Everyday Sexism – a child’s experience

As the mother of three girls, I am constantly aware of the sexism they face. It is endemic in society.

Last week, having tea with the family, my 12-year-old daughter asks for another drink, and the waiter says, ‘Right away, young man.’ It happens to her constantly – she has a very short haircut, but that’s all.

On holiday in San Francisco last year, the same child was allowed to (dangerously) hold on to the bars of a streetcar, half hanging out the door, having the time of her life, with the staff encouraging her, “That’s right, boy!”. If they had realised she was a girl, I am sure they would not have allowed her to hang out the open doorway in the same way. Sexism, on that day, had its benefits.

And then my daughter, participating in a tennis class, has the boys gang up on her because she was winning points against them. She was reduced to tears and escaped to the changing room before anyone noticed. I complained to the coach afterwards, he apologised and had a word with the boys. But it happened, nevertheless, and was certainly not the first time she experienced harassment on the court.

Why is gender still such an issue? When we had our first daughter, 17 years ago, I made a point of saying we wished to raise her in a gender-neutral environment – some family members were aghast. I requested no pink outfits, decorated the baby’s room in greens and yellow, and made a point of buying my daughter a Lego trainset for her first Christmas. But as soon as she started playgroup, gender stereotyping set in. And now she is the girliest of my three girls – nothing to do with me.

Over the holidays I have dipped into a book by Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism. Her chapter on girls is harrowing, with many stories of what girls in the UK regularly experience, from a very young age. This goes beyond gendered toys and being told what careers would be suitable – it is young girls getting catcalls on the street when wearing a school uniform, teachers shouting to boys not to be beaten by a girl in a cross-country race, girls judged by how they look rather than what they can do.

Needless to say, the ramifications on girls are humongous – poor self-esteem, body image issues, self-harm, depression, accepting abuse as a matter of course.

I posit that the #metoo campaign and the recent heightened awareness on harassment issues have uncovered a much deeper problem. It starts with how we raise our children, how we treat children, and the gender inequality that permeates society from birth onwards. Children pick up all the signals of boys being treated differently than girls, and then, as children grow older, many live out those stereotypes. And everyday sexism is perpetuated through the generations.

I don’t have a solution, just ongoing frustration that my daughters are putting up with versions of what I put with as a child. When will this change?

The Everday Sexism Project can be followed on twitter


* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com.

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  • Peter Martin 28th Dec '17 - 9:07am

    Things are changing, albeit slowly. in the early 90’s, I was coaching a youth (soccer) football team in Australia and I was somewhat taken aback when one of the parents suggested that we could have a cheerleader squad in action at half time! Needless to say the cheerleaders were all female and the team were all male.

    I did my best to discourage this. I expressed my opinion the girls would have been better playing themselves than waving pom-poms in the air. I was accused of being a killjoy! But women’s football has grown a lot since that time. The club now has almost as many female players as male players. The football world generally is keen to promote the women’s game.

    So progress is possible. But resistance to change doesn’t all come from us males. Often it is the mothers themselves who are much too conservative in assigning gender roles for their children.

  • nigel hunter 28th Dec '17 - 9:32am

    Yes it is slow progress and the parents do have a responsibility of developing their children. My youth was playing with both sexes with the parents either at work or ‘passing the day together’ We were left to develop our own personalities with no parent interference, the parents ‘too busy’.
    Today parents fear giving their children room to experiment to explore ,seem to be more protective. Mixing together at an early age with opposite sex doing similar things and saying both can achieve together could be encouraged. Parents should give their children encouragement not over protection.

  • Buying gender neutral toys and dressing in gender neutral colours is a step in the right direction.

  • nigel hunter 28th Dec '17 - 10:35am

    My comment is a personal one that goes back to the 50s a different era all together..We moved from the slums of Leeds to the outer suburbs, paradise in a new environment. We developed our personalities through trial and error, but with no supervision. Today is different. Whilst we thought we were a ‘gang’ of kids of both ages today this commaraderie seems to have changed. Today life is more structured ,controlled.

  • Steve Trevethan 28th Dec '17 - 10:54am

    Sexism is a type of bullying. Those who suffer from being bullied may be helped by learning a suitable martial art. It reduces the feelings of victim hood, builds social confidence and conveys forms and feelings of disciplined power.

  • Kirsten Johnson 28th Dec '17 - 11:56am

    Why do we genderise? Surely the response of a waiter or anyone else could be made without any reference to gender. A “Yes, of course” is all that’s necessary.

    Stereotypes associated with hair or dress are out-dated.

    Thanks everyone for reading.

  • Kirsten
    “Why do we genderise?”
    A question I often ask and I would ask of several of the examples above. But in the restaurant case it is not ‘genderising’ it is personalising. F you were to go in to a local coffee shop where they knew you they may say “right away, Kirsten” if it were a restaurant with a more formal setting tey may say “right away, Ms Johnson” and if they didn’t know you “right away, madam” to a girl the equivalent is “right away, young lady.” You have found a time when they ha v misidentified your child’s gender, mistakes happen particularly when people are busy, I have seen men with beards accidentally called “madam” by busy staff. It is normally followed by a second of embarrassment before everyone moves on, dwelling on it seems to have no benefit.

  • Kirsten
    As to how you have genderised examples that may not have been above I have a comment sat in the filter but there is a more general point. If you are seeing every negative experience as being due to sexism you are probably passing this on to your children, I would warn against this. Of the women I know who have risen to high positions in business they tend to look to see how an issues that arises are common, assuming that a man in the same position would suffer the same hurdle, or an equivalent one if there is not an exact match. This gives them a benefits over someone who’s default assumption is sexism.

    For a start there are a lot more colleagues who they assume will have possibly experienced the issue and have a way to deal with it (or an equivalent).

    It opens more opportunities to bond with peers about some of the unpleasant experiences in life where everyone has to suffer through, building stronger bonds with people who they are (/may be in the future) on a team with.

    It opens their minds to more possible mentors who could benefit them over a potentially limited pool of people who they assume don’t face the challenges.

    It also reassuring that when things are bad for you it is something everyone else is unhappy with and not her being specifically targeted, something that is even more emotionally wearing.

    I would ask you how much you assume that something is gendered, and how that passes on to your kids. LDV often has pieces now written where the assumption is that gender is the cause but objectively there is not the evidence to support that assumption. In addition that assumption immediately limits your range of responses, to get the best outcome it helps to be able to fully analyse the issue and have a full range of actions you can take in response these assumptions limit rather than expands your possible responses. I know what I would rather a young girl growing up had in dealing with the world.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Dec '17 - 3:10pm

    Like you Kirsten, I have three daughters but one is now 40 and the other two in their thirties. I dressed my daughters in gender neutral clothes and bought them toys that were traditionally classed as boys’ like train sets, remote controlled cars etc. I mistakenly thought the rest of the world had moved with me, but when I went shopping for my first grandchild, a girl, I was amazed that the store had girls’ clothes and boys’ clothes. Because I had suffered from abuse because I was a girl in my childhood, the sort of thing you describe, I felt this discrimination had more of an effect on girls. However, when my third grandchild was born I realised the paucity of fun clothing for boys. Acres of grey and navy were so depressing, no glitter, jewellery, headbands, bows, or colourful designs for them. At least there were dinosaurs. But then I heard a catch phrase ‘girls like dinosaurs too’ and of course they do, but their dinosaurs come in pink and turquoise!
    Unfortunately both boys and girls suffer from this gender stereotyping with Lewis Hamilton’s nephew being the most recent example. Boys must be allowed to be soft, gentle, caring and sensitive just as girls’ can be physically tough and adventurous. Fairies and unicorns are both mythical creatures and should be allowed to help develop the imagination of boys and girls.

  • As my list of the topics didn’t make it through the filter I’ll just add the missing ones.
    In terms of your claim about how people would react in a SanFran Cable car, I’m going to assume that you didn’t regularly do this so you are speculating based upon pre-existing biases about peoples greater concerns for girls safety. Without actually viewing multiple examples of both speculation is pointless.
    As for the kids picking on someone who is doing well (in your case your daughter at tennis). This is a normal everyday thing, the smartest kinds in class getting picked on is a stereo type for a reason (Warner Brothers made quite a lot of money from that one). The kid who does well in certain sports can be picked on yet can sometimes come to be accepted but an initial disruption to an established order can cause friction. That is leaving aside about the use of negatives as a positive in predominantly make groups, as I can’t imagine anyone who was not there and didn’t know the existing dynamic could comment on that. Kids can be cruel, sometimes intentionally sometimes not, being told it is because of a factor about yourself you can’t change may not do you too many favours.

  • As to your comment about the gender neutral environment, as you say the is the “girliest” isn’t is just possible that is her personality. If we were able to control how our children turned out as easily as you appear to have wanted too all of your children would have been the same level of “girliness” if she is happy why worry?

    I think we have seen the explosion of heavily polarized girls and boys toys/clothes in the last 15 years and it is irritating but I wouldn’t over weigh what it means. I certainly remember many boys having clothes with far too much gearish florescent pink (and toys to match) in the late 80s and early 90s. Fashions come and go, hopefully the trend will reverse on this but kids tend to be able to have a better selection with clothing and toy colours, there are a lot of other things that are probably more unhealthy for their mental health than those.

  • jayne mansfield 29th Dec '17 - 8:10pm

    @ Kirsten Johnson,
    You have every reason to be concerned about the environment in which your daughters are growing up.

    As someone who was brought up in the ‘pink for girls blue for boys era’, I am uncertain as to why young girls are under a level of stress that is far beyond what I and many of my generation experienced, I suspect it is multifactorial. It is something that needs to be investigated through good research, without pre-conceived notions of what the outcome might be.

    I struggle with the fact that anyone would knowingly allow a child, boy or girl to indulge in dangerous behaviour. Danger to life is my one red line when it comes to choices of ochildren.

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