According to a recent survey conducted by activist organization Girlguiding UK, 75% of girls aged 11-21 think sexism affects most areas of their lives.
70% of respondents aged 13-21 report experiences of sexual harassment at school or college.
Reading the synopsis of the report, I was reminded of the first time I was able to identify sexual harassment in my own life.
I was in eighth grade, about 13 or 14 years old. In science class, I was assigned to a lab table with mostly, if not all, boys. We were in the far back corner of the classroom, where the teacher was often out of earshot. Because of this lab table, I hated going to this class, even though I usually loved school and always got good grades. After several classes of sitting silently at this table with these boys, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I finally got up the nerve to go to the guidance counselor and ask for her to do something.
I walked into her office and sat down.
“What’s going on?” I took a deep breath and finally opened my mouth.
“It’s these guys at my lab table in science class. All during class they are constantly making sexual jokes and comments, talking about things and making gestures and comments about girls and sex – I hate it. I can’t take it anymore. I’m just sitting there, so helpless. I can’t say anything because I have to be at this lab table with them: if I say anything, they could retaliate against me. I’m so uncomfortable I can barely concentrate on the class. Please make them stop.”
“Okay, so that’s actually sexual harassment and they can’t do that.”
“Really? Can you talk to them?”
“Yes, well did you ever tell them to stop?”
I honestly couldn’t remember. I’m sure I had said something, or made a facial expression that they must have understood.
“Yeah. I think so. Why?”
“Well, I can’t do much until they know that you wanted them to stop. They have to know that you want them to stop, and then do it again.”
I couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t just know? They couldn’t just realize or be told or SOMETHING to help them figure out that an eighth grade science class was not the appropriate time or place for such language? Why did I have to subject myself to ridicule and victimization before they got in trouble? It was ludicrous: I knew they knew what they were doing was wrong, and they should be punished. They were interfering with my education – shouldn’t that be enough?
“Yeah, I’m sure they know.”
The next time I was in science class, their language improved, but one boy made a comment about getting in trouble with the guidance counselor, although he didn’t know who had told on him. He generally asked if I knew anything about that. I can’t recall if I lied or didn’t respond; either way it was not a great place to be.
I try not to dwell on the everyday difficulties and special challenges that come along with being a woman today. If I did, I think it would so overwhelm my brain power that I would never get anything else done. I don’t like identifying as a victim; I find it keeps me from moving forward.
But this study brought it all back. And the recent announcement that, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, a woman will be featured on the $10 bill – alongside Alexander Hamilton – brought it back. And when I learn about the virtual disaster that is parental leave in the US, and wondering about how on earth I will ever be able to afford to have a child when I am self-employed.
“Only half of all first-time mothers in the US take any paid leave, [Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families] says, and that payment usually comes from other benefits such as vacation time, sick days or short-term disability coverage. Only about 13 percent of the private sector workforce is employed by companies that offer designated paid family leave, she adds.”
And the fact that women still get paid only 77 cents on the dollar (for a number of complicated reasons), and that my own state ranks 46th in this area – women in Connecticut earn an average of $13,367 less per year than their male counterparts, according to a Fall 2014 report by the American Association of University Women.
And the fact that a former boss called me “aggressive” for sending out letters looking for a job in the legal field one summer, after all attempts to find a job through traditional searches and listings failed. Or that I was called “snippy” for posing a question about why my boss favored one phrase over another in a piece we were working on together.
And just the simple fact that in seven years of working for lawyers, I have worked for five male attorneys, and one female attorney – which leaves me so hungry for a female mentor that every time I go to court and see a female attorney, I track her every move (what she’s wearing, how she walks, where she sits, how she talks to her colleagues and her clients, how she addresses the judge) to learn what is expected of me as a female in this male-dominated field. And the fact that (for whatever reason) I have earned less money than my husband in every job we’ve had since getting married; and right now he makes almost twice what I make (he has a high school diploma, and I have both bachelor of arts and law degrees).
[Please don’t misconstrue my words, my husband deserves every penny he earns and more, he is underpaid as it is; it is simply that one would think that someone in my field, with my training and education, would also be entitled to a little more compensation.]
And the less damaging, but more annoying everyday aspects of sexism – like comments on the Internet, or being stared at and treated so differently at the grocery store when I’m with my husband versus when I’m alone, or when we females are given full responsibility to dress modestly for the sake of our “brothers”, or how the “girl’s” heath products cost so much more than the “boy’s” version, or when the male FedEx employee would not help me with my package until I smiled, or being afraid to walk or run too late in the evening, because I would be alone in the dark and unable to defend myself.
There are so many ways that sexism affects my daily life, that it is simply impractical for me to dwell on them – it would take over my life. So what’s the answer? There isn’t one – there are many.
For one, acknowledgement would be nice. There are many ways in which men are treated unfairly in this society as well; I make it a point to attempt to acknowledge this unfair treatment, especially to my husband or other men I know are affected by it. My husband does the same for me. He actually said he was sorry when I told him that a women would be escorted by Mr. Hamilton on the $10.00 bill. That acknowledgment meant a lot.
Once you realize what is happening, we all have a responsibility to try to change. Not because it’s “P.C.”, or because sexism hurts people’s feelings, but because it impacts our lives – our studies, our jobs, our ability to participate in society. If sexism is preventing women and men from contributing to schools, communities, the workplace, and the economy, then who knows what we are all missing out on? Change because it’s good for everyone.
I know for a fact that you are not responsible for the sins of others, because you, dear reader, cannot change everyone else anymore than I can. There will always be jerks, and misogynists, and we will deal with them. That is not what is required; all that is required is to try to change yourself, and see where our daughters and sons and sisters and brothers go.
Finally, when you are affected by sexism, remind yourself that it is not stronger than you. I learned a long time ago that when I felt like sexism was getting in my way, to remind myself that God didn’t make me a woman by mistake. He made me on purpose, and he knows what I’m dealing with and he’ll see me through. We actually are stronger than any evil force on this earth. It that’s not encouraging, I don’t know what is.