Sexism: the pathetic, the dangerous, and the difference

Sexism is alive and well, and likely to be so for quite some time. It does, however, come in different types – and some are worse than others.

The publicity-grabbing sexism is, strangely, the least worrying. Richard Scudamore and Nick West’s inane email exchange only demonstrates how pathetic both men are. It’s on a level with the scrawny, wimpy guy in the pub demanding “Hold me back! Hold me back!” as he completely fails to make an effective aggressive move. You just know that the protestations are there only to cover the speaker’s lack of any real intent to do anything.

The sexism (or anything-else-ism) that you need to worry about is the sexism that comes with a smile and reasonable words, or the sexism that happens quietly, in the background. These are more dangerous because they’re harder to spot and harder to fight.

Take women’s sport, for instance. The sexism in sport we should be worrying about isn’t middle-aged men sending silly emails to each other, but the allocation of funding and publicity. Where is the publicity for women’s football? How much are female footballers paid? Female cyclists?

I sometimes flick through the sports section of the paper, and whenever I do, I’m depressed all over again by how little coverage there is of women’s sport. The only sports that get decent coverage in general (other than coverage of the major sporting competitions like the Olympics) are tennis (women in tiny little shorts or skirts), gymnastics (women in leotards) and ice-skating (ditto). The Times did a piece on women’s cricket a while ago, which I was happy to see (even if it was just a little bit patronising). The political types occasionally bemoan women’s lack of involvement in sport – well, what do they think is going to happen if women’s sport is so far under the publicity radar it’s practically a secret? There are apparently netball leagues; who knew? I certainly didn’t.

But women’s involvement in sport will always be minimal while women’s sport is given less funding and less publicity than men’s sport – and nobody complains about that. It’s simply accepted that the sporting world is a man’s world, and women get paid less.

This kind of sexism is dangerous; it implies that women don’t want to do ‘men’s things’, when the real situation is that they are not even given the opportunity to try – or even made aware that the opportunity exists. And that women’s sport is worth less funding and less page-time, because it’s less interesting – simply because it’s women doing it.

Likewise, there are worrying indications that various regulatory bodies are thinking of introducing ‘quotas’ for women in certain positions. This is a tacit statement that women can’t make it on their own; that no amount of checking of processes and levelling of playing fields will work: women simply can’t measure up, so a quota is needed to hand them the top jobs that a man would be expected to work for. How on earth will it help to produce sexual equality if a man on an executive board can (justifiably) say to his female colleague “You’re only here because we had to pick a woman; shut up and let the qualified (male) people talk”? If I was a woman appointed under such circumstances, I would also end up wondering whether I really was qualified to do the job. If you are given a job simply for being female, what does that say about your competence? And your chances of getting your subordinates to respect you?

This kind of sexism is dangerous: it attacks women’s credibility and destroys their accomplishments. In this kind of environment, any woman is assumed to have got where she is by dint of being born female, rather than by her talent, skill, and hard work. Thus it becomes easier to sideline women compared to the men who have ‘proved themselves’.

If you read opinion pieces by journalists the covert sexism is also easy to spot, once you are alert to it. It shows in criticism of women’s physical appearances, and most particularly in criticism of any woman who implies that it’s OK not to want to be a ‘wife and mother’ (or, indeed, that it’s OK to stay at home and look after the kids) – that it’s OK to choose between career and kids. This sort of thing gives women an impossible standard to live up to: not only do women have to aspire to a high-flying career, but they also have to get married and have kids and look gorgeous while they do it. Anyone (male or female) who dares to comment that one person doesn’t have time to do all that properly (bringing up kids being a job on its own) is mocked, derided, or demonised.

Yet we don’t expect men to do all that. What better way to keep women feeling guilty and second-class than by setting impossible standards?

Then, of course, there are the different standards at work. Starting with dress. At one workplace I visited, the men were all attired in suits and ties. Very smart. The women’s attire varied from suit to clothes more suitable for slopping around at home on the weekend. If you want to be taken seriously, ladies, act like it. Dress like a professional, and you’ll go some way towards being treated as one. And, of course, allowing a lower dress standard for women tacitly implies that women aren’t capable of reaching a higher standard – or that their work is at a lower level.

The problem is that there is confusion between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. What is the point of appointing women into top positions if they won’t be taken seriously because everyone knows they were appointed purely because of their gender and not because they were the best person for the job? This approach only shows the underlying sexism of society in assuming women need that kind of ‘help’.

Instead, the effort should be going into creating equality of opportunity, where the barriers – like lack of funding, lack of publicity, old-boy-networks and so on – are removed so that women can prove that they are equal. But this would, of course, entail decisionmakers actually believing that women truly are equal, and can succeed on their own if given the chance.

Unfortunately, that belief in true equality seems to be in pretty short supply.


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