In the second of a series of interviews marking a year since the first global Women’s March, which saw people in an estimated 57 countries take to the streets to campaign for women’s rights, comedian, writer and performer Sian Harries speaks to Cerith Mathias about the importance of visible female role models, the strength gained by sharing experiences and an end to ‘mansplaining.’
The Women’s March last January definitely signified some kind of change – so many of my friends, men included, felt compelled to go; we all had this urge to show up and do something – anything – to show attitudes such as Trump’s towards women are just not acceptable. To see so many people come together to make a stand was incredible, and to see just how many people across the globe felt the same – I personally had never experienced that level of solidarity before. There was definite a shift within me and my friends, a dawning realisation of just how many millions of people agree with equality for all, this isn’t some kind of minority hobby anymore, this is what’s right. I think it set the stage for a year of speaking out against injustice, it certainly made me feel braver and for once women’s issues were pushed onto main news agendas, and not side-lined into neat little specialist boxes like Woman’s Hour. The marches reached global mainstream audiences and were impossible to ignore.
I think a huge light has been shone on the inequalities between men and women since then. The backlash over Jodie Whitaker as Dr Who opened up discussions about inequality among children’s role models; little girls often have to grow up with male role models, why can’t little boys have female ones?
The appalling BBC wage gap scandal made women aware of just how little we’re valued in comparison to men who do the exact same work; the Harvey Weinstein sex scandals and seeing other successful men such as Louis CK being found guilty of harassment illuminated the extent of male privilege in the entertainment industry and proved the injustice even women we always thought had it all, have had to endure in order to be successful.
I think the #MeToo campaign forced both men and women to realise this power struggle is a daily occurrence – this entitlement over women’s bodies, that we’re here for the taking and if we dare complain, society is structured in such a way that we are met with disbelief, anger for ruining someone’s family and shame for “letting it happen” or “asking for it”.
I think it made a lot of us re-assess what’s acceptable and what isn’t and to paraphrase the wonderful Jo Brand on Have I Got News for You, “if you’re constantly being harassed even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down”. It’s made nice blokes realise what women go through every day and not-so-nice blokes moan about not being able to chat us up anymore.
My female friends and I have now all shared our stories of harassment – we all have at least one – and when it happens again we will definitely talk about it, the shame is definitely starting to shift onto the perpetrators instead of us. It’s been pretty emotional realising what people you love have been through, largely in silence, and many of us have had to re-think our pasts and also step up and own some responsibility. I’ve definitely been guilty of laughing off harassment as ‘banter’ in the past because I didn’t want to make a fuss, but I will call it out in future – not necessarily in a harsh way because I genuinely believe some people have never been told what the boundaries are – but the #MeToo campaign means there is now a dialogue that enables this.
I was so happy when more female MPs than ever were elected last year but I do think there’s still long way to go. Andrea Leadsom called for an investigation into the sexual harassment scandals last October but the fact most of the MPs who turned up to listen to her speech were women, still suggests this isn’t being taken seriously. It’s quite clear the abuse of power within Parliament is rife and it’s something women have to contend with alongside being good at their actual work. Women are also far more likely to suffer abuse on social media if they dare put their head above the parapet and have opinions.
I’d like to see Parliament develop a protocol for sexual harassment and I’d like to see social media platforms like Twitter adopt a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to online harassment. So many women in public life are sent violent threats and are told they should leave social media if they can’t handle it. Why should we be silenced when people who threaten rape can say what they want?
I’d like to see equal pay become a reality and I’d like to see people like John Humphrys understand how joking about it may not be that funny to women who work just as hard, maybe more, for laughably less money.
And finally, I’d like to see the end of ‘Mansplaining’. I know plenty of normal men who don’t do it but I’ve also had men who’ve never met me explain to me apropos of nothing what Government is. I usually ask them to explain it in great detail and leave them to it as I do a bit of online shopping. I find it fascinating they assume I don’t know what stuff is. They usually back off when they find out I worked in the BBC Political Unit but it’s mad I have to prove I have sufficient credentials in order to know certain things. Men just don’t have to do that.
Sian Harries is an award-winning comedy writer for radio and television, with credits including The Now Show, Dilemma, Man Down, Rhod Gilbert’s Back to Llanbobl and Here Be Dragons.