never would have thought twice about any one of them. It made me think about why this sort of behavior is so normal and accepted. I asked other women if they’d experienced anything like this, and I was blown away when I was given hundreds of examples. And just like me, they hadn’t thought about it and hadn’t told anybody. I realized there was an invisible problem, but when I tried talking about it more, I found that a lot of people would say, “Women are equal now, so if you talk about sexism, you must be overreacting. You need to get a sense of humor or learn to take a compliment.” They had no idea how bad it was. So I started the project.


Photo: Laura on CNN, discussing a campaign that takes on Facebook misogyny. (Facebook)

ACT: What are the most common instances of sexism people are reporting to you?

LAURA: Street harassment is incredibly common. Schoolgirls in school uniforms have sexually explicit things screamed at them while they’re trying to walk to school. We also hear an awful lot from women in the workplace. They get insults and sexist jokes. Women are dismissed because of pregnancy, they’re considered less of an asset to the company. Some women are even sexually assaulted in the workplace.

ACT: How can we combat sexism like this? What can people do with the Everyday Sexism Project, and what can they also do offline?

LAURA: The first thing is to raise awareness, because that prevents the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, you must be overreacting.” We can encourage men and women who weren’t really aware of the situation to step in. We need to challenge that bystander culture, where people on the bus looked out the window. We need to encourage more people to stand up for women.

For getting involved with Everyday Sexism, you can add your story on the website. You can follow us on Twitter, and we have a very lively Facebook group. We also encourage people to hold events at their universities, schools or towns where people can come forward with their stories.

One of the things we’ve been working on offline is using the women’s stories to make real-world changes. We’ve been working, for example, with the police. They’ve been learning from the stories, and they’ve started a massive new initiative where they trained 2,000 officers and they’re really cracking down on sexual offenses on public transport.

ACT: How do you recommend we react if someone does or says something sexist to us or in front of us?

It’s also important to report things when they happen. We’ve had a huge number of success stories where women have called the company if the company employee is shouting sexual abuse at them. The companies are always very apologetic.

There are some useful things that victims can remember. If something bad happens someplace crowded, people tend to feel very shocked, and it’s hard to find the words to say. You can do something very effective by naming what’s happening and describing the person. For example, “Man in the blue hat, stop touching my leg. Man in the red T-shirt, stop touching my bum.” What that does is make everyone look at the man in the blue hat or red T-shirt. It puts all of the shame on the perpetrator instead of the victim and makes people aware of what’s happening. You can also take pictures with your phones and report to the police.

ACT: What are some things people might subconsciously do or think and not even realize they’re sexist?

LAURA: We’re in a culture where there’s so much sexism that’s ingrained. This project is not about vilifying anyone. It is certainly not suggesting that all men are sexist. It’s something we all do. I’ve done it myself: A friend of mine was going to the doctor, and afterward I asked, “What did he say?” There are tiny things like that, and it’s important to examine them.

[It is ingrained in us] to look at a little girl and say how lovely she’s getting, then look at little boys and talk about how good they are at football. You can talk to little girls instead about what they do and their activities. Shifts like that make a difference.

ACT: Can you share some positive stories with us of people growing and learning from the Everyday Sexism Project?

LAURA: That’s one of the best things. A lot of women have found the strength to stand up to something sexist that they’d thought was normal. We have a story of a runner who was often harassed while running. After reading from the Everyday Sexism Project, she went for a run and a man asked for directions, and then grabbed her breasts really hard while she was trying to help him. For the first time, she had the strength to take down his license plate number. She reported him to the police, and he’s been charged with sexual assault.

Some women have found unique ways to hit back, like the single mom who was tired of callers asking to speak to the man of the house. Now she puts them on with her 6-year-old son. There’s a woman who works at a bar as a waitress, and the chef used to grope her every time she walked past and the boss would turn a blind eye. So the next time she walked past she took a big tray of glasses, and when he groped her, she smashed them all over the floor. The boss was forced to come over and ask what had happened, and then he had to deal with the situation. We’ve also heard from a lot of men who have said it’s helped them rethink things they never really questioned before. They realize they can be better allies and step in.

ACT: Where would you like to take Everyday Sexism from here?

LAURA: We’ve expanded into 17 countries, which is really exciting. I’d like to expand into more countries and do more international work. Women around the world are standing up for themselves and saying it’s time for change.

We’re also doing work with schools and universities, and I’d like to do more of that. I want to challenge some of the stereotypes we’re so used to that we don’t even question them. I also have a book coming out next year, published by Simon and Schuster. The idea is to give a snapshot of the Everyday Sexism Project, because we’ve collected nearly 50,000 women’s stories now.

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