Calling all men: this is what we can do to help women feel safe exercising in the dark | Chris Boardman

We have to break the cycle of misogyny that makes women feel at risk: This Girl Can’s guide sets out steps you can take

The clocks have gone back, the evenings are drawing in, the weather is changing. None of this makes it easier for people to exercise. For many, the winter nights can be a threat to mental wellbeing.

People like me (men) have historically dealt with these winter fears by ignoring them. Active men like me love telling anyone who will listen how good exercise is for physical and mental health. And when my wife hasn’t immediately rushed out of the house to jog around the block in the dark and gloom, I’ve just repeated the message, but louder.

But it was on an autumn evening, while walking along the Wirral Way with my wife Sally, that I learned what the real barrier was to her going out and exercising in the winter. She listed to me all the things that would stop her, as a woman, using the former railway line we were strolling along to exercise after dark. Her fears, it turned out, were all to do with the behaviour of the half of the population who are men. Her barrier to exercise was people like me.

One in every five women is concerned about sexual harassment when exercising – and three in 10 have experienced it first-hand, while doing physical activity, mostly in streets and parks. And we know that people will not do something – whether that’s walking or cycling to school, or jogging before work – if they do not feel safe doing so.

Woman running in park
‘One in every five women are concerned about sexual harassment when exercising – and three in 10 have experienced it first-hand, mostly in streets and parks.’ Photograph: Terry Vine/Getty Images

As a father, I think very differently about the safety of my two daughters compared to that of my sons; I don’t expect my boys to hold their keys in their hand and text when they get to their destination. I don’t feel the need to advise them not to stay out too late or to walk home with a friend. As my wife listed all the reasons she wouldn’t jog on the Wirral Way that night, I realised I’d put the burden of responsibility of keeping safe on my 17-year-old daughter, rather than focusing on removing the reason for her – and my – anxiety. As men, we can play a big part in reducing the stress that women shoulder. Of course, I know that most of the men reading this aren’t the aggressors and that they would never harass a woman, but the point is that women do not know that.

So this is my call to arms: Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has set out some steps for men, to guide them on how to make women feel safer when they are getting active outdoors this autumn and winter. First, keep your distance: the closer you are, the more threatening you seem. If you’re walking or running behind a woman, pause to give her some space, or cross the road so you aren’t behind her any more. Understand that women’s wariness and suspicion is not personal, so don’t be offended. Women have no way of knowing you are not a threat.

Never make comments, even if you think it’s a compliment. It’s intimidating to a woman on her own. Stay quiet. If you see friends or family members making disrespectful comments to a woman, challenge them and explain why it’s not OK. We need to break the cycle of misogyny that contributes to women feeling unsafe. Show younger men what it looks like to listen to women. Talk to them about what harassment is. Help them understand why a comment they think is harmless may terrorise a woman. If you notice a woman being harassed, show your support – it can be as simple as standing between her and the harasser.

Finally, share these tips with all the men you know. The more we educate men, the safer women will feel. Nothing I have written above is onerous or difficult. We can all play our part in ensuring the future world is safer for women – the potential gains are enormous and the cost of achieving them is so low.

  • Chris Boardman MBE is a British former Olympic and world champion cyclist and the chair of Sport England and commissioner for Active Travel England

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

Contributor

Chris Boardman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lots of women feel unsafe running in the dark – so we give up something we love | Robyn Vinter
At this time of year I yearn for a society in which we can go outside without fear, says Robyn Vinter, the Guardian’s North of England correspondent

Robyn Vinter

19, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Men must learn how to make women feel safe while exercising | Letters
Letters: Dr Kathy Dodworth says some men have no idea how intimidating their actions can be. Plus letters from Alison Chubb, David Winter, Frank Paice and Keith Irish

Letters

04, Nov, 2022 @6:18 PM

Article image
Young women are sick of being told to stick together and watch their drinks | Gaby Hinslif
When a night out involves the risk of getting ‘spiked’, it’s male violence that’s the problem, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

21, Oct, 2021 @4:55 PM

Article image
The Sun will protect Jeremy Clarkson. Who will protect women who suffer violence every day? | VV Brown
In the wake of Clarkson’s diatribe, we urgently need to challenge the role the media plays in perpetuating misogynistic attitudes, says the musician and entrepreneur VV Brown

VV Brown

21, Dec, 2022 @11:45 AM

Article image
All women know they are prey – and that no one with any authority seems to care | Marina Hyde
Despite the horrifying levels of violence against women, there is no strategy to end it. Just promises to ‘learn lessons’, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

01, Oct, 2021 @1:51 PM

Article image
UK childcare is collapsing – and forcing mothers back into the home | Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Spiralling costs are leaving some parents with no option but to give up work, says the writer Lucy Pasha-Robinson

Lucy Pasha-Robinson

11, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Locking up pregnant women damages mothers and children – yet the UK does it
Some countries have laws against this inhumane practice, which just worsens existing trauma. Why don’t we, asks Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

16, May, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Think abortion is legal in Great Britain? Ask the two women currently facing life sentences | Charlotte Proudman
Vulnerable women are being imprisoned for ending pregnancies in Britain. It’s time to legalise abortion, says barrister Charlotte Proudman

Charlotte Proudman

19, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
The guns are gone, but misogyny still stalks Northern Ireland | Susan McKay
For unionist politicians, paedophile and domestic abuser David Tweed was just ‘larger than life’, says writer Susan McKay

Susan McKay

01, Dec, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Where is discrimination against women still allowed in the UK? The church | Martine Oborne
It’s 30 years since women were allowed to be priests, so why are we still fighting for equality, asks vicar Martine Oborne

Martine Oborne

11, Nov, 2022 @11:17 AM