If you aren’t familiar with Laura Bates, it’s about time. She is a British activist who started the Everyday Sexism project in 2012, an online platform where women share their stories of being sexually harassed in public spaces. Laura started the project after a string of her own personal experiences, recognizing there was something wrong with the feelings of shame and blame she took upon herself for being a target.
To date the site has received over 100,000 entries and has spawned a number of international versions, including an American site. Laura has been a sought-after speaker, given a powerful TED Talk about street harassment, writes for the Guardian about feminist issues, and has also released an ‘Everyday Sexism’ book. Not bad for a woman who was sick of being objectified by socialized gender norms and decided to speak up about it.
Her project has turned into an important cultural movement, part of the current digital feminist wave we are seeing, but with any movement like this, the underlying mission is to create change, especially at a legislative level. Recognition of the problem, people finding the courage to speak up and share similar experiences of victimization is just the beginning.
In a recent conversation with the London School of Economics’ British Politics and Policy blog, Laura shares a few key ways she sees policy becoming a key player in aiding a campaign like Everyday Sexism, as well as changing the status quo for women. The first aspect she talks about is having more women in leadership positions, not just as mere symbolism, but to enact meaningful change.
“I think that being able to see women in prominent political positions always brings a certain benefit with it, because of the role modelling potential of girls being able to see those people in those positions. But I don’t think that we can necessarily assume that meaningful feminist change comes just as a result of having women in those positions, because of course their politics are what really matters,” she begins by saying.
Right now, Britain has a female Prime Minister, it’s second ever, in Theresa May who took over from David Cameron who resigned after the Brexit vote, but Laura points to her lack of focus on providing funding for women’s groups and female refugees as problematic to explain her point. She says we also need to see an increased number of women in political leadership positions in general.
“I don’t think we can automatically tick the box and say a female leader solves women’s issues. It’s also important to look at the bigger picture. Only 191 out of our 650 MPs are female, less than a third. There are more men in parliament right now than there have ever been female politicians. We’re still dramatically underrepresented amongst the people who are making the decisions that affect out lives on a daily basis,” she said.
And it’s not just in politics, but also in the private sector. The C-suite is an area where women, globally, are woefully underrepresented. Women make up a mere 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In the UK, Laura points to a laughably frustrating recent study which identified there are more men named “John” or “David” leading FTSE 100 companies than women bosses in total. There have been attempts at implementing quotas and initiatives to encourage more women to pursue leadership roles, but they often still find themselves bumping up against a glass ceiling when it comes to getting to the very top of the executive ladder.
Laura says having merely a few women in major business or political leadership is great at face value, but essentially does nothing to change the underlying problems that exist. One area she sees as a potential breaking point is how we view paid parental leave and childcare.
“It also needs action from organizations to really look at their pipelines, at their internal promotion processes, gender pay audits, at the way they’re treating their female staff, sexual harassment, which again I would suggest is an endemic but enormously under-reported issue,” she said.
The “pipeline” issue she mentions is key, here, because that idea of a woman in a position of power or leadership has to start at a young age. It’s one of the reasons Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis started her Institute on Gender in Media, to urge Hollywood to rethink the way it portrays women in entertainment, especially in children’s programming.
“The fact that we often use the word businessman rather than businessperson, the fact that in children’s movies you’re much more likely to see the cartoon mum staying at home baking cookies, while the cartoon dad goes out with his briefcase – from such a young age we socialize children into thinking that certain roles are or aren’t available to them,” Laura said.
It goes back to the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see”, which becomes harder and harder to change the older a person gets. One pivotal turning point she identifies in enabling widespread cultural change is by not looking at the sexism stemming form a biological point of view and using the excuse of women deciding to bear children as the reason for their own careers being held back.
“For me the interesting question is “why have we built a society in which that prevents women from excelling and progressing in their careers?” With really well supported and adequate maternity leave, shared parental leave, flexible working hours and times and excellent child care there’s no reason that we couldn’t build institutions and organizations in the professional world within which that biological fact wouldn’t necessarily mean that childbearing was a sentence for women’s career,” she said.
The paid family leave issue is all the more egregious here in the United States, which is the only developed nation in the world not to have a federally-mandated measure that protects all workers. Sure certain individual companies offer it, but the only government policy is 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only if you work for a company for longer than 1 year and which has more than 50 employees. So it’s nowhere near adequate. And yet, if you speak to many conservative organizations who are constantly championing “family values”, they are often the first to push back against paid leave policies and instead focus on what is best for the business’ bottom line, as shown by this investigative piece from Vice’s Broadly channel.
“We still see debates in the media with prominent politicians and businesspeople saying that it shouldn’t be a company’s burden to have to cope with the cost of maternity leave. We still see this debate being phrased as if women selfishly and in isolation choose to go off and have children, when in reality this is something that we as a society need,” said Laura.
She identifies certain recurring barriers which prevent better paid leave policies from becoming a turning point in our society.
“We socialize women and girls into having dollies and hearts and being taught that it’s their role to look after children. We often ridicule and emasculate men who try to take time off and spend time with their children. So it’s also a weak ground to suggest women make different choices and simply to accept that again as a kind of biological factor rather than a socialized one,” she said.
Another issue she wants to see more action on is sexual assault on college campuses, and points to the way the US has started to deal with this, thanks to people like President Obama being willing to make this part of his agenda for a better America.
“While they haven’t solved their epidemic of sexual offenses on campus, they have recognized it. I think that that’s party mostly down to the work of incredible frontline activists, student survivors who have spoken out, who organized and campaigned and supported one another. It’s also because they have a President who’s been prepared to put this vocally and firmly on the agenda front and center and at least now they are finally getting to grips with the fact that there is a problem. They now can do the next step of starting to tackle it. In the UK we’re still at the point of pointing to the US and saying look at the problem they have over there,” she said.
Laura hopes to see better guidelines on how to tackle this issue being created and implemented by universities around the UK. Similar to the US, as clearly shown in the brilliant documentary ‘The Hunting Ground’, exposing a problem is only the start, but there needs to be an overhaul of how victims are able to to report an assault, how they are treated, and the system by which the university takes action (or not).
“I think politically, organizationally, from universities, from academic governing bodies, we are seeing so many cases where students are let down, where they are not being supported, where there are simply no processes in place at all to support or to deal with or to investigate cases of sexual violence when they are reported,” she said, but added the National Union of Students has been doing important work in this area and will be releasing reports which can be used as a starting point to change the current system.
Although she talks mostly in relation to policies she hopes to see implemented in the UK, these are issues that affect women and families across the world. All the more reason we need voices like Laura’s disrupting the social and cultural sexist norms. You can see more about Laura’s Everyday Sexism project in the Chime For Change short docu-video below: