sexism and the seventies: back to the future?

Perhaps I should explain how it is that I’ve become so vocal about addressing the attrition of women in academia. I can pinpoint the start of it to a place, and a time about 5 years ago. But for the full story I need to take you back with me to my early teenage years. And that was many years ago. In the dark ages. Before twitter. Before facebook. Before the internet. Before email. Before …well you get the message. It was in the 1970s.

Things were different then. Most women stayed at home after they married. For my family, my mum had to work; there were 9 children to support and that definitely needed two incomes. As the eldest girl in the family, a lot of the caring and housekeeping responsibilities fell to me. But I digress. That’s not where this story is going, though I might return to it at some point in a later post.

What I wanted to share with you were two events from this long-ago time. Two incidents that occurred in relatively quick succession. These events marked my realisation that I was growing up, that society saw me as a young woman, even if I didn’t yet accept that. Both events occurred as I was walking home alone from high school.

On the first occasion, it began with a car full of young men driving in the opposite direction and yelling obscenities at me; I ignored them, put my head down and continued uphill, quickening my pace and hoping they would drive on. Chillingly, the driver of the car executed a U-turn and pulled up beside me, with the men now shouting lewd remarks from a much closer vantage point. Adrenaline kicked in, I made my own U-turn running as fast as I could back down the hill. To my terror, the car reversed to keep pace with me, while the men inside continued their offensive and humiliating tirade. It only ended when I ran into a house – any house – and knocked on the door to ask for help, breathless and in tears, but there was no-one home. Fortunately, the car drove off and I made my way home again.

On the second occasion, I noticed a young man bicycling towards me on the pavement. I moved to my left to make room for him to pass, but instead he veered towards me.  As he closed in he made a deliberate move to grope my breast. This time, I took the offensive. I shoved back with all my might, pushing him off-balance and off his bike. Then I ran hell for leather for home, which was mercifully just a few hundred metres around the corner.

The terror I felt on both occasions can still be recalled with complete clarity. And with it the sense of shame, powerlessness, confusion, revulsion. I’d done nothing to provoke the harassment on either occasion. I was just a girl walking home from school.

When I look back to this time growing up, I recognise that most days nothing happened. Yet it is these two events that stick in my mind. Perhaps because I learned an important life lesson, to be aware, to be alert. That I was a target because I was a woman.

I had hoped that since the 1970s things would have improved for young women and girls. That’s not the case though. The same things – and much, much worse – happen every day as documented by Laura Bates’ @EverydaySexism project. The mission of the project is “By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.”

Last year, @EverydaySexism asked people to post their experiences of everyday sexism in academia. I was horrified to read the tweets that came in. The same things that happened to me as a young academic so many years ago were still happening now. In 2013. Women’s bottoms were being pinched, their ribs being tickled from behind by senior male colleagues, they were receiving excessive unwanted attention from males at conferences. Thank God for @EverdaySexism, “Women are silenced through sexual harassment every day. Now it is time to speak out”. Women now had a voice.

I didn’t tweet anything to @EverydaySexism at the time. But I’ll share a few of the everyday sexism experiences from my academic career. The first occurred about 15 years ago, when I was a mid-career researcher struggling to find my place in the world of academia. A male professor, and collaborator of mine, sat with two or three younger male colleagues in the tea room and, whenever any young woman entered the room, discussed aloud whether she was wearing a G string.

I said nothing.

Then, about 5 years ago at an international conference in Europe, I overheard 3 male PhD students discussing another conference delegate, a female PhD student who had won the major poster prize. They weren’t discussing her research, or her brilliance. They were discussing her physical attributes and what they would do to them if they had the chance. It was sickening.

I said nothing.

Over the next days and weeks I grew angry with myself. I was by now a senior academic, a professor, someone of status. Why didn’t I say anything? Why should this behaviour go unchallenged? I thought about the young female student and wondered what she would have to put up with if those male PhD students, or men like them, became her colleagues, collaborators, peer reviewers in the future.

Then I got my answer. A female colleague, a professor at another university in Australia, was in a conference committee meeting. She was the only woman present, in a group of 8 or 9. It was a dinner meeting and alcohol was involved. That’s not to justify what happened, just to set the scene. The woman offered  an opinion on a specific discussion point, and the immediate response from one of the men – a leading light in the Australian science scene – was “That’s like cocksucking”.

Surprised at how her idea was dismissed out of hand, she asked what he meant by saying that. He boomed back “Come over here and I’ll show you!”.

All the men laughed: some loudly, some nervously. The woman said nothing.

I hasten to add that most men I work with respect women and women’s opinions. But how many men put in a similar situation would call out such overt sexual harassment. How many would let it slide and laugh along with others. It was a joke right? Get a sense of humour.

What would you have done?

Anyway, as a consequence of these events, I decided to become more informed. I began attending gender equity workshops, collecting data on the attrition of women in academia, and presenting at women in science events. I joined twitter and followed a number of women in science feeds. Through twitter I learned about this. And this. And this. And much more besides. I remember thinking last year at the height of these twitter storms, enough is enough, someone should do something about this. Then I realised that I was someone, and I could do something. So now I do. I call out sexism and bias.

Last year, at a major national health professional congress in Melbourne,  the entertainment at one of the evening social events included women dressed only in G-strings and tassels. This time, I said something.

At a dinner last year, where I was the only woman in a group of 5 peers, a male colleague made a sexually charged comment to a waitress. I called it out.

There are other things too, that I’ll talk about in subsequent posts, but you get the idea I hope.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Especially when the people being called out are my colleagues or more senior than me, or when I’m the only woman. My heart is in my mouth every time I voice my concerns. But I still do it. And I hope you will join me. Because if we say nothing, then nothing will change.

You see, I don’t want the next generation of academics – male and female alike – to feel that sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender, objectification of women, and unconscious bias are acceptable in academia or elsewhere. Surely, if you have a mother, sister, female partner or daughter you would want them to have an equal opportunity to succeed, and to be treated respectfully by men.

So when you see it, say something. Call out sexism. It doesn’t belong in this millennium.

***I decided to post this two days earlier than intended, after reading the following post, which sends the same message ***

7 thoughts on “sexism and the seventies: back to the future?

  1. Found this to be both sad and unfortunately relatable. From inappropriate (to offensive) “entertainment”, to outright harassment. Sadly because working in a female dominated area I see some senior women displaying similar behavior. I really take on board your statement that “I realised that I was someone”

  2. You could have been describing myself as a teenage girl. I can’t recall the number of times I was approached on my way home from school, and later university. I did not own a car until I was 24 – consequently I had no choice but to walk or rely on public transport. I do remember a comment by a male colleague after one particular incident – an attempted rape in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens at 4.30pm on a Sunday afternoon –

    “Well, you will continue to put yourself into dangerous situations!”

    In the last year of my postgraduate studies, my supervisor commented at an informal morning tea how “I shouldn’t have a piece of cake”. When I questioned why, he stated “well……you are getting a fat a**”. Where did that come from? What makes him think this is acceptable? And (I have seen this many times) when you do tell someone off, you are accused of having a poor sense of humour. Please.

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