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A century of progress, but prejudice remains

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The following article was published in the Yorkshire Post.


In four years time it will be the 100 year anniversary of when women could first stand for election in Britain. Yet while we have undoubtedly advanced since 1918 we are still underrepresented in politics, the boardroom and the top echelons of most professions. Whilst there are numerous reports of plans to improve the situation, there are also allegations of sexual harassment in the political and business worlds that show some things have not changed for the better.


Sexual harassment ranges from unwanted sexual suggestions, inappropriate use of language to belittle women, touching and feeling women’s bodies without permission. Some of those may sound unimportant but at best they show a lack of understanding and at worst an idea that women are there to serve in whatever way that a particular man wants. I believe it’s symptomatic of a desire to see women as inconsequential without serious intent. It is also an example of what has become to be known as everyday sexism, suggesting women are inferior to men.


Just like in many work places I am occasionally brought up short by the attitudes of colleagues. One day I was buying a salad and discussing with a male colleague the need to try and eat healthily, his reply to me was that I didn’t want to lose my schoolgirl figure! Meant in jest no doubt, but I’m 54 and not the best thing to say.


On another occasion when in a hurry I came across a male MP who had forgotten his security pass and so couldn’t get through a door. I quickly opened the door to which he remarked, "What a helpful girl you are." I sighed to myself but hurried on when he added, "And a very fit girl."


This did cause me to express my displeasure at being belittled. He protested he was just being friendly. I have no problem with people being friendly - after all I’m from Sheffield and we call everyone love - men and women. But this sort of comment is just sexist. He wouldn’t have dreamt of saying to a middle-aged male colleague “And a very fit boy”.


After such incidents I’m left wondering what were these men thinking. Did they assume I’d be flattered? I’m not saying that these remarks come close to the experience of sexual harassment, but they are symptomatic of a culture that fails to value women in the same way as men. They belittle, stereotype and push women into a place that can pave the way for some men to go beyond saying something, to serious and dangerous forms of sexual harassment.


Stereotyping happens, it is no surprise that we have never had a female Secretary of State for Defence, yet it would be unthinkable that we would not have had a female Health Minister. The science, engineering and technology sectors fail to attract and retain women despite significant effort over the last decade. 70% of women who have qualifications in these areas no longer work in them. The country loses billions of pounds when qualified women scientists, technologists and engineers leave for work in other fields, or are unemployed or economically inactive. Sexism is not the only cause of the problem but it does play a role.


The Prospect trade union regularly surveys its members and finds many examples of unacceptable behaviour that lead to women to leave their profession despite the years of training and experience. One female scientist member of Prospect wrote, “I am becoming more frustrated with what feels like fighting every day. An under 30 female science graduate is not an easy thing to be in my place of work I’d like to get out  . . . as soon as possible.


Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project to catalogue instances of sexism that women have experienced. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that women don’t generally protest. The stories are uploaded to twitter and they show that all around the country in all sorts of circumstances women of all ages are subjected to unwanted comments and worse.


Men need to understand that making sexualised comments or belittling a female colleague is offensive that women should be treated with respect. That means an end to demeaning remarks, to sexual harassment and to sexualised comments.


Some people will say that we should concentrate on more serious issues. Every week on average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former partner. Of course we have to do more to tackle violence against women, but changing attitudes is a first step in changing perceptions that it is acceptable to treat women in a different and less equal way. It is something that we should be able to achieve, after all it only about our right to be treated with respect and dignity.  


Everyday Sexism Project on twitter - @EverydaySexism

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