“Do you really think sexism still exists Tess? Or are you just finding drama where there is none?”
I was asked this (or something to this effect) by a well-meaning friend a few years back.
I was taken aback by the question, and I didn’t really know how to respond. Having been brought up in a very equality-minded home, where my parents drilled into me at a young age that men and women should be equal, and having surrounded myself in my adult years by friends of both genders who took part in stereotypical male activities in the outdoors, I flailed trying to find a response.
The part of me that has had the “equality is key to progress” mantra stamped into my brain automatically fired off with “of course sexism still exists and is important to fight against!”.
But the other part of me – the part that always suspects I am wrong and know nothing of grown up affairs – faltered.
My response came out as some sort of mumbled, stuttered strung together mash of cliche sentences, which I am 100% certain convinced my friend I was regurgitating nonsense feminism propaganda and actually had no idea what I was talking about.
To an extent, that is exactly the truth. I really had no idea what was going on. I was in my first years out of home, first years living my own life, in this grown up adult world, and I had previously lived a very privileged life, full of support and love.
Whenever someone questioned my statements, my opinions, I assumed it was because I was not articulate enough, not intelligent enough, and that my opinion or statement was in all probability wrong.
Whenever someone took over a task for me, I knew it was because I hesitated in performing it and also probably lacked the skill necessary to complete it anyway.
As time has gone by, and I have started reflecting on some key stand-out experiences, I have realised that none of this was true.
Here are a list of times, that stand out without me thinking much about findings examples, where I experienced sexism, and I – for whatever variant reason of too shy/too scared/assumed they were right and I was wrong – brushed it off as ‘normal’.
only girls who have been roped in by their adventurous boyfriends mountain bike
I had recently started mountain biking with my Loverboy. We were equally as shit, equally as brave, equally as poor and had equally as shitty bikes are each other. We had driven one Easter break down to Mt Buller, where we had heard of the best mountain biking tracks in the country. With us, in our borrowed Station-wagon, were our 2 falling apart hard tail mountain bikes.
We arrived bright and early one morning to the Mt Buller carpark, eager and ready to roll. Only problem was: my brake pads had somehow come loose and disappeared from the front brakes of my bike (yes, this was back before we could afford the oh-s-fancy discbrakes. Pity us). We rolled the offending bike into the bike shop/hire shop at Mt Buller, to get the issue fixed. The bike repair man had no brake-pads for us. We decided to splash out and hire me a bike so that we could actually enjoy what we had come here to do. I ended up getting a nice shiny red bike, which would be miles better than the Loverboy’s shitty bike. Whilst paying for the pretty red (red=fast guys!), we asked the nice bike-man which trails he would recommend. He gave us the trail map of the area and asked about our abilities. We replied in unison “intermediate – blue”. He then drew out a route for us on the map, taking us down some greens to start with, then some easier blues, and if we felt confident after that, some proper good blue runs, before completing our circuit.
Excitedly, we grinned at each other.
The bike-man shared our enthusiasm, and stated “Man! you’re gonna have the best time!”
Thinking he was addressing us both, I opened my mouth to agree. The bike-man turned to face me, pulling a half frown,
“Look, I’m not gonna lie. Its hard riding. Like, quite hard. You’re probably gonna cry”.
He then, lightning speed before I could recover myself, turned back to Kirren “aw, but dude, You’re gonna have the BEST time!”.
Why would he say that? Was it going to be super hard? As always, my default reaction was that he was all-knowing, and that I was pathetic and a crap rider and that I was going to cry and have the worst time.
I, very casually, trying to keep my cool, asked “which part exactly?”, trying to find a pin-point on the map of the exact moment of my impending melt-down.
He roughly passed his finger over the marked blue trails. “It’s quite difficult from here to here. Its fine though, it’s easy enough to get off and walk. And also, there is this nice part right here” His pen drew a big circle around a ridgeline on the contour map “Where you can take a good selfie”. He smiled sympathetically at me.
I nodded, my heart pounding in my chest, a familiar feeling of anxiety and dread overcoming me.
We thanked the bike man, wheeled out of the shop, and made our way to the start of the oncoming ride.
I was so scared.
I was clearly going to fail at this ride.
All because of something a stranger has said to me. It says wonders about my self-confidence at the time doesn’t it?
Beside me, Kirren was practically bounding with excitement for the wonderful sunny autumn day of riding ahead of us.
I distinctly remember, the first part of the ride was a fire-trail down a hill to where the single-track stuff started. A firetrail. I remember, so very clearly, being terrified of this fire-trail, the words of the bike-man echoing in my brain.
A firetrail terrified me.
I had been on dozens of firetrails on bikes, ever since I was about 7 and would take my bike up the 4wd tracks in the national park behind my house. Furthermore, I had ridden lots and lots of actual technical mountain biking trails in the past few months.
Kirren and I rode together, me gaining more and more confidence as the day went on and I realized I had done much scarier riding before.
It culminated in a particularly technical track, with tight switchbacks, which I shot through with a smile in the fading autumn afternoon. Kirren, riding just a second in front of me, stacked it on a rock, and ripped open his knee. blood was pouring everywhere, and I patched him up fast.
I remember riding with pride back towards the carpark, knowing I had managed to come away unscathed, after riding everything Kirren had done, with just as much speed.
Before we went into the shop, Kirren smiled at me and grabbed my hand.
“hey, go in there and tell the guy how much fun you had, and that you didn’t stack it once, while I tore open my knee.”
This was the first time I realised that day, that maybe what the guy had said was a little sexist and un-called for. Kirren had noticed it, but not realised the impact it had had on me.
We went into the shop together, and the shop-man instantly noticed Kirren’s bleeding knee
“Niiiice! you must have been giving it a real good go!” he said, before either of us could voice our practised come-back to his earlier remarks.
“OH” we faltered. “Yeah, must have fucked up a turn or something” Kirren fumbled.
I never delivered my line.
boys-only weekend camping getaways can’t have girls go on it because then the boys won’t be able to fart and swear and be boys and you will ruin it for them
When I was a little girl, about 7 years old, I had mostly male friends. It was a product of the area I lived in – geographically isolated from other people in a very small country village on the border of a national park. I had the best time as a child – running through the mountains freely, playing epic hide-and-seeks in the caves and cliff faces of the Wollemi National Park, pretending to be wild horses running from captors and pretending to be Bushrangers building our hide outs in the trees. I loved building fires, building camps and camping under the stars. I loved playing in the coals of the fire, collecting firewood, and eating damper.
Every so often, and I honestly can’t remember how many times this happened over the years, the local dads in the area- and their young sons ages ranging from 3-12 – would have a “boy’s gettaway” in the mountains. Sometimes they would ride their horses up to a hut somewhere int he Wollemi national park. Other times it was the 4wd, or motorbikes.
They sometimes camped in caves, sometimes in the old drovers huts, or sometimes in tents out under the stars. They would go for 1-3 nights, sometimes taking musical instruments with them, sometimes ropes to abseil off cliff-faces.
I remember one particular weekend very distinctly. I was about 7 or 8.
My brother, 3 years younger than me, had been kitted out with his winter warmies, some sleeping bags and a bag of marshmellows. My best friend up the road, and his brother, were also similarly prepared. My cousins, and their fathers, had driven up for the weekend to join in on the fun weekend of camping in a family known cave that I had been to numerous times before.
Never an easy child for my poor parents, I had thrown multiple tantrums wanting to join on the trip.
My poor mother, trying to keep the peace, had explained to me in an attempt to reason with an unreasonable 8 year old, that the men needed a weekend out to be men, with their sons. I, not understanding that at all, and still thinking way past the behavioural cut off for development, that the world revolved around me, screamed and cried. It was just not FAIR!
Mum, attempting to find a reason in the law that states men need men time, explained the only reasons she could fathom: the males wanted time to bond, and that if I was there they wouldn’t feel comfortable farting, and smelling and swearing. My presence would ruin it for them.
I remember exploding into a fit of rage, crying and incomprehensible screaming at this. I wasn’t able to articulate it to my mum at the time, but I remember thinking it to myself – I was more than happy to fart with them – in fact I thought farting was hilarious. And I didn’t give a shit (the worst swear word I knew at the time) about them swearing around me!
I was angry, and inconsolable. And not for the first time. Apparently this was such a predictable tantrum from me, that mum, after previous boys weekends tantrums, had invited my female cousin up for the weekend to distract and play with me.
The unfortunate thing was, this cousin of mine, was just as much in love with the outdoors, camping and “being a boy” as I was.
We conspired with each other.
The evening my brother and all the other men drove out into the mountains to begin their weekend of camping and exploring, my cousin and I prepared our bags. We had a sleeping bag and an extra jumper, some gloves and a torch, and maybe an apple or a musili bar.
After mum had put us to bed that night, we lay in bed waiting until she had gone to sleep.
We then snuck out on the house, and began sneaking through the paddocks towards the sleepy black mountains. We didn’t make it very far before out light died from low batteries, and the creepy scary noises of the night made us turn back.
We scurried back to bed, warming ourselves under the blankets, and vowing we would re-attempt at the crack of dawn.
Dawn came, and we were out of bed again at first light. We waded through the long, dewy grass of the paddocks before the national park entrance. We finally made it to the treeline, and ducked under the fences. We began the way towards where I knew the cave was, but stopped after a minute to eat our breakfast of apples or musili bars.
We were never going to make it – but our determined 8 year old selves thought we would.
We began to shiver, sitting eating our food as the cold winter sun rose above the misty paddocks, our clothes soaked through from the dew in the grass.
Cold, and still hungry after a long walk from the house on our little legs, we decided to turn back and have breakfast by the fire.
I will never blame my parents for the feelings I felt during those times.
I will never blame my parents for not including me on the men’s weekends.
They weren’t the sole organisers or instigators of those weekends. The fact that the men wanted a weekend away all together with their sons is not a crime in my books. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing that men were spending quality time with their sons.
It also wasn’t my parents place to overturn the whole event with lessons on equality, allowing me to partake in the activities, when so many other daughters and wives were being denied. Maybe none of them wanted to go, like I did. Maybe they did.
But I will not blame my parents for keeping the peace and the tradition.
I blame society instead.
It was during this time, at the confusing age of 8, where I went through a stage of secretly wanting to be a boy.
I had weighed up the options in my 8 year old brain, and decided life was better if you were a boy.
You got to pee standing up. Which was forever more convenient in the bush and mountains.
You got to go on boys weekends playing and camping in the mountains, abseiling and building fires.
You were allowed to fart, and one-day swear.
You got to ride motorbikes, you got to enjoy action movies.
You got to play with action man AND barbie, instead of always having to play with barbie.
You weren’t forced into dresses or to brush your hair.
People didn’t buy you pink things for your birthday.
You weren’t frowned at for wanting a black bicycle with red flames on the side, instead of a pink and blue glittery one.
This culminated, one day, in dress-up day at primary school, which brings me to point numero tres:
Only men can be action heroes
One day a year you got to go dressed as whoever you wanted to, and parade in-front of the parents and teachers at the dress-up parade.
I, having had a tantrum the year before wanting a BatMan outfit for Christmas just like my cousin had gotten, went proudly to school that morning dressed as BatMan. I even had the cool mask!
This resulted in me, proudly standing on stage, as the principle announced each dressed up school kid and their character over the microphone. Then, when I went up to the principle and whispered my character to him before the big announcement, he asked “are you sure you aren’t batgirl Tess?”. I looked at him like he was stupid
“No!” I replied emphatically “Phillipa (the friend behind me in the line, whom we had co-ordinated to be Batman and Batgirl together), is Batgirl!” I explained, rolling my eyes.
Later on, as we mingled with the other students and parents, I found out how cruel kids can be for the first time, when everyone began teasing me for being BatMan.
“But you’re a GIRL!” I remember one girl explaining, like I was an idiot child who had forgotten my own gender.
I came home in tears that day, and mum hugged me, made me pikelets for afternoon tea, and helped me plan next years outfit – a princess from fairyland with wings and a sparkly dress.
Until recently, there wasn’t many other super heroes in movies that were women. I certainly had a hard time finding one when I was a kid to dress up as.
Women’s-only Outdoor events are “less than”
So this point and its associated sexism is all on me. I am the perpetrator. I am the ‘bad guy’ here.
I am a lover of the outdoors. I am a climber, a hiker, a canyoner, a mountain biker, a skier, a caver (albeit a poor one at best).
I absolutely LOVE anything outdoors and challenging.
But for the longest time, I cringed away from ever involving myself in anything “women’s” oriented.
Women’s climbing trip? ugh! So not cool.
Women’s mountain biking clinic? Ugh, sounds like a beginners lesson to me!
Women’s hiking meet up? No thanks, I’d rather not spend a day hiking with unfit barbie dolls, and comparing the cost of Lorna Jane leggings!
Yes, seriously guys, that was the attitude I entered the grown up and outdoor world with.
The only thing I knew about women in the outdoors was that outdoor women’s gear was always pink or purple (two colours I absolutely HATE), and that most women didn’t do outdoor things, and that I was really “one of the boys”.
This perplexing and embarrassing attitude started to change around about the time I started seriously climbing.
I went on climbing trips, and found myself (and my pathetic lack of self-esteem) worried I was taking too long climbing something, worried I was slowing everyone down, worried that my ineptitude was annoying every other male on the trip with my incompetence (because males have always outnumbered females on any climbing trip).
I, as a consequence, never volunteered myself to be the leader. I never tried to lead climbs I hadn’t done before, and I never tried climbs I knew weren’t within my skill range. I therefore, never, ever pushed myself.
Sometime during this time, some “all girls” climbing weekends were being organised by my local university outdoor club. Still wary and under the impression girls events = less than, I joined up.
This is about when I also moved into a house full of female climbers.
Do you know what I discovered?
It took an embarrassingly long time to connect the dots.
But whenever I went out with girls to climb, I felt less pressured to be fast, quick, competent and “good” at climbing.
I felt more empowered to take my time on a climb I struggled with.
They encouraged me, the talked me through it, they lamented being short and not being able to reach holds, and they voiced their understanding as I found myself being overwhelmed with fear on a climb.
This isn’t to say men-folk ever did the opposite for me, whilst climbing with them. They generally are awesome people who would belay me all day if I asked them to, shout out encouragement if I requested.
But the support and lack of imagined judgement I had from women was the best thing for my climbing.
Since then, I have been surprised time and time again whenever I’ve been on a female – dominated day of outdoor activities. Women did NOT equal less than. Some girls I went climbing with absolutely CRUSHED it. Some women’s mountain biking events were way, way, way above the skill level I could attempt.
I found Instagram communities specifically for women in the outdoors, and I devoured blog posts and stories of the kind of achievements they were reaching that I could only dream of.
Men set up camp, women make it homely.
I’ve grown up camping. Lots.
I’ve been well conditioned to the rules and regulations of a good camp-setup by my father – the tarp Nazi. Tents must be tight, pegged out, taut and tidy. Tarps mustn’t flap in the breeze.
Not only does this look nice, it prevents damage, wind noises, moisture and rain from wrecking your camping experience.
As a consequence, my tent is always pegged out beautifully, and I can’t stand a floppy lazy tent.
Kirren is the opposite. He can’t stand spending all that time fussing with a tent. Especially on a nice clear and still night. He would rather just throw the fly over the tent in a token effort and leave it.
I love fussing around at camp. I gather the firewood carefully, I build the fire and light it with gentle breaths and deep lungs if it’s damp.
Kirren would rather sit in the dark and cold with a good book and some food than bother with the annoyances of building and maintaining a fire.
This is the perfect dynamic.
I set the tent up, with my tight ropes and lines. Kirren sets up the beds inside.
I collect firewood, set the camp up. Kirren chops and boils for dinner.
This is the way it goes.
I get dinner and beds. He gets an unwanted tight tent and a nice fire to sit by.
A friend of ours, once, after observing us many times camping together, pulled me aside one day.
I’d just finished taking over setting up the tent, and my friend, whilst Kirren pumped up the airbeds, spoke with concern to me in a hushed voice.
They asked me to maybe let Kirren set up the tent next time, and if I’d ever given a thought to how it might be emasculating him every time I set the tent up and did the fire.
I was so flabbergasted by this unsolicited and unexpected advice, that I didn’t know how to respond.
Half of me was waiting for the punchline, the joke that was this ridiculous conversation.
I think I’ve shared enough of my tales by now for you to realise I didn’t say anything at all to stand up or challenge.
Later that night, whispered in the confines of our very tightly pegged out tent, I relayed the conversation to Kirren. We Snickered away quietly together, although Kirren was a little hurt that his friend thought his masculinity was so small and fragile it needed defending in such a humiliating way.
Asking the big scary bossy controlling girlfriend to relinquish some of her excess of control in order to make the weak tiny male feel more like the man he should be.
I can just see the way they must picture me in their mind. A giant praying mantis, screeching with bulging muscles as I try to rip off the head of the little spindly male.
Women are nurses, men are doctors
I totally understand where this one stems from. Historically speaking, majority of nurses were female, and majority of doctors were men.
But people, it’s the 21st century. And it’s not like this is a recent change.
I cannot count the number of times in a day I get mistaken for a nurse.
Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t offend whatever overweight ego people might think doctors have.
I’m mostly just fed up having to sigh and say “Oh, sorry, I’m a doctor.” or “sorry, I’m not your nurse, I don’t know how long your medications will be”
And I know it goes the other way for male nurses too.
There honestly are countless examples, but here are a few:
I am in the Emergency Department working the evening shift. I am tired.
A 40ish year old male comes into ED after coming off his mountain bike. He is mostly ok, just needs to be checked out and sent on his way.
I introduce myself “Hi, My name is Tess and I am one of the Doctors here”, before taking a history and examining him.
I need to run a few tests, organise some Xrays. I explain all of this, and do so.
I read the tests, make sure he intact.
Then I go to tell him the good news that it all checks out and he can go home with some regular pain relief (which I write a script for).
We build a rapport over the fact we both mountain bike. He asks when he can go back out on the bike.
I tell him whenever he feels up to it.
He grins at his wife. “See, I can go tomorrow!”
His wife smiles wryly, clearly wishing I had said a different answer “lucky you’ve found an ally in a mountain biking nurse!”
“Yeah! Thanks Nurse Tess! So we right to go now?”
I sigh. I think about correcting him. He and his wife are nice.
I don’t want to make them feel awkward or embarrassed. It’s a simple mistake.
Another time in the Emergency Department, I spend most of the evening seeing a man with chest pain. I, as always, introduce myself. I take his history, I examine him, I put a IV line in and take blood tests. I look at his ECG that the nurse has taken for me. I organise Xrays and any other relevant things. I spend ages trying to track down what medications he is on because he can’t remember. I spend ages talking to his wife on the phone who is understandably worried and concerned but cannot make it in to the hospital yet.
I have many other patients – it’s a busy night in ED.
But I take the time to do my best for him.
I speak to his cardiologist, and get him admitted, then do all the things the cardiologist wants me to do for him before he goes to the ward.
It’s not hard, it’s my job.
I finally go to explain to him and his wife (who has finally arrived) what we are doing, how he is going to be admitted to the ward and stay for a few days in hospital. I explain about the minor heart attack he has had.
At the end of it, I ask them if they have any more questions.
The wife asks “Yes, when is he going to be seen by a doctor? He tells me he hasn’t yet seen a single doctor yet and he has been here for 4 hours.”
It’s after hours, I am the ward doctor for a number of wards.
I have been asked to review a patient who has a blood pressure which is worryingly low.
I go to them, examine and assess them. I take a few blood tests, and explain to them what is going on. I get paged to another emergency, so I tell the patient I will be back shortly.
They reply “Oh, nurse, before you go can you get me a glass of water?”
- Men Propose, Women squeal. But they both do the housework
I am not going to hash this one out too much because I actually have an entire blog post coming up about this whole topic.
Basically, in 2017, women proposed to men in heterosexual relationships less than 5% of the time ((https://www.theknotww.com/press-releases/3496/).
Our entire culture is dominated with the fact men propose, women get a diamond ring.
Men are the gatekeepers of our relationships, and they decide when it gets to advance to the next level.
Most of the time.
I proposed to Kirren. Most of the time I get wonderful responses to this fact.
But I get an uncalled for amount of surprise, pushback, and questions like “But how did he feel about that?”.
My response: Fucking wonderful thanks. The love of his life just asked to spend her life with him.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. In the process of writing this, I began to realise more and more and more examples in my life. This blog grew and grew. I have to stop somewhere.
I know that I lead a very privileged life, in a very privileged time. I am aware of the sacrifices made by women before me to get us here. And I am aware of the very real physical dangers some women experience as a result of men and their attitudes towards women – both in Australia and in other parts of the world.
I don’t think my issues are even close to the importance of theirs.
But they are still important.
Our attitude (both men and women) towards the female gender needs to change. Our whole society needs to change. If it doesn’t, then people like me will continue to whinge in blog posts, and even more importantly, the less privileged women will remain so horribly ignored.