This spring, I suddenly started to notice how differently the word treats me, simply because I’m a woman. And then I decided to do something about it.
I noticed men looking me up and down in the street. I heard the muttered comments they would share with a smirk as I walked past and felt the burning embarrassment of the louder ones they would shout at the tops of their voices.
I noticed the way I was treated differently from male colleagues in my profession – how the words and terms used to address me denoted slightly less respect and the correspondence I was sent contained marked differences with specific reference to my gender.
In shops and banks, on courses and in social groups, I realised how frequently I was being judged on the basis of my appearance alone, and how many assumptions were made about my abilities and preferences because of my sex.
But I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, I felt embarrassed. Like I had a guilty secret. So I developed coping mechanisms and strategies to cover my embarrassment. I started crossing the street to avoid passing the particular fishmonger where I knew the male staff frequented the doorway and would lick their lips and comment on my breasts.
I started wearing chunkier jumpers and longer skirts to try to protect myself from the embarrassment of shouts in the street. I even started using male pseudonyms for certain online communications, amazed at the difference in the professionalism and promptness of the response.
But I still kept it to myself – after all, this was a normal, everyday state of affairs, not something to complain about. And no one else talked about it. When men shouted at me in the street, nobody stopped or commented – passers-by didn’t stand up for me, or throw me sympathetic looks, or protest.
When a pair of men on the back of a lorry exclaimed “look at the tits on that!” and started loudly and explicitly detailing what they might like to do with my body a few feet away from me, another pedestrian walked calmly by, studiously inspecting his shoes.
And because nobody else was talking about it, I had the nagging, niggling feeling that perhaps it was actually my fault – perhaps I wasn’t dressing or behaving in quite the right way, or perhaps it was natural that a young woman like me would be taken less seriously than a man in professional interactions.
And everywhere I looked, the messages I saw supported the idea that women are there to be treated differently to men. I saw the pictures of unrealistically thin women in underwear or naked on the sides of buses, in adverts, on billboards, in magazines. I saw four times as many men in parliament as there were women.
I saw mostly men being quoted in newspaper articles about politics and law and predominantly male boardrooms and boys’ clubs at the very top of big businesses.
Of course each of these individual issues is complex, with many different causes and permeations. But together, and combined with a myriad of personal experiences of harassment and intimidation, they began to form an overwhelming picture of a society that valued me less and treated me in a particular way simply because I was a woman.
When I did mention some of the situations I had encountered to male friends, they told me I was overreacting and suggested I lighten up, or learn to take a compliment.
Away from the reality of the experience, it was difficult to convey to them just how much more complex the situation was – how different the feeling of a ‘compliment’ is when it is given forcefully, in public, by a total stranger who assumes his right to block your path, or comment explicitly on your intimate body parts.
When I mentioned my frustration at the wider instances of gender inequality I was increasingly becoming aware of – in politics and business and within the media, I mostly met with a blank refusal to accept the facts.
Again and again it was implied that I was being a ‘rampant feminist’ or a ‘bra burner’; looking for female supremacy, when, people assured me, sexism was really no longer an issue in our society.
They told me that women were, to all intents and purposes, equal – ‘career girls’ could have their cake and eat it, that I had no idea how much better off we were than women in other parts of the world.
I decided to set up the Everyday Sexism Project after I started asking female friends and family, acquaintances and colleagues and even strangers about their own experiences with sexism. I thought that perhaps one or two of them would know what I was talking about or have similar experiences to share.
The reality was an enormous shock. Every single woman I spoke to launched immediately into detailed accounts of sexism and sexual harassment experienced at work, on the street, in business…
These were not stories that began with ‘once’, or ‘when I was at university’, or ‘a few years ago’. They were preceded by ‘on my way here’, or ‘yesterday’, or ‘well, most days.’
The more women I talked to, the more I realised just how enormously widespread the problem was. I also realised that the people who had told me I was overreacting had only heard about a single, isolated incident of harassment or sexism.
If they realised this was happening to thousands of women every single day they would look at the problem differently?
So, five months ago, I set up the Everyday Sexism Project to enable everybody to see the birds-eye view of the world that had suddenly unrolled like a vast map of sexism before my own eyes.
The project is an ever-increasing collection of thousands of stories of sexism experienced by women around the world. In just over 5 months, the project has received nearly 6500 entries, with the last 5000 flooding in in just the last month as the momentum has gathered and word has spread.
The stories range from girls being harassed on their way to school to elderly women and wheelchair users facing jibes about women drivers to female managers being greeted in meetings with 'milk, two sugars thanks, love'.
I wanted to show women who experience sexism that they are not alone and they do absolutely have the right to stand up to it, no matter how normalised or insidious it seems.
I wanted women to know that sexism isn’t a guilty secret, because they aren’t to blame and they didn’t have to keep quiet about it.
And I wanted to convince the people who thought sexism was no longer a problem that they were wrong – it’s just an invisible problem.
I hope that the hundreds of thousands of hits the site has received and the 6500 accounts of everyday sexism we have collected so far are a step towards ensuring that it won’t be an invisible problem anymore.
Tell us your experiences of sexism at the Everyday Sexism Project - or in the comments below.
Follow the campaign on Twitter @everydaysexism.