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?