Everyday sexism

Here’s my third blog from New York – where I am representing the UK at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Also available here.

There is immense power in the act of naming. Naming something so widespread that is passes almost without comment, like breathing or gravity, or the colour of the sky. And yet, for women everywhere, it has a huge impact on our lives.

Such is everyday sexism, the topic of a UK-Denmark panel event I just participated in at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

I pay tribute to the work of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collected thousands of testimonies from across the world. Some of them are really chilling, others more banal. But of course the crux of the issue is the banality of the evil: that any one catcall can be shrugged off. But the cumulative impact of the drip drip drip of unwelcome sexual advances and unrelenting critiques of women’s bodies and abilities have a corrosive effect upon all of us – men and women – and on the societies in which we live.

From a very young age, most girls learn to mentally brace themselves before they walk out the door each day. Women and girls develop coping strategies – smile nicely, find a cheeky riposte, get angry, pretend not to hear, put our heads down and quickly hurry past. Frankly, we’re expected to be big girls about it and lighten up. Well, I’m not lightening up.

And don’t think women politicians are immune from this treatment. We experience everyday sexism and then some. The online trolling some of my colleagues have suffered is disgusting. And in the House of Commons itself, if ever a female MP makes a pertinent point, it’s not uncommon for her to be told “calm down, dear”.

Everyday sexism is not inevitable, it is not harmless, it does matter, and it can and must stop.

It matters because it drives girls and women into a crippling self-consciousness and self-objectification. When the world tells you how you look and what you wear are all that matters, it’s no wonder so many girls’ psychological development is damaged.

In the UK, our primary focus has been on creating a supportive framework of equality legislation, and we are world leaders in doing so. There has to be a bottom line that women are entitled to equal treatment and the state will step in to enforce that.

We also have an inspiring campaign to prevent sexual violence among young people, called ‘This Is Abuse’. This year we are particularly focused on reaching boys, encouraging teenagers to re-think their views of violence, abuse, controlling behaviour and what consent means. Men and boys are crucial to this change: we’ll get nowhere if women and girls are just talking amongst ourselves and everyday sexism.

We have also taken action to tackle stalking and harassment, which includes harassment and abuse via social media.

I could go on for sometime outlining all the Coalition Government is doing, but suffice it to say we are enforcing the law and encouraging conversations about gender roles and stereotypes generally. To be clear, it’s not for government to tell parents how to raise their children, or to tell men and women how they should feel about being men and women. But I believe it is entirely appropriate for us to question barriers to an individual’s control over her own life and do all we can to empower that individual – I am a liberal after all! And I’m grateful that countries like Denmark are helping us spread this work internationally.