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

Chris Boardman
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

Woman jogging along Albert Embankment on a late winter afternoon, South Bank, Lambeth, London

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 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 that 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

As a father, I think very differently about the safety of my two daughters compared to 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.

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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 may be harmless can terrorise women. If you notice a woman being harassed, show your support – it can be as simple as standing between a woman and the harasser.

Finally, share these tips to 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 it 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

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  • Running
  • Opinion
  • Violence against women and girls
  • Women
  • comment
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