Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sexism - an anachronism in the workplace?

This Friday I have been asked to deliver some diversity training to a group of social workers to deal with a very specific issue: sexism. When I was first asked, I explained that my training is mostly pitched at considering, reflecting on and addressing racism (I'd like to think racism is an anachronism in public sector - but I'm not so sure!), culturalism, disabledism, homophobia, ageism, transgenderism, opinionism...etc and that I could deliver the training as it is and the group never actually receive the message they were meant to receive - the message that would change their behaviour. I have of course adapted my training.

The 'situation' I have been asked to address was first registered when one male in an office of many females complained to his boss that he was being made to feel incredibly uncomfortable because of the images, language, attitudes and anti-male e mails (etc) flying around the office. This man does not want it made known to his colleagues that he has made this complaint - probably for fear of taunting repercussions. Sadly this doesn't sound far off bullying - the only difference being that the women are probably unaware of the impact they are having i.e. they are not consciously wanting this chap to feel uncomfortable.

First and foremost, this situation should really be dealt with by the line manager of all of these people. It's simple - these images are offensive - we stop using them. The women would soon understand if this chap were to stoop to their level and fill the office up with 'nudey calendars' and make snide comments about how crap all women are. There can't be one rule for one sex and another for the opposite sex - that's the whole point of sexual equality yes?

But this office's backward attitude is one that I suspect often goes unchallenged. I know I get 'let's laugh at men's incompetence' e mails now and then in my workplace, I hear thoughtless jibes at 'domesticated' men and I still see the odd six pack posters in offices. It doesn't help with healthy gender PR!

Several decades ago when women started to be released from years of second class citizenship there was an almost understandable backlash. Women began to feel empowered and sadly probably needed to get some stuff 'out of their system' by de-masculinating men and having a dig at them. However, here we are in the 21st century - decades later. Surely we should have grown out of this by now? Is it not time to put down the generalisations and attacks and step away from them?

Perhaps sexually predatory behaviour is perceived to be more threatening when it's from male to female than vice versa. Does that justify the lingering backlash though? No.

Perhaps I am being naively idealistic again and maybe there will always be an underlying tension/difficulties/misunderstandings/desire to 'get at' the opposite sex on some level. I don't feel it though and I certainly don't think it should be apparent in the workplace. I will concede that some generalisations can be made about the different sexes but there will always be exceptions and I fail to see where these generalisations (which can become assumptions) can be useful - in the same way as generalisations and assumptions made about any group of people are rarely beneficial. They are usually detrimental.

I will also add, quite importantly that I don't feel we have 'arrived' completely in terms of sexual equality. This is illustrated clearly by the fact that if you google 'sexism' it's nearly all about sexism towards women!

But the last word is - surely sexist comments about either sex or blatantly sexual images of either gender don't really have a place in the workplace? And why do I feel like I have travelled back in a 'time and gender swapping' machine?


  1. Good point, Molly. I have been dismayed by the sporadic corruption of "feminism" into anti-male sexism.

    Sexism is unacceptable in either direction, and sexist comments about men are as unacceptable as sexist comments about women.

    I maintain however that generalisations can be useful. One may extend the following examples to all sorts of situations, but if you are in a battle, somebody coming at you in the opposing team's uniform is unlikely to be about to invite you out for a beer: your life may depend upon your ability to generalise here. (A generalisation about a specific group of people). A woman of child-bearing age might just be pregnant and should not be deliberately subjected to any circumstances that would damage her baby until her status is known for sure. (A generalisation about women) etc.

  2. So would you like to explain your bawdy behaviour at the Chippendales concert last summer Ms Potter?

    Love, Maude McFlippant xxx

  3. There are of course Female Chauvinists and we haven't as yet invented a tie for them as for example the MCP tie for men in the '80's (Male Chauvinist Pig) and I doubt that there ever will be a specialist badge.

    There is no pat answer to anti social behaviour in the work place. In no particular order it is to: Either face the aggressors, to ignore, to find another job, complain to management or a simply say to them 'I was insulted by experts long ago, you are amateurs in comparison'

  4. I regularly get sent ha ha funny anti male emails from a very pleasant old couple who send them to me to "keep in touch", ditto from an old friend going back to schooldays who sends them on from her workplace. If I'm really lucky my brother who I want to hear from but rarely do will send me a sexist or racist email joke. What am I supposed to do? Complain? nah.

  5. I thought you made a good man, albeit Johnny Depp.

  6. It's a funny old world isn't it!! I too get the anti-men e-mails (I get anti-women ones too)...some are quite funny others are...well...they go too far. So sometimes I send them on and sometimes I just delete em. In both cases, if I do send them on I'm careful who I send them to so I don't cause any offence!

    Poor should be made to feel uncomfortable in the work place be it man or woman!

    C x

  7. Hi Codgi, I wouldn't call 'a woman could be pregnant' a generalisation...I'd call it a men pee standing up and women sit down. I think generalisations that lead to prejudiced assumptions are things like 'only men can fix things or women are better at nuturing'. But I am guessing this a semantics thing again.

    Claire - nicely executed.

    Heronster - yep...I like your words again.

    Sandra - I know we all have different outlooks but I would struggle to connect with anyone via racism or sexism! My mum had a dear old friend that was so racist she wrote to the local Conservative MP to complain about Asian families moving into the area. She framed his response -that was basically in agreement with her. Lovely woman, sweet as pie - just ignorant. I challenged her several times though - could not, not do so. I believe she has softened her staunch views with time and grown to understand that we are all just 'people'. I think it's hard to imagine what's it's like being an 'outsider' unless we experience being the poor chap in the office. And I guess it's easy to be complacent if we are never 'the outsider.'

    Carol - I'll report back whether the training manages to broach the subject so the penny drops!

    I always see it as - when we are truly all equal with no institutionalised disadvantage...and we have a level playing field...then perhaps we could tease each other, in the name of loving humour.
    Molly Potter of the hippy idealsim faith. Over and out.

  8. Yep, but we can't overlook the Chippendales evening Molly...???

  9. I know this is tardy, but if "a woman could be pregnant" is a fact, what is "a woman can get pregnant"? (And because she might get pregnant I won't offer her this job, I'll give it to this man who is less likely to leave to raise a family) It is sexist preferences like this in employment that feminists fought so hard over.

    OK, let's be hung for a wolf rather than a lamb. I believe that women in general are better than men at nurturing. (Because, in part, generally, they are more empathic) It doesn't mean however that *this* woman is necessarily better that *this* man at nurturing, but it does make it a better than even chance.

  10. Yes Codgi - I don't do fine detail or semantic discussion. It doesn't grab me!!!! My gist is known! Women can get pregnant, men can't - that's fact - it should never come into employment decisions yes - we both know that. That's straightforward.

    I am crap at nurturing compared to my warm and lovely husband (that might be a slight exaggeration - but he's more attentive to needs - as I don't notice them - even my own!) and we both suffer a little occasionally from not conforming to the stereotype (mostly from older generations)and the stereotype exists because of generalisations. The generalisation simply does not need to be made and everyone can be taken on their individual merit - that's what celebrating diversity is all about. What benefit could anyone have from making the assumption I was more nurturing than Andy (especially as it's not true).

    Stereotypes exist for lazy-brain reference and they are fine as long as people do not react negatively to those that do not conform. For example - a boy that hates football or is slightly effeminate - can have a hard time from others unless people have been educated that it really is OK not to conform to stereotypes. The easiest way to do this is challenge stereotypes and therefore assumptions.


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