The Sexism Everyday Project, launched by campaigner Laura Bates, shows that sexism in these days of perceived equal opportunities and gender equality is far from dead. Laura Bates took on Facebook and won.
The British writer and campaigner explained to the Business and Professional Women of the Cayman Islands at a lecture in Camana Bay in June how she and two other women in the United States challenged and convinced the social media giant to vet and remove images depicting and glorifying violence against females on Facebook.
Bates, 26, is founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which aims to highlight how widespread sexism is despite the plethora of equal opportunity laws and legislation against discrimination, harassment and sexual assault.
Repeated efforts and a 200,000-signature petition had not been enough to get Facebook to police images inciting violence against women, but within a week of Bates joining forces with writer Soraya Chemaly and creator of Women, Action and the Media Jaclyn Friedman, Facebook changed its definition of hate speech to include incitement of violence against women and amended its moderation policy for accepting images showing women who had been beaten and abused.
“These were images of women bloodied, battered and beaten, images of women lying at the bottom of stairs [with comments] saying ‘Next time, don’t get pregnant’, incitement to sexual assault and domestic violence. Despite huge efforts from individuals and women’s organisations and a petition that gained 200,000 signatures, Facebook absolutely refused to do anything about it,” Bates said.
She told a packed audience at the Regal cinema on Friday, 28 June, that there had been a proliferation on Facebook of images of rape and violence and while Facebook had a content moderation policy on racial prejudice and anti-Semitism, for example, it refused to remove or ban images of beaten and abused women because it considered that such pictures did not constitute hate speech.
Bates, Chemaly and Friedman started an online campaign in which they asked Facebook users to take screenshots of rape and domestic violence content and use social media, such as Twitter, to publicly ask advertisers whose ads appeared on Facebook pages where the images could be seen, if they wished to be associated with these images. The campaign led to several large major advertisers suspending their Facebook marketing campaigns.
On 29 May, Facebook capitulated, releasing a statement in which it said it was reviewing its guidelines and evaluations of reports of hate speech to include content that threatens or incites gender-based violence or hate. Its statement read, in part, that the company was taking steps to “reduce the proliferation of content that could create an unsafe environment for users”.
It continued: “In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want. In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria.
“We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will.”
Bates described the actions of the 60,000 individuals who joined the campaign and the 6,000 people who directly emailed advertisers to ask them to pull their Facebook ads as an example of how collective action can make positive change and how people can “stand up to things that were previously considered normal”.
In one instance, a protester recreated an image that Facebook had refused to take off the site. It showed a graphic portrait of a young girl with two black eyes, but the protester used a composite of photos of Dove’s own Twitter followers. He released the image with the words: “Dove, these are your customers.” Others then filled Dove’s Facebook page with requests for it to remove its advertisements from Facebook.
“What the Everyday Sexism Project has demonstrated is that we can make a change if we work together,” she said, adding that the project offers a voice to women who hitherto had their complaints or concerns about sexism in the workplace or harassment on the street or on public transport ignored or dismissed.
“Women have been unable to talk about these issues for so long because they were ridiculed and shouted down and it’s an incredibly effective way of silencing somebody – to suggest that they’re making a fuss and they don’t have a sense of humour because it isolates them… and makes them feel incredibly vulnerable,” said Bates.
The Sexism Everyday Project arose as a result of Bates’ personal experiences of sexism, for example, verbal sexual harassment from male motorists and workmen and being touched inappropriately on a bus. She told of an incident during which a man on a bus started rubbing her leg deliberately and because she was on the phone to her mother at the time, Bates said loudly that she was moving seats because the man next to her was touching her.
“It really struck me that on a crowded bus of people, nobody looked up, everybody looked down at their shoes or looked at their phone, and nobody thought it was something [about which] they should step in and do something It sent such a strong message – that this is normal, that this is just something you have to put up with, that’s it’s part of being a woman, and it made me feel embarrassed and ashamed and worried that I was wearing the wrong thing or that I should not have been there. That really stayed with me,” she said.
To try to gauge how widespread such experiences were, she set up a simple website, inviting people to add their stories of encountering sexism in any form. She thought she’d get 20 or 30 of her friends responding, but the size and diversity of the responses she received shocked her.
“Stories started to pour in from all over the world, from women of all ages, races and nationalities, women of different sexual orientation, disabled and non-disabled, religious and non-religious, employees and unemployed.
“Because so often women had been keeping quiet and hadn’t shared their stories before, there was a real sense of catharsis, just simply in the act of telling your story and having it believed without being challenged or questioned and told to brush it under the carpet. For the first time, here was a community of people saying ‘We believe you, what happened to you is terrible and wrong, it shouldn’t have happened and you shouldn’t have to put up with it and it’s happened to me too,” she said.
The accounts posted on the website describe incidents of gender-based put downs by teachers and lecturers of young female students, sexual innuendo towards female employees, sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, as well as outright assault and rape.
“The stories that poured in from around the world and those that I’ve heard just in the short time I’ve been here in Cayman was so similar that many of them are near identical, even though there are enormous cultural differences and extra barriers for women to surmount in different countries. There is also an overwhelming universality behind many of these experiences,” said Bates.
A year after the Sexism Everyday Project was founded, it was expanded into 15 more countries around the world, each run by a local volunteer who moderates and promotes the site and takes local ownership of it.
“Suddenly in the media, this was being discussed again as though it was a real serious problem and eventually we hope the sites will develop into a useful international comparative tool,” Bates said.
She was spurred to launch the project because of the reactions she encountered when she tried to speak up against sexism. “I found that everywhere I turned, people were saying ‘stop making a fuss, men and women are equal now, therefore you cannot make a fuss about sexism because it doesn’t exist… you career girls are making a fuss about nothing, maybe you need to learn how to take a compliment’.”
“It’s an invisible problem… there is a widespread idea that everything is fine and it’s no longer a problem. In a way, it’s understandable, because a great deal of the sexism women face on a daily basis [is] only likely to be visible to the victim themselves; if you don’t experience it yourself, you don’t believe there’s a problem,” she added.
“It’s possible to dismiss one or two incidents, but I realised if we collected every woman’s story together in one place, if other people had the experience I had had, that suddenly talking to all these women and hearing their individual stories and realising how they all built up, we’d be able to prove beyond doubt, the sheer scale of the problem. We could prove how serious things are, we would silence those people who assume that when you talk about sexism that you are simply making a fuss over the odd wolf whistle here or there,” she said.
Turning a blind eye to the existence of sexism in the workplace or in the street can have a direct impact on the work force, she said, pointing out that in a society where women are considered fair game for disrespectful and harassing treatment, it’s no surprise that women earn less than men, despite legislation that should prevent this happening.
Stats in Cayman
Quoting statistics from the Cayman Islands Economic and Statistics Office 2009 Labour Force Survey, which showed that the local work force was fairly evenly distributed 50/50 between men and women, Bates pointed out that women make up the majority of the two lowest salary brackets in Cayman, with women making up 83 per cent of those making less than $800 a month and 64 per cent of those earning less than $1,600 a month.
At the other end of the spectrum, men make up two-thirds of those making salaries of $7,200 a month or more.
According to the Occupational Wage Survey conducted by the Department of Employment Relations which compared the salaries of men and women doing identical work, in almost 70 per cent of cases, it was revealed that men were paid a higher salary than women for the same work. Overall, according to the 2009 population census, women earned on average $7,355 less a year than men, a difference of almost 17 per cent.
“Although there are more female professionals than male professionals, there are fewer female managers than male managers,” said Bates.
“There will always be people who try to brush off the issue of workplace harassment and sexism, but against this backdrop I believe it does matter. When you’re living in a country in which women’s work is not valued in the same way as men’s work, and the reasons for that are complex and often deeply ingrained, not necessarily the result of direct discrimination, it’s never been more important to stop and consider the treatment of those workers and do everything you can to remove any obstacles put in their path. It’s for everyone’s benefit to work for greater parity in business,” she said. And even though Cayman and the UK has strong gender equality laws, enforcing them is proving difficult, as complaining about the behaviour of colleagues can be professional suicide for women in some positions and because many human resources managers fail to act on complaints.
Bates, who was in Cayman with her boyfriend Nicholas Taylor, son of Governor Duncan Taylor, was guest lecturer at the The Business and Professional Women’s Club of Grand Cayman’s 2013 Annie Huldah Bodden Lecture Series.
Closing off her lecture, she told guests, “You can’t silence 40,000 voices when they’re all saying the same thing.”