Toni Summers Hargis is a British author and columnist; during her decades in the USA, she blogged as Expat Mum and wrote about US-UK topics. Back in England since 2017, Toni’s passion is Women’s Rights. Along with BritMums, she has co-authored a book to help deal with sexism titled How To Stand Up To Sexism; Words for when enough is enough which delivers comebacks for everything from microaggressions to outright insults and worse, giving readers the perfect response every time. You chat with her on Twitter @ToniHargis.
Below Toni advises how we can all stand up to sexism.
‘I didn’t want to be rude.’
‘I just wanted to keep the peace.’
‘It’s not worth the hassle.’
….Some of the many phrases my co-authors and I heard when writing our book. Over and over, women not only left speechless by sexism but hesitant to say anything at all.
It starts early too. Girls tugging at their skirts before passing a building site. A young woman at a bar, being hassled by a guy who won’t give up, but she won’t tell him to b***** off because it would appear rude. The co-worker who talks to your cleavage and makes no attempt to hide it but you think maybe you shouldn’t have worn that blouse. A dishwasher repair guy who jokes that you’re lucky your husband buys you such expensive appliances; you roll your eyes and laugh politely.
Why do we do this?
Well, we’re conditioned from childhood, if not by our parents, then by society in general. From the, ‘sugar and spice’ nursery rhyme to princesses trapped in towers, we build an ideal of girls and women as (all things) nice, nurturing, empathetic, and in need of a man. A prince to help us escape the tower, wake from a deep sleep or flee the spite of our mean step-sisters. And don’t forget the frogs to be kissed in case one of them turns out to be the man of our dreams – which we all need!
If you think I’ve gone too far with this, here’s why it’s a problem.
A 2020 study showed that these ideals (known as ‘benevolent sexism’) can still harm women. The researchers found that people with benevolently sexist views (that women need to be protected) also hold hostile sexist views, and while these decrease as children grow, they don’t decrease as much in boys. ‘Boys may be less likely to recognise that their benevolent attitudes toward women are, in fact, patronising… For instance, they may hold on to the belief that men ought to protect women because this view is in line with social norms and may be reinforced throughout their upbringing.’
As the Scottish Education Trade Union EIS recently reported, hostile sexism also starts at a very young age – using ‘girly’ as an insult, telling boys to ‘man up’, and later calling girls ‘sluts’ while boys merely ‘sow their oats’.
As well as consequences like anxiety, depression and body issues, sexism and sexual bullying lead many kids to conform to the stereotypes to avoid becoming a target. Children ‘who do not meet societal expectations in terms of gender suffer ongoing rejection, direct discrimination and abuse, the psychological effects of which can be deep-rooted and lasting.’
In short, when children see sexism going unchallenged at home or at school, there are obvious consequences for girls but it’s not great for boys either.
So what can parents do?
Firstly, we have to remember that it’s not just a woman’s job to prevent sexism. Just like haters gonna hate, sexists are gonna be sexist, and it’s their responsibility to stop. However, as well as doing the obvious things like not giving our daughters ‘women’s work’ or not telling boys to ‘man up’, there are other messages we can instil and reinforce:
Above all else – Girls and women have a right to stand up to sexism. We shouldn’t have to worry about appearing ‘rude’ if someone makes us feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or scared.
Girls don’t have to ‘put up with’ sexism. That includes boys looking up skirts and pinging bra straps, or girls being criticised for behaviour that boys get away with.
Older women and what they dealt with ‘back in the day’ don’t get to set the rules. There is nothing snowflake-y about standing up to sexism.
No one ‘asks for’ sexism. There is nothing girls and women do that contributes to sexism, harassment or worse. Most men don’t harass women, so the idea that a short skirt or visible underwear causes it is just not true. If it were, most men would be doing it.
‘Asking for it’ also suggests that some boys or men just ‘can’t help themselves’, which insults all men. When girls are older, the argument centres on how much they drink. Same thing; no amount of alcohol deserves sexual assault, and most men manage to leave drunk women alone.
Boys will not ‘be boys’ – they will treat girls with respect at home, at school and on the street. This should not depend on whether or not they have a sister because all girls deserve respect.
Boys can call out sexism. If their friends are making crude jokes about girls, ranking them, looking up their skirts or cat-calling, it’s not OK. Yes, there might be some pushback; doing the right thing isn’t always easy but sitting back when something’s not right doesn’t feel good either. If they can make one friend stop and think, it’s a win.
Girls and women know it’s #NotAllMen, but we often don’t know who it will be and that makes us wary. It’s nothing personal; we just don’t have an identikit.
Boys and men are not the enemy; most of us have at least one in our lives whom we love, but it’s not enough for them simply to declare their innocence.
We have a long way to go and we need everyone’s help in stamping out sexism, because it’s good for the whole family.