I had a conversation with my teenage daughter this morning about why a woman was murdered for walking home alone. We talked about how this woman had done all the right things – she was wearing trainers in case she needed to run, she’d promised to text a friend when she got home, and it was only 9pm – and yet still she was killed by a man she didn’t know. Not all men were this man, but for my daughter it could be any man she sees, and this is what needs to change. 

Just read those words again though. She’d done all the right things. My 16 year old daughter was angry that she should even have to do the ‘right’ things. She told me that she’s been cat-called from cars and vans regularly since she was 14, and she knows it’s only going to get harder.

She understands all the right things to do, so she has a great chance of avoiding an attack, but that’s not the point, she says. She should be able to walk home in the dark if she wants to. She should feel relaxed about turning up her music, putting both airpods in her ears, and wearing a short skirt. She shouldn’t have to be ready to run. 

But not all men are a risk to her, so why do all women worry about all of them?

Why do all women feel afraid of men? 

97% of women say they’ve experienced sexual assault or harassment. It may have been a small incident. They might even have laughed it off. But that’s all it takes for a woman to get nervous when she’s on her own and a man walks towards her on the street.

I’m willing to bet that 97% of men are pretty decent and would never touch a woman without their consent. But when we spot you heading our way we don’t know if you’re part of the 3% or not. 

Why should a woman’s fear of men affect you? 

Because it’s awful! It must be horrible to feel like every woman you pass on the street is thinking of you as a potential predator. I would hate that judgement, and it would quickly turn into a resentment. And that’s where the problem lies. Women are scared of men because of the very valid story they have in their heads. And men are angry that a potential accusation lurks at every turn. 

That’s why it’s incumbent on men as well as women to change the story for everyone, and it starts with the decent men. 

Why are women so sensitive about misogyny? 

I’ve had this post in my drafts for a long time. It began as a nagging thought in my head that I had not been a good enough feminist in my life. Because like most women, I have brushed off inappropriate attention from men many times. Because the rhetoric we live with told me it was normal, to be expected, just something you deal with. 

My story of sexual harassment and discrimination

The first time it happened

As a graduate trainee fresh out of university I had my first experience of ‘fending off’ my boss. I was 22 and I’d been with the company about 6 months. I worked in the pub industry and we were all out one evening in the pub where I lived. There were drinks till closing time, then it was a short jog up the fire escape to my room in the flat above.

My boss followed me. He was drunk, he didn’t touch me, he just said it would be nice if I invited him in for coffee. He pulled the boss card. I took a risk and said no. I was too tired, we both needed to get up in the morning, what would our teammates say, etc. 

I laughed it off. It was fine. My job was safe, it was never mentioned again, and I continued to progress at work. 

A boy who knew he was better than a girl

A few months later I was living above another pub, with fellow trainees. One of them, a year ahead of me, was fun to be around and we became friends. I would go running with him and we’d leave our doors open so we could chat. We were basically flatmates. He used to tell me his plans for the weekend, which mainly involved “getting [his] girlfriend’s spuds out.” 

That made me uncomfortable, but I laughed it off and we remained friends until work took us our separate ways. 

A sleazy approach from a colleague

Many years later, when I was just on the brink of a big promotion, I had another night out in a pub with my team. I ended the night in Stringfellows with a man who was senior to me, who’d bragged that it was difficult to get in but he knew the doorman. I’d had a few drinks, I’d never been in there and I wanted to see what it was like. 

He ordered champagne, we chatted about work, we had a few laughs and then I said I had to leave to get my last train home. He told me to stay, that he’d get us a taxi later, pay for it on expenses and come with me. Again, I laughed it off politely because after all, he was senior to me, and he’d said he wouldn’t tell my boss if I didn’t. Standard workplace misogyny. 

When misogyny lost me my job

12 years after my career began, when I was in a senior management role, that boy who got his girlfriend’s spuds out became my boss. He flirted with everyone, and people quickly fell under his charm. I made it clear I wouldn’t be part of that, and when the next round of restructuring and redundancies happened I was a casualty. 

I wanted to speak to the HR director about it, but I didn’t dare. She was the one who had bought all the women black armbands to wear at a conference the day before our boss got married. I was the only woman who remained seated and it was probably the final nail in my coffin. It was a paltry statement, but it was the bravest defiance of my CEO that I could manage. 

So far nothing beyond the norm, right? I was gutted about my job, but the misogyny and sexual discrimination stuff felt like it came with the territory of being a woman. It wasn’t a big deal, so why take it personally?

Why should the right decision be the most dangerous? 

I felt so proud of the woman who finally did stand up for herself with Stringfellows guy. She was a personnel manager so she knew her rights, but she was more junior than him, so it was a brave thing to do. He was fired, and it felt like a victory to me, and probably to other women in the organisation who’d never been brave enough to speak out. 

But it wasn’t enough. I’ve stewed over spuds guy ever since. At 54 I still remember how small he made me feel. At 32 I’d experienced numerous counts of sexual harassment at work, and sexual discrimination on the grounds of not wanting to flirt with my boss. 

What if it’s not just harassment? 

I read this tweet from Nicky Campbell today about how his daughter had challenged a couple of guys wolf-whistling at her from their car. 

I was ready to cheer, until I read one of the replies. It’s quite graphic in its advice about how lucky she was not to have been abducted, but it was right, I thought. It’s far too dangerous to defend yourself against ‘mild’ harassment. I’d better tell my daughter to just put up with it. 

At the age of 18 and on my first trip away from home I was groped on a crowded bus. He leaned up against me just a bit too hard, and for a bit too long for it to be a mistake. I said nothing and tried to inch away. When he put his hand under my skirt I pushed my way through the other passengers and moved to the opposite side of the bus. I said nothing. 

I got off the bus early, and he followed me. It was a busy street and I spotted a family with two small children ahead of me. In my stilted Spanish (I was an au pair in northern Spain on my first big adventure) I told them I was scared, and asked them to pretend they knew me. We walked together for a couple of minutes and then we went separate ways. 

I never gave this incident much thought afterwards, but it’s as clear as day to me now, 36 years later. My heart still races, and I can still feel the touch of his crotch against me. I’ve never given that young girl – only 18 months older than my own child – permission to be angry about what happened to her, because I thought it was just something that happens. 

Women need to feel safe when they're alone

Why women should be able to get angry

First of all, we are angry. I shouldn’t have felt intimidated by my boss at work because I didn’t want to sleep with him. My daughter shouldn’t have to worry that the cat-callers might do something worse to her if she tells them that their actions are unwanted and intrusive. She shouldn’t be expecting to be groped on the tube one day. 

Why men need to get angry too

Next to my desk is a photo of my son aged around 3 years. He was such a good person. Even then, kindness and decency shone out of him. He’s still like that, for all the teenage grumps that sometimes descend. He’s always had female friends, and they talk to him, because they know they can trust him. 

Looking at that picture makes me think that this is how all boys are born. No boy comes into the world thinking it’s normal to make fun of girls, no small child plans to intimidate a woman when he’s older, or to make derogatory comments about their bodies. But it happens. So where does misogyny come from? 

It’s hard to get your head around when you know you have huge respect for the women in your life and would never harm them. But you are part of the problem just because you’re a man. It’s not fair, but it is on you just as much as on women to change the behaviour of the few who are causing the problem. Because it’s the story that needs to change, and we’re all part of the story. You can’t wash your hands of it knowing that you’re not like them. 

But more importantly, when we don’t get angry we allow the attacks to continue. We enable them. That’s why women are angry. And it’s why men should get angry too. Everyone who has a mother, a daughter, a wife, a girlfriend or a sister wants to see them go unharmed, but keeping silent about this doesn’t improve their chances of it. 

Here’s a really good take on why men need to change the narrative, from a man who regrets not doing it:

Not all men, but all women

Misogyny is inherent in our society, much like racism. Whilst it’s not born into our personalities, it is acquired insidiously along the way, in our experiences of the world and the people around us. Someone laughs about a sexist meme and we laugh too, to be part of the gang. (Women do it too and it’s just as bad, but that’s another post – one that I will write, actually. Probably on International Men’s Day.)

It’s not all men. But it is all women. And men have a role to play in changing that narrative. Even the good ones. Especially the good ones. As Jameela Jamil has written this week: 

“You don’t get to exclude yourself from the wrong side unless you’re actively fighting on the right side.”

How to be a good ally to women

I’ve read many articles this week about how how men can be part of changing how a woman feels, and helping her see men in general as probable supporters rather than possible aggressors. Most of them focus on role-modelling, and that includes eliminating the systemic sexism that exists in daily life. 

  • Start by dispensing with gender stereotypes at home. Raise your kids to know that women and men have equal responsibility for household tasks and childcare, as well as financial stability. Teach your boys to clean as well as your girls – it may seem simplistic, but reinforcing these stereotypes underlines the implication that women’s tasks are menial, and that men’s time is more important.
  • Listen to women with understanding and don’t dismiss what they have have to say just because it feels uncomfortable.
  • Don’t make sexist jokes (about any gender).
  • Don’t assume a criticism of an action is an attack on your personality. It’s the small things that matter, and you might not have thought of something through the eyes of a woman. Be open to reframing if that’s what she’s asking for. 
  • Call it out when you see it, like this:

How to help women see you as an ally

The best article I’ve read about preventing women from seeing danger in a man is this one, and it’s mostly about men putting themselves in women’s shoes. Give her space on the street, don’t stare, or direct comments at her, no matter how innocuous they might seem to you. What you think of as flattery is intimidating to a woman who’s spending every minute of her walk home alone looking for ways to prevent danger. 

If that sounds exhausting, it is. But that’s what your daughter is doing every time she runs to the shop for a pint of milk. Because women are not just attacked in the park, after dark. It can happen minutes from their front doors. A little bit of mental energy from you to help a woman feel safe when she’s alone is a small price to pay for changing the way half the population feels about the other half. 

This is Helen, and I’m done speaking. 

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