Recent events make us wonder how we can define sexism? Is calling someone “stunning” politically incorrect? Does calling out inappropriate behaviour make you a feminist or “Feminazi”?
By Joel Davidge and Bobbie Mills
Mention the word “sexist” and you might imagine 1950s attitudes where a woman’s role was to be a good housewife. Then in the 1960s the “sexual revolution” occurred; women challenged the traditional roles they were expected to fill.
So, how do we define sexism today?
When it comes to issues of gender, or gender politics the actual meanings of words sometimes get lost. For example, do you think of yourself as a feminist? OK, let’s try another question. Hands up if you’re in favour of equality between men and women?
Well, guess what – that’s feminism.
Say “feminist” and some people might think about women burning their bras in protest, or angry reactions to having doors opened for them. This is stereotypical and inaccurate; the word Feminism describes “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”.
So, let’s be clear;
Sexism is defined as the “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex”.
Yes, men can be victims of sexism too.
If you’re thinking about negative attitudes towards women you’re probably thinking of Misogyny. Misogynistic behaviour (apart from being really tricky to spell) is “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”.
Sexism can be where a person’s professional credentials are ignored or belittled due to their gender. For example, if a news story about an individual is covered in a particular manner due to their gender.
Take internationally recognised lawyer Amal Alamuddin. She represented founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange and Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yet when she married a rather well-known actor the media started focusing on her husband’s acting career, rather than her many high-profile legal cases. OK, so her husband George Clooney is pretty famous, but even so.
UK parliament and political media coverage are often accused of being sexist. This is perhaps a fair criticism; today only 191 constituencies out 650 are represented by women.
New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for the selection of his new Shadow Cabinet of ministers and advisors. Despite selecting a female majority for the shadow cabinet (16 women and 15 men) for the first time in history, people complained that he had given the top cabinet positions to men.
It was reported that Angela Eagle was given the position of Shadow First Minister of State only after a Corbyn aide said “we are taking a fair amount of **** out there about women.” Corbyn defended his decisions, saying that Education and Health (the positions given to Lucy Powell and Heidi Alexander) were just as important as positions like Chancellor.
During the 2015 Labour leadership contest a journalist asked Labour leadership runner-up Liz Kendall about her weight. Kendall was understandably outraged. The article in question described Kendall’s “lithe figure”. Good to know the media had this important issue covered.
Back in 2010 newly elected Labour MP Stella Creasy was told to vacate a lift as it was for MPs only. The Tory MP challenging her had assumed she was a researcher. Sexist or no? In fairness to the MP in question, he apparently did apologize.
The Conservatives gave us Margaret Thatcher – the UK’s only female Prime Minister to date.
Thatcher had to deal with being a woman within a “man’s world”. She had voice coaching to lower the tone of her voice (because sounding like a woman was a no-no!). As campaigner Peter Tatchell puts it, Thatcher “got to the top in what had been a man’s world; largely by emulating the macho, testosterone-fuelled style of male politicians.”
The image of a male dominated parliament still exists today. Currently Tories only have 68 female MPs, less than a third of their total number. Labour have 99, which is still below half.
The Conservatives have only 10 women compared to 20 men in their Cabinet. However, Theresa May does hold the office of Home Secretary. Traditionally this is seen as one of the four great offices of state (the others are Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary).
Even if you hold a top job, that doesn’t protect you from sexist comments, as one female barrister discovered;
Everyone’s talking about Charlotte Proudman. She’s a barrister, specialising in female genital mutilation and vulnerable women. She’s currently studying for a PhD at Cambridge University.
This week Ms. Proudman logged on to business networking website LinkedIn to see a message from senior lawyer Alexander Carter-Silk. Though noting that it was “probably horrendously politically incorrect” Carter-Silk the message complimented Proudman on her “stunning” profile picture.
Proudman was not impressed, replying that she found the message “offensive” and that she was on LinkedIn for “business purposes not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men”.
“Think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.”
Ouch. Proudman then proceeded to upload a snapshot of the conversation to Twitter. A media frenzy and lots of heated discussions over the definition of sexism ensued.
Proudman claims in an Independent article that she spoke out for all women. While her partner was receiving offers of work via LinkedIn, Proudman describes a “catalogue of similar incidents”; this wasn’t a one-off. She’s not alone; many other women have since reported they’ve been chatted up on LinkedIn.
Defending the message he sent to Ms. Proudman, Mr. Carter-Silk said that “my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted”.
Regardless of the intention, Proudman experienced the message as a sexist. This should not be ignored. Having received several messages she deemed sexist in the past she may have been predisposed to see Carter-Silk’s message as just another of the same. Yet this just reinforces the point that there is a problem.
Proudman wanted to call out everyday sexism on LinkedIn and to see if other women had similar experiences. However this backfired as the media have mostly focused on this individual occurrence rather than the structural problem that she was trying to highlight.
Proudman was attacked for ageism (stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age) for mentioning that she was half Carter-Silk’s age in her reply.
Others criticised Proudman for publishing the photo online.
Lastly, Proudman was branded a “Feminazi”; a derogatory term was coined by an American talk show host in the early 1990s to describe extreme or radical feminists. It references the German extremists in World War II.
The debate now seems to be over whether she overreacted to the comment, and whether it was wrong to post the snapshot online, rather than the fact that many women seem to be receiving similar messages online.
Because as we’ll see, sexism goes way deeper than comments made online;
Sexism isn’t confined to professions like politics, law and journalism. Research concludes that due to the pay gap between what men and women earn, women effectively work for free from November 4th until the end of the year. That’s despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970 supposedly stopping men being treated better than women in terms of pay and conditions of employment.
It’s not just about comments. The actress Helen Mirren recently announced that she is annoyed when men put their arms around women, seeing it as a sign of ownership. In an “infamous” 1975 TV interview in 1975 TV host Michael Parkinson drew attention to Mirren’s “physical attributes”. He even introduced her by referencing a reviewer’s description of her as “the sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Writing about this encounter years later the Daily Mail suggested Mirren “get over it already”.
Writing for the Guardian Lucy Mangan suggests a practical solution; keep a score of all these unwanted sexist attitudes. She does make another interesting point, however.
“Men are – I think quite genuinely, and almost reasonably – confused”.
In the case of Alexander Carter-Silk, if he had wished to offer a genuine comment, is that wrong? The rules of the game change so fast it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Each time a story like this breaks we rapidly redefine what is and isn’t acceptable.
Jokes or behaviour which might have been acceptable in the past are suddenly able to kill your career stone dead. Sir Tim Hunt lost his position at the Royal Society after making misjudged comments about girls in Laboratories.
This is not to defend Hunt – he made an error of judgement. Yet the massive backlash on social media seemed rather disproportionate.
In the Guardian, Mangan notes that the only way to avoid the confusion, where a potentially innocent comment or arm on the shoulder can lead to a witch-hunt, is to create a society where women are truly equal to men.
“Then there would be no question of ownership being indicated through or read into random physical gestures. Compliments and everything else will be freely exchangeable between the sexes because they will stand on exactly the same footing. Jokes will never be misinterpreted.”
Sounds like a good idea to us. At the very least, people should be able to call out bad behaviour without being called a hypocrite.
To boil down something very complicated, it’s about right place, right time. Is this all wrong because it was on LinkedIn?
Is it difficult for women to stand up for their rights without being branded a “Feminazi”? Should we feel able to compliment people on their looks without fear of being publicly named and shamed?
Got a sexist story you want to share? Everyday Sexism Project (@EverydaySexism) documents “experiences of sexism, harassment and assault to show how bad the problem is and create solidarity”. Think there’s an angle we haven’t covered? Let us know firstname.lastname@example.org
Freddie Gray was a 25 year old black American. On 12th April 2015 he was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland. One week after being arrested, he died from serious injuries to his spinal cord. We don’t know what caused these injuries. Now protests over his death have turned violent and Baltimore has declared a state of emergency.
As Scenes of Reason described this is not just happening in Baltimore
Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Oscar Grant III are just some of the many black males killed by white police officers throughout various states across America. Each of their deaths have triggered protests and in some cases, riots.
And it’s happened here in the UK as well. Remember the London riots in 2011?
29 year old Mark Duggan was shot by the cops. A peaceful protest turned riots spread across the city, and looting also occurred in other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.
It’s not clear why Freddie Gray was chased by the police, and it’s also NOT KNOWN why he ran away from them.
In South Carolina earlier this year Walter Scott was shot in the back – he was originally pulled over for having a broken headlight on his car. Footage showed he was unarmed and running away.
Cleveland 2014: 12 year old Tamir Rice was shot within two seconds of police arriving. Police were responding to reports of a youth with a gun described as “probably fake”. It was a fake.
New York 2014: Mobile Phone footage captures the moment Eric Garner was put into choke hold by cops. Garner is heard to say “I can’t breathe” repeatedly. He later died in hospital.
Missouri 2014: Despite being unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer.
California 2009: 22 year old Oscar Grant III was shot by a white police officer whilst being restrained by other officers.
Is it just about race? Is the problem the excessive force used by the police? Some people seem to think the two are linked.
Baltimore Riots: It’s not known how Freddie Gray sustained the spinal injuries which lead to his death. Video footage shows Gray crying out in pain as he is put into the van by police. Investigators are still trying to work out what happened in the 45 minutes between Gray last being seen and his arrest.
In the cases of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Oscar Grant III footage from mobile phones, CCTV and police dashboard cameras often contradicted the police’s official version of events:
Every time this happens it adds to a sense of growing anger at the authorities who are accused of corruption.
Baltimore Riots: 6 police officers HAVE been suspended…… but on full pay. The Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has said he won’t resign over the incident. I guess they don’t feel responsible then…
In the case of Eric Garner and Michael Brown the police officers involved were not charged.
Similarly in 2011 in the UK: the officers involved in the shooting of Mark Duggan (the incident said to have sparked the London riots) were not charged.
Baltimore Riots: Over the weekend a protest demanding answers began peacefully then turned ugly. It’s not clear where the violence started but it continued yesterday: 34 people were arrested, and at least 15 police officers have been injured.
Baltimore has now declared a state of emergency. A week-long curfew has been announced and schools will remain closed today.
In the UK, 2011: More than 3,000 people were arrested. At various points the use of water cannons and rubber bullets were discussed.
It’s naive to think that the police aren’t going to enforce law and order. However bringing more troops in and enforcing curfews does tend to rile people.
Use newspapers and press conferences to spin your version of events.
Analysis has shown that the amount of coverage given to black suspects on New York TV stations was higher than the amount of black people actually arrested for those crimes.
South Carolina 2015: Before the release of the video showing the killing of Walter Scott the press reports accepted the facts in the police report.
London, 2011: The Media played a large part in the events of 2011. Duggan was initially reported to be armed, and involved in drug dealing and gang related violence. All these claims are now disputed.
Then when the riots broke the press went to town: “Rule of the Mob” (The Daily Telegraph), “Mob Rule” (The Independent), “Mobs rule as police surrenders the streets” (The Times) were some of the headlines. Very helpful…
Whilst it’s not cool to use someone’s death as an excuse to nick a TV it’s been argued that media coverage made the situations like the Baltimore Riots a whole lot worse.
In many cases the use of cameras in mobile phones has been key to challenging the authorities version of events. In Missouri 2014, Social media was used to display anger. Many people filmed the police as an act of defiance.
Social Media is now becoming the norm when it comes to organising events. And riots are no different.
London 2011: The original peaceful protest over Mark Duggan’s death was organised via Facebook. Then the Hackney Carnival was cancelled after posts on Twitter indicated there would be violence.
But most importantly Blackberry Messenger was used to co-ordinate the riots. A post on Messenger shown to The Guardian newspaper encouraged people to start looting shops.
So there you have it: Six steps to cause a riot. We don’t think rioting is cool, but people are obviously unhappy about something…
How do we stop this from happening? It’s a question becoming more and more urgent. Scenes of Reason hopes the next post we get to write is “How to prevent a riot (peacefully)”
Things we still want to know:
What is the ratio of white /black men killed in the USA?
It is reported that the US has had the most ethnic minority riots historically. Why?
Let us know what you think below.