Here is a simple social experiment: if you’re a woman, try walking down the street without moving out of the way for someone passing in the opposite direction.
It’s harder than you think – particularly when it comes to dealing with men. The first time I tried it, a man was so surprised that I didn’t automatically shift my body to the side to accommodate his route that he shoulder-barged me, quite violently – and then had the cheek to tut loudly at me, as though I’d done something wrong.
So, too, for Ursula von der Leyen. She wasn’t shoulder-barged, but she was expected to give up her place – in this case, for two men: Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, and European council president Charles Michel. The trio met in Ankara on 6 April, and video footage of the incident shows von der Leyen, who is the European Commission’s first female president, being forced to sit on a sofa while the men strode forward to occupy the only two chairs in the room.
Von der Leyen was visibly taken aback by the snub, which has been dubbed “sofagate”. She has since spoken out about how it made her feel, saying she felt “hurt and alone – as a woman and as a European”.
“I am the first woman to be president of the European commission. I am the president of the European commission. And this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like, a commission president – but I was not,” she told MEPs – including Michel.
She added: “I cannot find any justification for [how] I was treated in the European treaties. So I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman. Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?”
Watching the footage, I found myself sighing deeply. I wasn’t in the least bit surprised, or shocked, because what happened to von der Leyen is so achingly commonplace.
I’ve been there, my friends have been there, ask any woman on the street – I’m betting she’s been there, too; even if she doesn’t mention it while she’s tiptoeing past you to give you a clear path to walk on, or making herself as small as possible to move out of the way through swing doors, or on escalators, or lifts. We are all Ursula von der Leyen.
These everyday acquiescences are, sadly, now just part of being a woman, but they have a subtler and more insidious origin – because they echo a deep-rooted belief that women shouldn’t take up space, shouldn’t be loud, shouldn’t argue, shouldn’t make a scene.
It starts early, too. Little girls are routinely encouraged to be “nice” and “kind” – and are told that they’re being “bossy”, while boys are praised for being “assertive”, for taking charge, for leading.
Little girls – and I’ve witnessed this with my daughter, even at her inner-London primary school – are routinely told not to “make a fuss”, while boys are affectionately forgiven for being “boisterous”. Watch parents in a public park: it won’t take long before you’ll hear that dreadful, catch-all phrase: “boys will be boys”. Girls, however, must be perfectly behaved at all times, and gracious with it.
Is it any wonder that a report for the Centre for Appearance Research found that one in five young girls would not put up their hand in the classroom because they were scared that people would look at them and judge their appearance?
This type of particularly dangerous gender stereotyping starts in the playground, and it doesn’t stop. It simply gathers momentum, and it’s ubiquitous – even reaching the inner chambers of Westminster (if women are to be found there at all). We all remember David Cameron’s sexist gaffe to the (then) shadow chief secretary to the treasury, Angela Eagle, to “calm down, dear”.
Well, women have been “calm down, deared” by men for centuries – the Victorians institutionalised women on the basis of a diagnosis of “hysteria”, brought about by exactly the same sort of behavioural gender expectations that we see today.
We should be careful before we dismiss what happened to von der Leyen as an oversight, or a simple case of “who got to the seats first”. It certainly didn’t feel that way to her, and for “proof” of the lived experiences of women everywhere, all you need do is listen.
Or, try that simple, social experiment – take note of who moves out of the way first, the next time you walk down the street. I’d be interested to hear what you find out.