Walking Home, Late at Night

Did you read the title and think “Don’t do that”? Would you have thought that if I was a guy?

I just read this story about sexual abuse. And I wasn’t going to comment, because nothing too bad has ever happened to me.

I mean obviously, there were all the times in senior school, when I was eleven or twelve, that men tried to chat me up at bus stops. Too many to remember, although one in particular stands out for asking me to guess all the things he wanted to do to me. I wanted to get away, but it was the bus stop I got off at and my mum was meeting me there. I ran to the car when she arrived.

I’ve had men rub up against me or grab my butt more times than I can remember on the Tube, coming home late at night. Sometimes I had been out with friends and was dressed up, sometimes I’d been at work and was in a suit. Sometimes it wasn’t late at night, just crowded enough for someone to get away with it. Christmas shopping crowds are a pain in the butt, literally.

It was a bit scary the time I went out with a group of female friends in London for New Year’s Eve. About ten of us in a line, trying to weave through the crowds to where we were going, holding hands so that we didn’t get separated. I was last in the line, because no one else wanted to be. One guy grabbed me by the crotch and literally lifted me off the ground, trying to drag me away from my friend. He was with a group of about five or six men, so I was clinging on to my friend’s hand trying not to be dragged away, and she was clinging on to me and the person in front of her, trying to get the line to stop and come help me. That was quite scary.

But the scariest bit is that this is all routine. So many women I know have the same sort of stories. It hasn’t happened to them once – it happens regularly. We just don’t go out at night, or don’t go out alone, we self-censor our lives. Being in a pub or bar alone – dangerous. Being in a crowd alone – dangerous. Travelling at night alone – dangerous. Going to a club alone – wouldn’t even think of it.

Men sometimes make fun of this. Women – always hang about in groups at a club. Women, always going to the toilet together. Women, walking each other to a taxi rank. Aren’t they supportive? Aren’t they gossipy? Aren’t they silly?

No, we’re not silly. We’re afraid. And all the harassment and abuse is just there to remind us that we do need to be. If we venture out alone, if we’re over-confident, bad things happen. I don’t think men, even really supportive feminist guys, really have a clue how deeply ingrained in our behaviour this stuff is. And it all starts with these accounts of abuse that you’re reading, happening when we’re still children, that show us that we’re not safe alone.


“Lean In” in the Time of GamerGate

I made a connection just recently. I joined the dots between some different, apparently unrelated things that I’d read, and had an “Aha!” moment. And I need to get it down in a blog post because it’s bugging me.

Here’s your starter question: what’s the connection between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin, and Sheryl Sandberg? (Answer at the end).

A while ago, at the suggestion of a colleague at work, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. It’s an okay book, a bit meh. It has a few good pieces of advice, and it’s obviously well-meaning. If you haven’t read it, the gist is this: women sabotage their own careers by not being assertive enough. They “lean back”, when they should “lean in”. Try harder, girls!

The trouble is that just didn’t ring true for me. It’s not that I don’t agree that you need to be assertive to succeed in business, nor do I think that women should be allowed to succeed more easily than men – so Sandberg’s advice seemed reasonable. I couldn’t even disagree that I had stopped “leaning in”. But at the times in my career when I had been trying hard, leaning in, being assertive – it hadn’t helped. I’d had more problems, not fewer, and some of my worst career problems came about when I was being assertive.

Still, maybe I was being too assertive. Maybe I was too aggressive, too angry, too scary, not a team player. It’s possible, certainly. I’d come to that conclusion in the past, and read anger management books, and self esteem books, and tried to fix my problems. I’d learned how to give coaching and feedback, and how to grow people. It definitely made me a better manager, and better at relating to people.

It made my career worse. I tried not being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive in a less confrontational way, and … well, you get the idea. That was when I stopped “leaning in”. That was when I gave up. So I guess that the reason I’m not succeeding is that it’s my fault. I gave up, when I should have “leaned in”. Thanks, Sheryl. At least now I know.

And then, just recently, I put two and two together. I woke up in the middle of the night, and thought: yes, but what about GamerGate?

GamerGate, in case you haven’t been following it, is many things. But mainly, it’s a particularly nasty group of mostly-male trolls attacking women who dare to have opinions, especially feminist opinions, online. This is not “attacking” in the sense of disagreeing with them. Yes, it’s absolutely fine to disagree with a woman online. This is not even just “attacking” in the sense of posting nasty, repulsive messages to them online – although I think that being told multiple times per day that you should be raped or killed is beyond what anyone could deal with. But GamerGate is posting women’s home addresses online, lurking outside their offices, phoning in bomb threats to the police if they try to give a talk. You can read a summary here or here or here.

Then there’s this article on Paul Elam, founder of a men’s rights movement. Or you could look what Richard Herring tackles every year on International Women’s Day. Now, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I’m starting to understand why women are reluctant to be assertive and push their opinions.

Of course, this could just be a few people. It could be just in the US, for instance. In the UK, we’re far more modern. Oh, except that UKIP have some fairly worrying ideas about a woman’s place – “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” almost.But the really bad stuff wouldn’t happen in the UK, would it? It’s not like you could get in trouble for something as simple as asking for a woman’s picture to be on at least one banknote. Or that an MP could receive rape and death threats just for agreeing with her? Goodness me, the way we women complain, you’d think you could get threats just for being the subject of a joke by someone else about hosting a TV programme, even after you’ve firmly denied that you would ever do that job. No, I’m sure than Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Sue Perkins were just making a fuss. It’s perfectly safe to offer an opinion if you’re a woman. Be assertive. Lean in.

Besides, it’s not like online abuse translates into real abuse. No correlation – oh wait. Yes there is. It’s still relatively early days for Twitter in terms of academic studies, but there is plenty of evidence that verbal abuse in relationships is an early warning sign for physical abuse.

Still, these are all rare cases. It’s not like there’s sexism everywhere, every day.

Never mind, women, just lean in. Push your case. Offer up your opinions. Fight your corner. You’ll most likely live through it. Most women don’t get killed by someone they annoyed. (Just a few. A small number. Tiny. Only two women per week are killed in domestic violence). Most women might encounter anger at worst.

At this point, if you’re still reading this, you probably fall into one of three camps. Camp #1 are furious that I am still trying to argue for women’s equality, because that stuff is bullshit. If this is you, you may leave now. This blog post isn’t addressed to you, and I’m aware that you disagree with me. No point hanging around. Bye now.

Or you may be in camp #2. You may be convinced that there is a real problem, and that we should tackle it. (Yes, I’m aware – and grateful – that many men are in this camp too. Richard Herring and Graham Linehan are two of the more public men doing sterling work calling out this sort of shit on Twitter).

Or, you may be in camp #3. You agree that there is sexism, but you still think a lot of women sabotage themselves. After all, you’ve encountered difficult people in your career, many times, it’s not only women who face these problems. It’s not personal.

That’s a fair point. Lets address it. Let’s try a quick thought experiment.

Think of someone difficult that you’ve encountered at work, and dealt with. Someone confrontational, irrational and argumentative.

Remember how you dealt with them. Maybe sidestepped them? Maybe minimized contact with them? Maybe got them distracted with another issue? Maybe got to know them and formed a rapport so that the encounters became more productive? 

Now imagine this. Suppose that their behaviour towards you WAS personal. Suppose that you argued with them one time, and that they won’t go away. They’re not just irrational in general, but they’re specifically determined to win arguments against you, because they don’t think you are entitled to disagree with them.

They go out of their way to start arguments with you whenever you talk to them. They won’t admit they’ve lost even if the evidence is clearly against them. They’re fixated on specifically destroying you, as often and as many times as possible.

Your job gets untenable. You’re trying to deal with this, but it’s a drain on your time. You have trouble juggling the other stuff you’re trying to get done. Let’s assume that it doesn’t affect your mood (although, let’s be honest, it probably would) – you are still losing valuable time out of your day. So you bring this up with other people for advice.

No-one else, it turns out, has the same sort of problem. They all agree that this person is difficult, but everyone else manages to deal with it. Maybe you’re just handling it wrong? Be less aggressive. Be less confrontational. Be less shrill.

You don’t just get this advice informally. It’s on your performance review, too. This is your problem. Someone else has taken personal offence to you arguing with them once, is seeking you out in order to obstruct you, but it’s your fault. You did something wrong. You’re not doing your job properly. You are to blame.

That won’t stop you offering your opinions in future, right? Next time you’re about to argue with someone, you won’t subconsciously remember this and keep quiet, will you? Not the first time. Not the second. How many times would you need that to happen before you just started shutting up and keeping your head down? How many times do you have to be personally targeted for expressing an opinion before you stop?

Never mind, don’t answer. You get the point. Let’s wrap this up.

At the beginning, I asked what the connection was between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin and Sheryl Sandberg. And the answer is NOT that they all hate women, because Sheryl Sandberg is a feminist, and she’s trying to help. The answer is that they all think that the problem is caused by women, and that it will be fixed if women change. Elam and Baldwin want women to shut the fuck up and do as they’re told. Sandberg admits that there is sexism, but she thinks that we can overcome it if women just try harder.

I used to believe that.

To Dylan Sharpe: An explanation

Re: The Sun’s Head Of PR Apologises For Page 3 Tweet After Receiving Death Threats

I don’t really think that Dylan Sharpe doesn’t understand what he did wrong. But after reading the article above, I realise that he’s clearly not very bright, and it’s just possible that I’m misjudging him. So I thought I’d be kind and put together a quick breakdown of why people are upset at him and are calling him a cockwomble. (Great phrase, by the way). I’ve underlined a few key words to help make it easier to follow.

Dear Dylan Sharpe (aka Cockwomble),

1. Your newspaper, who you officially represent (being the PR person) has for years published pictures of topless women. Many people (men and women) find this demeaning and think that it belittles women. Some women have started a campaign asking the newspaper to stop doing it.

2. This week, your newspaper deliberately set out to trick those women into believing that it had stopped, then suddenly restarted. That sort of trick is intended to demean and belittle the person it is played on.

Before you say “but I did warn you that we hadn’t said we’d stop”, let me quote your “apology”.

Between late afternoon on Monday, until Wednesday evening, I refused to comment on speculation about the demise of page 3. That was my job and I executed it, despite upsetting a number of journalists I considered good friends.

Then, on Wednesday night, came ‘the big reveal’. Oh how we laughed.

Does that sound like someone who was trying to correct an unfortunate misapprehension, or someone playing a trick to make others look stupid? To belittle and demean them, in fact?

3. Then, having deliberately played a trick to try to make the “No More Page 3” campaigners look stupid, you tweeted some of them a picture of a topless woman – the very thing that (see point 1) they found demeaning and belittling.

4. Not content with that, you included another woman – Harriet Harman – who wasn’t even part of the campaign. She just, for no apparent reason, had a man tweet a gloating picture of a naked woman into her Twitter feed. She probably found that to be demeaning and belittling too.

5. Those women were angry at you. Other woman were angry at you. Lots of men were also angry at you. You thought this was surprising and unfair. Do you still think so?

I’m not sure if this helps to clear things up. If you can’t piece it together from this, then there’s probably no point trying to explain further. If some daylight is starting to dawn, however, maybe you could try apologising again, properly? It won’t undo the damage. But it might (might) make people believe you’re not a total cockwomble.


PS. Those death threats. Could you retweet a couple? Just so that we know you’re not lying? Because – no offence – you’ve got form for lying in recent days, and apparently you feel no remorse if you think it’s part of your job. So, while I hate to doubt your word, I have reason to do so. If you have genuinely received death threats, then that is of course unacceptable. You should report them to the police. They might follow up on them for you. Caroline Criado-Perez can walk you through the procedure, she’s been there.

“That’s Just How It Is”

In the last week alone, I’ve come across a lot of variants of this phrase.
* That’s just how it is.
* That’s how it works.
* I’m just stating the obvious.
* I’m just being honest.
* Just stating the facts.
I’m sure you can come up with plenty of variants of your own. You’re talking about a problem and trying to come up with solutions, and someone – kindly or otherwise – points out that you’re not being realistic because “that’s just the way things are”. Accept the problem. Stop daydreaming and wishing things were different. Face facts.

Heck, I’ve even used the phrase myself. Sometimes you have to be realistic, right?

Well, no.

I DO have to face facts. I have to accept what life is like, here and now. I do not have to accept that this is how things will always be.

Look at it this way. Let’s take a fact. People can’t walk through walls. Question: is there a physical, chemical or biological reason that it must be true? Yes, there is a physical reason – walls are solid. Okay, then it’s a fact. People can’t walk through walls. I accept that.

Most of the times you hear the phrase, it will not be referring to that sort of fact. It will be talking about the current situation, based on our current behaviour. And unlike the laws of physics, our behaviour can change – and does, all the time.

So next time you hear someone say “that’s just how it is”, make sure you ask yourself the follow-up: “Is that just how it HAS to be?”. And if not, go right ahead and try to change things.

Eddy Shah and the age of consent

So, I saw this. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23653172

Eddy Shah claims that girls below the age of consent can can be “to blame” for the abuse they receive. Which made me so cross I needed to rant.

Where to start? Sigh. There’s a reason that there’s an age of consent. It’s not because we presume that people below that age won’t want sex. If that was the case, they would never consent, and we wouldn’t need the age limit. We could just say “no sex without consent”.

The law has an age limit because we presume that below the age of consent, young girls don’t necessarily know what they’re agreeing to, and are likely to end up damaged or exploited. They may lack the knowledge of what they’re getting into physically, they may lack the knowledge of what they’re getting into emotionally. They may be unable to withstand emotional pressure, or they may simply have no consideration of the consequences. They may well ask someone older for sex, and that someone older is not allowed to say yes.

“But these girls were going out with pop groups and becoming groupies and throwing themselves at them.”

Yes, that’s true. They’re probably dreaming that the lead singer of that group will meet them, fall in love with them, and they’ll get married and have a perfect life together. They’re probably not thinking they’ll have a quick one-night stand, maybe be expected to sleep with multiple people, and then get ditched, possibly (if they’re really lucky) with an interesting new disease. They’re probably not expecting that it’ll hurt and they’ll lose all their dreams in one night – because not only did the guy of their dreams not fall in love with them, but they’ve discovered that he’s not even a nice guy.

“Young girls and young men have always wanted a bit of excitement when they are young. They want to appear adult and do adult things.”

Also true. Of course, my five-year-old wants to use sharp knives in the kitchen and do rock climbing without ropes, because “I’m sure I can, Mummy, I’m old enough and I’m really good at it”. You know what? I say no.

Eddy Shah, fuck off. You fail basic logic, and you fail basic humanity, and you are exactly the sort of person that made this law necessary.

When Diversity Isn’t

Diversity. Companies want it.

A lot of companies are keen on diversity at the moment. There’s a lot of discussion about how company performance benefits from having the ability to hire the best from any group, about how diversity helps to avoid groupthink, and so forth. A lot of companies are putting significant effort into hiring and trying to retain people from minorities or under-represented groups. They’re really trying, and they’re sinking a lot of money into it. It’s all very praiseworthy and a big step in the right direction.

Here’s why I don’t think it’s working.

First, some background. I’ve had research quoted to me (I can’t find the link, but if anyone posts me the details I’ll add it) that, excluding cases of discrimination, gay employees who are “out” have better career progression that those in the closet. Basically, not having to pretend all the time makes it easier to have a fulfilling career. Makes sense, right?

Of course, that applies to gay employees, who have the choice whether to be out or not. For women or black employees, they have no choice about revealing who they are, right?


Sure, everyone knows that they’re women, or that they’re black. But in a million small ways, every day, we’re made to pretend we’re not. To act just like the typical company white guy. Don’t show emotion. Be competitive/aggressive. Use ‘business’ english. Use the ‘right’ ‘professional’ words and phrases. Promote yourself and your successes. Speak up in meetings, be heard. Show that you want promotion; ask for advancement. Don’t understate your abilities. Apply for promotions when a guy would, not when you feel ready. Build functional networks not friendship groups. Make sure you’re showing your expertise (usually by winning arguments/discussions). Be assertive. Be direct; avoid polite phrases that men wouldn’t use. Win, win, win.

In other words, pretend to be someone you’re not.

Now, none of these things are that hard, in themselves. I can do them. Every single one is doable. You learn the behaviours, you practice them until you get good at it, you carry on. Let’s be honest, guys, this stuff isn’t rocket science.

But there are two costs. Firstly, you’re behaving in a way that’s not natural to you. It takes effort. The more perfect the pretence has to be, the more effort it takes. As you progress up the career ladder, more and more of your energy and effort is going to maintain this facade. The more like the stereotype you are naturally, the less the ‘cost’ of fitting it. The further away, the more you have to pretend, the higher the cost. But everyone is probably paying a bit. Worse, you probably don’t even realise. You’ve automated these behaviours, and you just wonder why you’re tired and can’t seem to achieve as much, and work isn’t fun any more.

Aside: Yes, I know white men feel like this too. Because (gasp) white men are diverse too. There are few men who are exactly like the stereotype, and everyone else is pretending too. So if you’re a white man reading this and thinking “I feel like that too, it’s just work, why is she complaining?” the answer is: (a) because I’m probably having to pretend more than you, and (b) because if you support true diversity for me, you’ll help yourself too. If I’m allowed to be me, then you’re allowed to be you. Wouldn’t you like that?

So, what companies are providing, in many cases, isn’t true diversity. It’s more of the same. You can have any gender, ethnicity, religion if you behave just like me.

And of course, here’s the real joke. This kind of diversity – fake diversity, skin-deep diversity – won’t achieve the diversity gains the companies are hoping for anyway. You won’t avoid groupthink if you make everyone think the same. You won’t improve innovation if you exclude anyone who thinks differently.

I wanted to end on a positive note, but I just can’t think of one now. I’m tired and cross. I assume that this will work its way through, and fail, and people will learn from the experience. I assume (hope) that one day we’ll end up with real diversity. I suspect it’ll be after my career is over, but maybe my son will benefit. Or maybe his children.

I just wish there was a way to make this work quicker. Because right now, I’m watching most of the women in my generation, just like my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations, getting written off. Wasting their potential. And it hurts.