International Women’s Day 2015, my employer (senior management, not my immediate manager) sent an email message celebrating women in the company. Written by a male employee this message of inspiration shared the message that “Women working for us have equality” – I’m paraphrasing, I can’t remember the exact words but this was the gist of the opening paragraph. I read no further.
When I think about how much has changed in the twenty or so years that I have been in employment things have improved a great deal, but even in 2015, in a progressive company women were invisible at senior management levels. To declare that equality had been achieved was somewhat premature.
There will be thousands of blog posts today about International Women’s Day. From the “Where’s International Men’s Day?” (November, for those looking) to “things have a long way to go”. There will be posts about equal pay and the gender wealth gap, there will be posts about how much has changed in the last 100 years, the right to vote and own property and access to birth control, so I thought I’d just add my ramblings to the pile.
Twenty years ago, living in London, I was followed home. I was walking back from a friends house late at night. I’d had a few drinks but was not drunk and knew the area so was happy to walk home – I didn’t have the money for a cab and wouldn’t have felt any safer on the public transport anyway.
A white saloon car pulled up alongside me. I was on a wide, well-lit pavement and I was further than grabbing distance from the curb. The driver, the lone occupant of the car, wound down the window and shouted something like “Hello, love” to get my attention. I looked across and waited for him to tell me what he wanted – I had thought (hoped?) that he was going to ask for directions but instead he opened the passenger door and beckoned for me to get in the car. I don’t recall exactly how the conversation ran, but it went along the lines of:
– I don’t want to get in your car, please leave me alone.
– Don’t be a bitch, jump in and I’ll give you a ‘ride’.
I remember assessing whether or not to run through the warren of flats that bordered the street – a local no-go area where muggers and drug addicts lurk in dark alleyways – or carry on along the main road which, although well lit, was being cruised by a nasty predator.
I got home safely, although he followed me most of the twenty minute walk (it felt so much longer that night) calling persistently for me to “jump in”, asking if I had a boyfriend and telling me that he would never let me walk home alone if he was my boyfriend.
I felt quite shaken afterwards – as a general rule I didn’t go out on my own after dark, this kind of thing was exactly what young women expected. We modified our behaviour in ways that our male friends didn’t need to. When, shortly afterwards, I mentioned this to a friend I was told I was “stupid” for walking home on my own. I accepted this, after all I was lucky that it was only a scary follow home and not a physical assault.
This wasn’t the only incident, I was flashed, had a man masturbate in front of me on the underground, I have been leched at, chatted up and called a “bitch” or “frigid” when I neglected to return the advances of random strangers. But this was how things were and we (me and all the other young women in the city) were expected to take steps to avoid unpleasant or frightening situations or just put up with it. We never reported these incidents to the police as it was felt that we should have avoided them – how you “avoid” having a man on a train get his dick out and start rubbing furiously is beyond me but, hey ho.
And this was at the height of “Girl Power”!
We should have been able to go where we wanted without escort.
I think things are better now, but there is still a way to go. There is still a judgement about women out alone late at night, women who dress “provocatively” or drink too much. But things are changing. Now, I’m not saying that we should all be falling out of bars drunk every night but if a woman has let her hair down and had a good night she should be able to do this without fear of physical attack or judgement.
This is such a tiny part of the gender inequality that exists locally. Looking further afield there are much bigger fish to fry; access to education and poor literacy (which effects twice as many women as men), access to reproductive healthcare, to name but two, and in a much broader sense being seen as equal to men in all walks of life.
The nature of the conversation makes me optimistic, in recent years there have been new voices in the equality conversation. Let’s keep that conversation going and things will get better, not just for the girls who want to rule the world but also for the men who would like to look after their own kids without being referred to as babysitters (that’s a whole different post and one that can wait until November).