Where do I even start? We've all seen the media recently. The tragic death of another young women. The shocking, yet not unexpected, survey that demonstrates that over 80% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. To be honest, I'm surprised its not higher.
I've suffered my fair share harassment. As a student, this was on a weekly basis. Treated like a toy by men in nightclubs. This cemented a fear of men that has never quite gone away.
Now I am older and, lets face it, my nightclubbing has become all but extinct, the harassment has become less conspicuous. But the stereotyping is still very much alive. I work as a wildlife conservationist which, like many industries, has traditionally been a man's world. 'Birders' are still seen as predominantly older white men. Although the sector has widened and more and more women are being employed, some areas are still very male dominated. In my role, where I am surrounded by gamekeepers and foresters, this is still very much the case. Today, I wanted to share the strategies that I have employed that help me survive, and thrive, in this environment, with the hope that others may also find some value.
Know your worth
I cannot tell you how many times I have agonised over my perceived faults before entering a room of men. All far older of course. What if they think me inexperienced? What if I say something incorrect? What if I have nothing to say at all? It was exhausting. So, to combat this, I now have an internal record of everything that I have achieved, that I can run through before I enter these situations. A record to be proud of and means I can lift my head that bit higher.
Protect your identity
'I've never seen someone with painted nails work on a reserve before'. A comment I received whilst working on a RSPB reserve early in my career. From a man, of course. As I was younger, I instantly felt under the spotlight. Like I'd been outed as a pretend conservationist. I clearly didn't have what it takes if I faff around with pink (yes, it was pink) nail polish.
Uh, no. This is clearly ridiculous, yet it was a concern of mine for years. I started to dress less 'girly' without really thinking about it. I'd wear looser clothing, always tie my hair back and avoid dresses and skirts entirely. The problem was, this wasn't me. Yes, sometimes, dressing practically is entirely appropriate. I learnt this the hard way when I was a naïve 20 year old who decided to wear cute denim shorts on a survey. After wading through heather, my legs go scratched to pieces. Lesson learnt.
However, impracticalities aside, if I want to wear a dress, or paint my nails, I will. Because this is who I am and dressing for me makes me happy. Over time, I gradually grew in confidence so now I can enter a meeting with a floaty skirt and feel awesome. Ignore the comments and side glances. Your identity is more important than any of these. Own it.
Sometimes, you just need to protect yourself. This can be physically or mentally. Its wrong, but the world we live in means that women have to be that bit more cautious in order to keep themselves safe. Countless times I have entered bird hides and am the only the women in there. It can have me on edge. So I sit by the door so I have a clear exit route. I don't even think about it now, its just instinct.
Of course, mental abuse is generally far more common. Don't feel you have to suffer this. I remember very recently attending a bird group to give a talk. Within moments of meeting the organiser I was uncomfortable. He commented on my looks and just got that bit too close. Later, after sidling up to me yet again, he stated that I would be prettier if my teeth were straighter. Just like that. I had no idea how to react. Part of my wanted to retaliate. To tell him that I don't need comments from an old man that has a whiff of urine about him. Part of me, to my shame, wanted to cry. Instead, I did the only thing I could, and walked away. I avoided him all night and made sure I walked back to my hotel along well-lit streets, close to another group of women, and only felt safe once my door was securely locked.
It is your right to avoid these people. Never put yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable or threatened. Let others to help you with this. I feel so much more relaxed when I am out exploring the outdoors with my boyfriend rather than encountering lone men alone. Once and a while, use your partner or friends to provide that extra bit of support. We all need this once and a while.
One of the outcomes to this media avalanche is that I realise I am not alone. My experiences are all too common. Although I wish this wasn't the case, it has heightened my sense of unity with the women in my life.
In my job, I have been bullied by one man in particular. For years, I let it slide, until I saw him do this to another, more vulnerable women, and I had enough. He has now been reported and steps have been taken. But I don't want to wait until it gets to this point again. I strive to empower women. To celebrate their wins. To provide that extra bit of support when they appear uncomfortable. To just let them know I am there. If the last year has taught us anything, we could all do more to empower those that suffer unfair discrimination.
I see more women enter this sector every day. Meetings are starting to even out and I'm proud that women hold many powerful roles in my sector. But there is always much more work to do. From all of us. I hold on to hope that this can only improve.
I am incredibly lucky to have some amazing women in my live. I really do love you all....
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