IT’S amazing how the unacceptable can become normal. How would the men in my workplace react if they were routinely called “boys”?
If when they discussed the football they were mocked for “gossiping”? Or if they didn’t get their cuppa in the morning because it isn’t actually written into any women’s job description to go and buy the milk?
These are such petty examples that, if any of them were called out as sexist, the accuser would be told she was over-reacting.
We can all sit through tedious equalities and diversity training, have reams of policy on our shelves and walk past posters telling us to report harassment, but the reality is workplaces are microcosms of the wider world and the wider world is sexist.
When I asked for reports of workplace sexism, I was inundated. From sexual assault to working practices that made having a family impossible, threaded through each of the accounts was a mixture of anger and resignation.
The following accounts are not chosen to be shocking, unique or special. They are the everyday experiences of women in today’s British workplaces.
The first I received was from Anna who worked in a small care home for a large social care provider. She described the working environment as “like being trapped in a Benny Hill show with no escape.”
Anna began her testimony by apologising for “being a bit negative” — to me this demonstrated that one of the first barriers we often need to overcome as women is the notion that we don’t deserve to speak out or that our experience is not valid.
Part of a team of carers, Anna explained the working conditions as “minimum wage, with no rights until after the six-month probation period,” and crucially “a workforce with migrant workers who did not know what a good working environment might be like.”
With both men and women in the team, she explained how it was standard practice to “leave all the grotty, domestic tasks to the women.”
This went totally unchallenged as she explained: “The other women there couldn’t afford to make a fuss.”
The male manager would indulge in sexist banter with the male team members, who bonded by humiliating the very women whose labour kept the establishment running.
Anna reflects that she was lucky she could leave and that the future for the migrant women with little choice but to endure would be hard.
Austerity has punished the poor, but as a group it is women who have been hurt most deeply, with an estimated 68 per cent of cuts coming directly from the pockets of women.
For migrant women and women of colour the situation is even more stark. The choice is often “put up and shut up” or “get out and go hungry.”
How women cope with institutional sexism is complex. The phenomenon of high-flying women pulling the ladder up with them is all too real and we have all heard the horror stories of female CEOs who speak out against family-friendly policies.
To some extent perhaps this is understandable — male-dominated working environments can be intimidating, particularly for young women, and whatever one’s status in an organisation, as a woman, sexism is inescapable.
Sarah got in touch with her experience. She flew through a top university before graduating from law school and joining a city firm as a lawyer.
She now recalls with horror how she would go to lap-dancing clubs with clients and colleagues because she needed to fit in.
She explains: “It wasn’t really a choice, it was a coping mechanism. There were two types of women in the office, I could be a ‘boot’ or ‘bunny.’
“The only way I could get on was to play the boys at their own game, so I deflected advances with humour and tried to grow a thick skin.
“The constant need to bat off sexual advances and suppress my anxiety took a heavy toll on my health and after five years I left to change career.”
Aping the misogynist behaviour of men to get on is not unique to high-flying lawyers.
Rebecca worked as an administrator in local government. She explained how the all-male IT team in her office would judge all the women on a scale of “hotness.”
As a lesbian, to put herself outside their predatory gaze she would join in. She explains: “It was easier that way and for a bit it was a laugh. Then it struck me that it stopped me seeing them as human, as women like me. It made me realise how easy it is to go with the flow and how misogynist that current is ... I didn’t have the confidence to call it out.”
To my mind, what these stories show is that no amount of “leaning in” can change a culture where men bond through the humiliation of women. Similarly, “awareness raising” can’t totally unpick the unconscious bias that we all carry.
As the pay scandals from the BBC to EasyJet show, taking a stand and calling out sexism is just too risky for most women and undoubtedly employers know this.
Expecting women to demand pay rises and negotiate promotions is unrealistic in a climate where jobs are scarce and women who assert themselves are demonised as “unfeminine,” pushy or aggressive.
Workplace sexism is not a problem made by women and it should not be left to us to redress what is after all a man-made injustice.
Whether it is flagrant or underhand, dismissed as banter or demonstrably discouraged, sexism exists in every workplace.
Sexism in the workplace is not a niche concern or inconvenient distraction, it is at the core of the struggle for better working conditions.
In the week when the TUC women’s conference meets, the experiences of Anna, Rebecca and Sarah underscore the fact that the fight for women’s liberation should be front and centre of campaigns for workers’ rights.
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