one of the men

Today I’m doing some gender awareness training in Cardiff for the Diocese of Llandaff, and one of the things that I’ll be talking about is the importance of catching the ‘sayings and doings’ of gender.

It’s an idea that comes from Patricia Yancey Martin, who researched gender in organisations. Talking about our experiences as men and women helps us to become more aware of the ways that women and men actually relate to each other, particularly in our instinctive reactions and unguarded moments. It’s possible to say all the right things, but then to act differently because patterns of behaviour and the influence of our background can be deeply ingrained. We need to take time to reflect on our actions and to listen to the experiences of others to find out how gender affects the real-time activities of our lives.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I read the story of Bluebeard and was shocked by my reaction to it. In summary, Bluebeard seduces a young woman and takes her to be his wife. One day he goes out hunting and gives her the keys to his castle. He tells her that she can go into any room except for the one that is opened by the smallest key. The woman and her sisters set off to explore and eventually they come to the last door in the castle, the one that is opened by the smallest key. They open it, and inside the room they find the bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives. They lock the door again, fearful of Bluebeard’s return, but the key starts weeping blood, threatening to give them away. My gut reaction to that story was, ‘She should have done what she was told.’ Effectively I was saying that she should have ignored her instinct to investigate, and that she should have obeyed her murderous husband even though that put her life at risk. I was brought up in the Brethren Church to be a good girl who keeps people happy, and although I’ve been an advocate for the equality of women and men for over 25 years, and shared both work and parenting for most of that time, my response revealed just how deeply embedded those childhood values are.

Another example. I was on the board of an organisation that was intentional at addressing gender equality. In a board meeting, we were discussing something important and I made a suggestion. There was little reaction and the meeting moved on. Five minutes later, a male board member said exactly the same thing and it was met with a rapturous response. What a fantastic idea! How clever of you to come up with that! Another woman on the board caught my eye and we exchanged a knowing look. We’d been there before.

That’s why the Everyday Sexism project is so important. Laura Bates set it up after a number of incidents of men making sexist comments or gestures – ‘the man who appeared as I sat outside a cafe, seized my hand and refused to let go; the guy who followed me off the bus and propositioned me all the way to my front door; the man who made a sexual gesture and shouted, “I’m looking for a wife” from his car as I walked home after a long day. I shouted back, “Keep looking!” but as I trudged home, I started for the first time really to think about how many of these little incidents I was putting up with from day to day.’ She started to ask around to see if other people were experiencing the same and was told ‘Sexism doesn’t exist any more. You’re uptight, or frigid… you really need to learn to take a compliment.’ She says: ‘People didn’t want to acknowledge it, or talk about it. And it wasn’t just men who took this view; it was women, too, telling me I was being oversensitive, or simply looking for problems where there weren’t any.’

But the comments persisted and so in April 2012 she started a simple website, everydaysexism.com, where women could upload their stories. Within 18 months it had spread to 18 countries and at the end of last year, there were 50,000 entries. You can read an excellent article by her in The Guardian and her book will be published early next month. By catching these sayings and doings of gender, the project has shown that far from being outdated or infrequent, sexism is the everyday reality for thousands of women, and it shows how far we still have to go.

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