I have taken a stand on sexism as long as I can remember. When I was 7 years old, I challenged a classmate to say that girls were better than boys (he had been saying boys were better than girls – and looking up girl’s skirts!). I was angry! Obviously, with hindsight I can see that saying girls are better than boys is just as offensive as saying boys are better than girls. We should each be measured on our own merits – irrespective of our sex.
Well, the 8th March is International Women’s Day. And I was just watching the BBC interviewing 3 women from the sporting world talking about sexism. One, a sports columnist at a national newspaper, another a CEO of a football club and the third a racing driver.
I felt emotional after the interviews. And I wondered why.
Well, two of the three women said they “laughed off” sexist remarks. But what does laughing it off mean? Yes, it means we’re not taking it seriously. But it also means we’re not taking sexism seriously! By not naming the sexist remark we are implicitly condoning it – saying it’s OK. By laughing at it, we’re saying that we don’t attach significance to it – that it’s not important enough to say something about.
I found myself wondering why these women didn’t say something when they received sexist and chauvinist comments. Perhaps to avoid confrontation? Because when women stand up for themselves, when we call out a sexist remark we usually bring negative attention to ourselves. We risk angering someone, receiving a further slight – but perhaps more importantly being thought of as difficult, a bitch, or worse – a feminist…
Oh we women have been well-trained. To suck it up and be polite, not to upset anyone, to maintain relationships, be nice. What better way to avoid change – if we don’t fight back? What a subtle method of control it is to make us feel bad, guilty and ashamed when we stand up for ourselves and point out sexism.
It has been hard to write this article. By putting myself on record like this some people (women and men) will read this and think I am a “raving feminist”. That I imagine things. That I overthink it. Silly me, I read too much into things, I over-analyse, I am over-sensitive.
But did you know the dictionary definition of a feminist is simply that you believe in equal rights for women and men? So, yes I’m a feminist – and I hope you are too.
Think about this. If someone made a homophobic remark, a racist remark in front of you – would you laugh it off? You might not cause a scene, but I’m sure that even if you didn’t say something, you would at least tut, frown, walk off or decide to keep some distance from that person. But I bet you wouldn’t laugh off a homophobic or racist remark.
So why do we think it’s OK to laugh off a sexist remark? 50% of the population is female. When someone says something snide or unpleasant simply because they are a woman, it affects all women. It could be you. Or your wife, girlfriend, sister.
When it comes to sexism, there are some things that should clearly be dealt with – like the lack of changing rooms for women at football clubs – it’s like trying to pretend we don’t exist. And sexual harrassment should obviously not be laughed off.
But if we don’t call out the smaller, more subtle remarks and actions – if we laugh these off we are implicitly allowing them. And this means we are contributing to a continuing undercurrent of sexism in our societies.
So, back to the emotion I felt after watching those interviews. The biggest thing was my feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. Because I cannot change the fact that I am a woman. There are people out there who dismiss or belittle someone solely based on their sex. A sex that I share.
But none of us are actually powerless or helpless. We have power in our own life. We can call out sexist or chauvinistic remarks we see and hear – in the same way we would if someone made a homophobic or racist remark.
Yes, it’s particularly tough to call out a sexist or chauvinistic remark. Every time I do it, I feel a little embarrassed and ashamed – I’m making a fuss over nothing. But I do it anyway. Because the idea that women who fight back are bitches, harridans or harpies – is how we are controlled.
And why is it that when someone makes an offensive remark, whether sexist, homophobic, racist (or something else) that the person who calls them OUT feels awkward, ashamed or embarrassed? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
And finally, what if you’re not clear whether it was a sexist (or other kind of -ist) remark or not? The subtler comments are the hardest to deal with. But you must trust how you FEEL. If you feel demeaned or belittled, then that is your truth. You can simply say, “I don’t know why exactly, but I feel belittled/demeaned by that remark”. If they laugh at or challenge you, don’t give your power away by feeling embarrassed, shrinking or backing down. Simply use the broken record technique. “Like I said, I don’t know why exactly, but I feel belittled/demeaned/your word by that remark.” Make eye contact. Be UNapologetic. Be Strong. Be You!
So this is not a call to arms, but a call to use your words! Next time someone makes a remark you find offensive or upsetting, speak up! Don’t laugh it off – because it’s not funny! Let the other person know it’s hurtful, sexist, homophobic, racist – and unacceptable. Claim your power to make a difference – and remember it’s the person making the remark that should be feeling embarrassed, not you!
If you liked this article on sexism and difficult conversations you may also like:
- TED Talk: The Sexy Lie we Tell Ourselves
- Develop Fierce Kindness – And Have A Devoted Friend For Life!
- 5 Deadly Terms Used by a Woman! Are You Offended Too?
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Well said Emma-Louise! I agree with you 100%. We need to speak up and call people on their sexism, not laugh or shrug it off. It’s the only way to move toward erradicating this unacceptable behaviour. That’s how it has been done with racist, ethnic and homophobic “jokes”. There are still pockets of people who make fun at the expense of others, but it has become more and more socially unacceptable to target groups in such a way…with the exception of the female gender! WE – All of us – can continue to work to change that. Be proud to call yourself a feminist! My strong feminist mother taught me that dictionary definition of feminist back in the ’70’s when I was a kid…and I have proudly worn the label ever since! Speak up, Speak out!
Thanks Linda! Speaking out is so important. Thanks for your kind comment and support. I really appreciate it. Warmly, Emma-Louise
I enjoyed reading your article. I experienced two accounts of sexual harassment this morning (one toward myself and another toward another woman who was being leered at by men on the street). I stopped to tell those men that objectifying women for their sexual gratification was disrespectful and demeaning. And predictably, the only response I got was nothing short of gaslighting = “I had got the wrong end of the stick, they were only saying how beautiful she was”. It made me feel ashamed and belittled even though I stood up to them and called them out on their sexist behaviour. Unfortunately there are many more people who are socialised into thinking that it’s acceptable to treat women like objects. But I’m glad to find that there are many strong women who do and advocate standing up and saying something. The trouble is, I don’t know what difference I can make even by doing that.
Hi Elise, you have ALREADY made a difference! I’m sorry you felt ashamed and belittled when you stood up to the men you mention. But you needn’t! Isn’t it interesting that you stood up for yourself/women when someone (for want of a better word) misbehaved and then it was YOU felt ashamed and belittled? That is how conditioned we have been. Not only do we accept and not question/challenge poor behaviour, but when we do it’s US who are in the wrong!!!
I also used to feel as you do after speaking up, and then (over time!) I kept thinking, hang on a minute, they’re the ones in the wrong, not me. Now, when I call people on something, even if they gaslight me or argue or heckle or call me names, I don’t care. I decide whether (or not) to say something – and I do it for me, and I do it no matter what the outcome. When I do speak up, (and I pick my battles) it is when I feel strongly. I CHOOSE not to feel shame etc. And if I do notice feeling shame afterwards, I simply point out to myself how well conditioned I have been not to question/argue, how well trained I have been to be polite and nice – even when others aren’t. What a perfect solution if people are abused, and then feel shame when they say, hey – stop abusing me!!!
You should be proud of having the courage to speak up. Shame is just a feeling. It’s not always true. We can feel shame without it being justified. Every time someone speaks up we’re saying, “I see what you’re doing, it offends me, it offends women”. And until we stand up and say something, the “abusers” won’t know (or can choose not to know) – we’re subtly giving them permission. So I’m proud of you!