Why men expect to get their way, and women let them.

My husband and I walk every morning along a shared cycle path. There is a narrow part of the path set aside for walkers. You can walk two abreast but if someone comes the other way, one of you must give way. I pointed out to my husband that if a man approached, he just unconsciously assumed I would step aside.

And, worse, I always did.

Ralph started to watch to see if I was right or not. He was rather shocked. He decided to test our observation. If a male pedestrian approached, he positioned himself in his path – the man gave way. He now makes a point of it. It is quite fun to watch.

Jane and her husband Ralph

There has been quite a flurry on social media recently about a phenomenon called 'manspreading' where men on public transport spread their legs wide (to advertise the enormous size of their tackle, I presume) and take much more than their fair share of the available space. One woman has started to fight back by simply sitting on the man’s spread leg! I’d love to see that - must be even more fun than watching the confusion of a bloke who expected to have a woman in his path suddenly being faced with another bloke.

All of us who have travelled on a plane will have experienced the silent elbow tussle over the shared armrest. I now always choose the window seat just to ensure I get at least one to myself.

This is what manspreading looks like.

We do these silent, unconscious space negotiations all the time and, generally, women are expected to make way for men. My mother tested this out decades ago and decided not to move out of the way. The blokes simply bumped into her, then stared with outrage. She even got sworn at a couple of times.

But it isn’t only in physical space that women are expected to give way and make room.

When I was young, I had a mental image of myself as being ‘too big’. This, by the way, was ridiculous. I have always been a tiny person. I am 5’1" tall (I hope) and until I had children weighed in at 45 kilos. Despite weighing considerably more than that now, I remain a size 12. When I was a child I was the kid who always sat at the front of the school photo holding the class sign - the universal signifier of the smallest kid in the class.

My sense of myself as being ‘too big’ was about taking up too much mental and emotional space. I was too talkative, too loud, too opinionated, too enthusiastic and too expressive.

I knew I was meant to be demure, modest and quiet. I knew I was meant to keep my eyes lowered and my ideas and opinions to myself. I was just incapable of doing so, and that incapacity made me feel bad. I sometimes wonder if I took to rigid dieting with such gusto in my 20s as an apology for the unruly size of my personality.


Watch Jane Caro's TED Talk here:

*Note post continues after video.

Nobody ever told me I was too big, not in so many words, but I felt it in every fibre of my being. I could feel the disapproval that radiated towards me whenever I took up space in a conversation, a meeting or a debate. It was often when I was at my most excited and creative that the dampening remark was made or the awkward silence of others made itself felt. I often felt slapped down.

No longer. I have given up trying to make myself small (literally and metaphorically) and I no longer feel ‘too big’. Unfortunately, it seems many young women still suffer from the same sense of taking up too much space. When I talked to my eldest daughter (she is 27) about this column, she also confessed to feeling ‘too big’ and to admonishing herself for talking ‘too’ much. I remember this same daughter - as a child – weeping as she told me she’d been called a show-off by some girls at school.


A year or so ago I was on a panel with a young woman surfer who admitted that she consciously deferred to male surfers to make herself acceptable. She talked about the need to make herself smaller as a way of fitting in.

I watch women hang back at conferences and events when it is time for questions from the floor. They say they feel ‘shy’ or worry that their question isn’t worth asking. I think that is another form of fearing taking up too much of the available space. Women who lack this self-consciousness or who refuse to give in to it are often seen as pushy, abrasive (how I grew to hate that description) or show offs.

We absorb the disapproval of our quite natural desire to take up space from an early age. Then we begin to police each other about being too pushy or bossy. Finally and most damagingly, we begin to silence ourselves.

Far from apologising, women who speak up are doing more than having a conversation. They are reclaiming lost female territory. Physical and metaphorical space matter. Plant your flag proudly. Don’t let anyone bully or shame you out of it.

Not even yourself.

Want more from Jane Caro? Why not try...

Jane Caro: How 50 got suddenly fashionable.

Jane Caro: Why this married republican loves a Virgin Queen

00:00 / ???