Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project website in 2012, and since then has become a key advocate for women’s rights in the UK. In an interview with editors Jennifer Thomson and Helena Vieira, Laura discussed the greater number of women in British and international politics, the problem of sexual assault on UK university campuses – and the many challenges which still lie ahead for the women’s movement and feminist activism.
With our second ever female Prime Minister, British politics currently has a very feminised face – is there now potential for there to be better dialogue around women’s issues in our society?
I think that being able to see women in prominent political positions always brings a certain benefit with it, because of the role modelling potential of girls being able to see those people in those positions. But I don’t think that we can necessarily assume that meaningful feminist change comes just as a result of having women in those positions, because of course their politics are what really matters. I think there are still very grave concerns under Theresa May’s leadership, for example the ring-fencing of funding for frontline women’s services, the detention of refugee women. I don’t think we can automatically tick the box and say a female leader solves women’s issues. It’s also important to look at the bigger picture. Only 191 out of our 650 MPs are female, less than a third. There are more men in parliament right now than there have ever been female politicians. We’re still dramatically underrepresented amongst the people who are making the decisions that affect out lives on a daily basis. There’s a very long way to go.
So you don’t think that women lead differently from men?
I don’t think that there is an automatic gendered approach to politics any more than there is to any other job. I think it’s interesting when you see that being touted in the media, that women will bring a new, softer, kind of politics. I think that’s a false assumption. I think it’s possible that we’re socialised into believing that men behave more aggressively and women have a more conciliatory or a more cooperative style, and of course that might be true for some women but I certainly don’t think that it’s accurate to suggest that all women have a single political style any more than we would do the same for men.
There has been much media discussion recently about sexual assaults on university campuses in the UK. Do you think that this is a systemic problem in UK higher education?
Absolutely. I think we’re several steps behind the US because, while they haven’t solved their epidemic of sexual offences on campus, they have recognised it. I think that that’s party mostly down to the work of incredible frontline activists, student survivors who have spoken out, who organised and campaigned and supported one another. It’s also because they have a President who’s been prepared to put this vocally and firmly on the agenda front and centre and at least now they are finally getting to grips with the fact that there is a problem. They now can do the next step of starting to tackle it. In the UK we’re still at the point of pointing to the US and saying look at the problem they have over there. I absolutely believe from my experience that we have a systemic sexual violence problem on campuses here in the UK and it hasn’t yet been exposed fully.
Do you think there needs to be more leadership around this issue politically?
Absolutely. I think politically, organisationally, from universities, from academic governing bodies, we are seeing so many cases where students are let down, where they are not being supported, where there are simply no processes in place at all to support or to deal with or to investigate cases of sexual violence when they are reported. The NUS (National Union of Students) has been doing really important work on this and has been pressing for some time for there to be really clear strong national guidelines for universities on dealing with sexual violence. That’s all going to be coming up in the next few months with reports coming out and I think it’s a very important area to focus on.
Do you think that ideas around feminism and gender equality are gaining greater traction in the contemporary UK, especially amongst young people?
I think that there certainly is real progress and movement on that front. I know that I’m visiting a lot of schools and universities, for example, right now, and seeing brand new feminist societies that have been set up in the last year or two. I’m seeing women’s officers where universities never had women’s officers before; seeing much more interest in activism around gender equality. We’re definitely seeing a burgeoning wave of feminism and that it’s absolutely having a major impact on campus, partly because it is so social media-driven and therefore accessible to young people.
But I don’t want to be complacent about that, because I’m also regularly going to schools and universities where young women who try to speak out about these issues are derided as feminazis, are told that they’re man-hating bitches, experience really quite serious abuse as a result. So I think in terms of tackling that stigma there’s still a really long way to go, even though progress is being made.
We might very soon have women at the helm of three of the five largest economies in the world. Do you think that that will have an impact on business, and help bring more women to the CEO suite?
Again, I hope that the role model factor will have an impact and that there will be a spillover effect in terms of our ideas shifting on what it means to be a leader and what it means to be a leader in what we have traditionally perceived as a male-dominated field. In that sense business and politics are very similar so I can see there being some knock-on impact in terms of perhaps girls growing up and thinking about the kinds of world that they can venture into. Having said that, I think that we have an enormous problem in business. In the UK, for example, we know that there are three times more men named John running FSTE 100 companies than all the women put together, which is just a laughable statistic. Even when there have been efforts, quotas, positive discrimination to try to bring women into higher roles in business, we still see them often being pushed into non-executive roles, being used as a kind of padding, rather than actually being given power. We’re still dealing with an enormous boy’s club atmosphere. The presence of a few women in very powerful positions won’t be enough to undermine and erode that on its own.
There is so much else that needs to be done and it has to be real combination of factors. In my view it needs pressure and action from the government on issues like shared parental leave and flexible working hours, and childcare initiatives, but it also needs action from organisations to really look at their pipelines, at their internal promotion processes, gender pay audits, at the way they’re treating their female staff, sexual harassment, which again I would suggest is an endemic but enormously underreported issue. But we also need a wider cultural shift. The fact that we often use the word businessman rather than businessperson, the fact that in children’s movies you’re much more likely to see the cartoon mum staying at home baking cookies, while the cartoon dad goes out with his briefcase – from such a young age we socialise children into thinking that certain roles are or aren’t available to them. And as difficult as it sounds to look at this as such a wide-ranging problem, I think that is the case and we’ll only realistically tackle it if we try to address those different threats at the same time. But I think that there’s certainly a strong argument for some form of short-term quotas as a means of pushing that beyond the very, very slow progress it’s having at the moment.
How much of the glass ceiling is attributable to culture (sexism) and how much to biology (the fact that it’s women who bear children and breastfeed)? Or is it impossible to separate culture from biology?
I think it’s very difficult to separate. These are questions that we can never have completely definitive answers to. But what’s really interesting is that when we ask the question about biology we’re prepared to stop and accept the answer at the point of “well, women bear children”. For me the interesting question is “why have we built a society in which that prevents women from excelling and progressing in their careers?” With really well supported and adequate maternity leave, shared parental leave, flexible working hours and times and excellent child care there’s no reason that we couldn’t build institutions and organisations in the professional world within which that biological fact wouldn’t necessarily mean that childbearing was a sentence for women’s career. So that is the really important question to ask.
What’s interesting is that we’re still really quite regressive in the way we discuss these issues. We still see debates in the media with prominent politicians and businesspeople saying that it shouldn’t be a company’s burden to have to cope with the cost of maternity leave. We still see this debate being phrased as if women selfishly and in isolation choose to go off and have children, when in reality this is something that we as a society need. Every time a woman has a child, there’s also somebody else who’s also getting a child but is not necessarily losing out in their job. As a society we need to make accommodations for that within our structures, and I don’t believe that it should be something that is mutually exclusive with careers for women. But I also think that it goes far beyond that. Even if you take into account the personal choices when women do choose to take time out and spend time with their family, the fact is that many are forced to, because of provisions not currently being adequate. Even if you look at women who don’t have children, there’s still a bias there, there’s still both overt discrimination and subconscious bias. So it goes far beyond that in terms of the problem itself for sure.
We socialise women and girls into having dollies and hearts and being taught that it’s their role to look after children. We often ridicule and emasculate men who try to take time off and spend time with their children. So it’s also a weak ground to suggest women make different choices and simply to accept that again as a kind of biological factor rather than a socialised one.
Maternity discrimination is massive. I mean, this is not always women making choices themselves to go off and take time off or step away from work. We know that 54,000 women a year lose their jobs because of maternity discrimination according to the most recent stats from EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission). Justice isn’t there. Since tribunal fees were introduced of up to £1,200 up front, under the last government, the number of tribunals being brought has plummeted by about 80 per cent with no corresponding uptick in success rates to suggest that those claims are being weeded out because they were spurious. We know that only three per cent of those 54,000 women were taking claims in the first place, so it’s not exactly as if they were getting justice before. There are a lot of thorny issues that need unpicking there…
Laura Bates (@EverydaySexism) is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of more than 100,000 women’s daily experiences of gender inequality. She is the author of two books, Everyday Sexism and Girl Up.