The worst sexism ever

Back in 2011, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson made some really mild comments about a dude’s inappropriate behaviour at a conference. Things blew up, especially once the prince of Internet Atheism, Richard Dawkins, left a comment mocking Watson for making such a fuss over such a small thing. His argument, in a scathing “satire”, boiled down to: how dare you talk about this bad experience, things are so much worse for oppressed Muslim women.

(Being Richard Dawkins, he said it as offensively and gratuitously as possible.)

And that was Elevatorgate. Neither the first, nor the last, but definitely one of the premiere cases of the thing I’m blogging about today.

Again and again, when women (or any other group of people pointing out the ways their lives are constrained and affected by oppression) speak out about something – no matter how “calmly” or “reasonably” they put it – we’re scoffed at. “Oh, like this is the worst sexism that ever happened *eyeroll*” or “Things are way worse for women in Syria, you know“. The only possible inference is: “you shouldn’t talk about this, because this isn’t really serious.”

As I wrote in my post about the myth of language policing:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

That’s what sexism is like. This omnipresent state of “being a woman in a patriarchy” is manifested in a hundred different ways. Yes, most of them, if they were “the only” thing happening, would be trivial, easily brushed off and forgotten. But they’re not. They’re constant. And sometimes women complain about them.

And when we do, it seems to just be a matter of time before someone jumps up to point out that, well, this isn’t the worst sexism ever so stop complaining.

Whatever your intention, however you phrase it, you’re effectively telling women to stop talking. That their concerns aren’t valid – and that you are the person who gets to decide whether or not they are, largely based on being (usually) white, or male, or cisgendered, or wealthy, or famous – or any other of the characteristics which our society infuses with credibility. We don’t get to decide what’s important for us, what harms us or what we want to tweet about. You do.

And when we women say “hang on, this feels a bit like you want me to shut up”, the response is: “I don’t want to silence women! I love women! I was just making a point, I never said you shouldn’t have an opinion at all!”

Every single time: this issue is trivial and that experience is all in our heads and this problem is just a misunderstanding and why, oh why, are we talking about it at all?

As I get older and theoretically wiser, and see the same “well-intentioned” calls to sit down and stop making a fuss made over and over, I stop believing that this isn’t malicious. It’s too easy to make women shut up about everything this way – because nothing is as bad as The Sum Total Of Patriarchy. And The Sum Total of Patriarchy is so massive and pervasive that there’s no practical way to attack it directly. So what option do we have but to sit down and stop making a fuss?

We’re told to “pick our battles” on pretty much every battle there is – and we already have a list that’s too long of the battles we’ve already surrendered.

Well, to end on a note of high drama, here’s the battle I’m picking: I won’t be quiet about sexism. Sometimes I’ll talk about the big issues. Sometimes I’ll talk about the small ones. And if you desperately need to try to tell me whether the things I talk about are or aren’t important, I’ll probably be talking about you next.

wednesday-addams-smiling

No, YOU get a sense of humour

Henry Denton: You Brits really don’t have a sense of humor do you?
Elsie: We do if something’s funny, sir.

– Gosford Park

Two stories popped up on my Twitter feed simultaneously yesterday: a defence of Tim Hunt’s sexist “jokes” about women in science, and the news that Eagle Technology felt compelled to apologise to the attendees of an event it sponsored after guest speaker Maurice Williamson made unspecified sexist “jokes”.

I had some thoughts on the matter which I tweeted out, but wanted to record the ideas here for posterity!

If you’re part of an oppressed group, you’re used to being the butt of the joke. You know it’s a joke. It’s still about you, and it’s mean.

Privileged douchebags already get plenty of passes for their privilege and douchebaggery. They don’t need another pass.

Stop making it the duty of people who are already oppressed to burn mental energy ~being okay~ with your terrible jokes.

And stop demonizing our anger/upset/contempt/exasperation at shitty jokes just bc we express it on Twitter or Facebook. (The defence of Tim Hunt in particular complained of “Twitter outrage”, as though modern social media is the only place people have ever got together to express their anger collectively in the history of human communication.)

Also, understand when marginalized people DO laugh at your shitty oppressive jokes, it’s a survival mechanism. And you’re not really funny.

I spoke at a National Council of Women meeting the night before last about sexism and discrimination in the workplace, and one of the points I really hammered is that there’s a hell of a lot of pressure on marginalized people – particularly women, because we’re meant to be nurturing and caring and emotional – to carry the burden of other people’s behaviour.

In the context of work, that’s about your “Lean In” school of thought: “just stand up for yourself and make some noise (and hope you aren’t blacklisted as too abrasive)”. In any context, when somebody – especially an older dude – tells terrible, hackneyed sexist jokes about women crying too much or having PMS, the burden isn’t on him to just not tell the joke in the first place. It’s on us to either not get offended too easily or accept his apology and let it go.

Even when, like Maurice Williamson, he has form for telling terrible hackneyed jokes about marginalized groups of people.

Here’s a radical notion: if privileged white dudes want people to stop ~taking offence~ at their pitiful attempts at humour, they could try telling jokes which don’t punch down on women or ethnic minorities or people’s sexual orientation.

Or just accept that you’re not really that funny, chaps.

Sexism, babies, and our assumptions about work

It’s 2015, and we’re constantly told that sexism is over, feminism has had its day, and would you nagging witches please just simmer down already?

And then this happens:

An Auckland mother was told that having her kids in daycare could affect her job prospects because she would need too many sick days to care for them.

The mother rang O’Neils Personnel Recruitment Agency about an administration-manager job advertised on its website this week.

“The woman I ended up speaking to asked me if I have any children,” said the mother, who did not wish to be identified. “When I said yes, she asked if they would be in daycare, which they would be.

“She then proceeded to tell me that the client would not be interested in me as an applicant. Why? Apparently because daycare is a hotbed of illness, and I would have to leave work all the time, because they would be sick all the time, and when you are employed you have to be there, to do the job.”

A better headline might be “Sexist assumptions cost woman job chance.”

I’m going to be honest, here: I do not believe that Ms Sleep, the recruitment agent quoted in the story, asks men the same questions. Maybe she asks, “so does your partner take care of the kids when they’re sick?” Or maybe the topic of kids comes up in an interview and she thinks “gosh, he sounds like a nice family man.”

But I sincerely doubt that she’s ever told a man “look, you need to come back to me once you have a Plan B for childcare, because this employer won’t hire you if you have kids.”

We live in a society which makes a huge number of assumptions about work and child-raising.

Women are assumed to be the main carers of children

I know a couple who decided dad would be the stay-at-home parent. This caused shock, because the assumptions are so ingrained – people actually asked her, when she was back at work, “but what have you done with the baby?” – and people asked him, when he took the baby to daycare, “oh … *sad face* what happened to the mum?”

We would sooner assume that a woman would leave her six-week-old baby totally unattended at home, and that a man’s wife has died tragically in the first six weeks of baby’s life, than “she went back to work and he takes care of the kid.”

Ironically, this creates a vicious circle. If you’re having kids in a heterosexual relationship, and one of you needs to take time off after a baby’s born, and the woman in the relationship is far likelier to be paid less or promoted because people assume she’ll be the one taking time off … guess who ends up reinforcing the stereotype?

All women of child-bearing age are assumed to want/be planning children

I have friends who are childfree, and have been for many, many years. And even the women who are most outspoken about never wanting children face the same condescension: “oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older!” and “you’ll feel differently once you meet the right guy!”

There’s a few other poor assumptions right there: all women are cisgender, all women are heterosexual, all cis women can physically have children.

And of course, we can never take a woman’s word for anything because the ~biological clock~ is far more powerful than a silly ~ladybrain~. This points us towards a simple truth: women are seen as less intelligent, capable, and autonomous than men. You could almost argue that the “risk” of pregnancy or childcare impacting on work is a smokescreen; an excuse to justify simply not valuing women as equal human beings.

Children are the only reason people ever miss work or leave jobs

In this 2013 article, recruiter Ryan Densem complains

… he had dealt with employers left “frustrated” from employing a pregnant women after investing time and money into the hiring process and training, only to have to go through the same process a few months later to cover their maternity leave.

Has Ryan Densem really never encountered a man leaving a role within a few months? Does he refrain from head-hunting great candidates who’ve just started new jobs because it would be unfair to their bosses? Do men never get really sick, or injured, or decide to move to a new city?

I’ve worked places with huge turnover. Multiple people quit less than six months after starting. Huge amounts of time and money wasted on recruitment, and work left undone because everyone else was so stretched – and not a pregnancy in sight. There was a poorly-trained team leader and a toxic culture of managerial bullying, but for some reason that’s viewed as unfixable. Much easier to just not-hire an entire gender.

Besides, as recruiter Annette Sleep says in the top article,

It’s risk management and clients don’t pay us a handsome fee to send them risky candidates. The candidates don’t pay us a brass razoo. In business you work for the people who pay you.

Plenty of “handsome fees” to be made off a managerial class who drive good non-pregnant candidates away, I imagine.

What about sick days? Can I refuse to hire young men because they might go to the Sevens every year and I can’t afford to cover their hangover-sickies? People who play weekend sport, because they might get injured?

Ryan Densem wants to pretend that this is all about six-months-pregnant women switching jobs and forfeiting their entitlements to paid parental leave (because this ever actually happens), not systemic and deliberate discrimination against women on the basis of gender. But researcher Annick Masselot notes

“Women are not merely discriminated against because they are pregnant and are about to take a period of parental leave, they are discriminated on the basis of the next 15 years of school holidays”

Because all women will have children, and all children will get sick, and all women will be the ones taking time off because their sick and wanting school holidays off and leaving their jobs at the drop of a positive pregnancy test.

Given all this it’s not surprising that that our Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex – including

preferential treatment relating to pregnancy and childbirth, and family responsibilities.

At least Ryan Densem has the good grace to be honest about the lies employers tell:

“They’d never say, ‘Sorry, we won’t hire you because you’re pregnant’. They’d say, ‘Sorry, your background and experience isn’t exactly what we’re looking for’.”

It’s okay, Ryan. We know exactly what you mean.

So there’s the gendered, identity-politics side of the argument. But there’s a slightly broader set of assumptions in play, around work and workers, regardless of gender – and my thoughts on that got a liiiiittle bit long, so tune in tomorrow.

QOTD: Andrea Grimes on what men can do

From I Made a Joke About Guns and a Man Threatened to Assault Me at RH Reality Check:

I don’t need men to individually and personally step up to protect me. I need them to collect their fellow dudes and actively work, every day, to end widespread cultural misogyny and to improve the lives of non-cisgender-dude people the world over.

Good dudes of the world, please hear me out: Not actively being a sexist shitbag as an individual is not enough. Because somewhere, somehow, the guys who dedicated themselves to harassing me—many of them under their real names on Facebook—have brothers, dads, uncles, golf buddies, tennis partners, co-workers, favorite bartenders, and an entire universe of dude friends and acquaintances, all of whom have failed to make it clear, either through their words or their actions, that this kind of behavior is not OK.

Hat-tip to friend-with-locked-account on Twitter.

When someone brings up sexism (or racism, or any form of oppression) the response is so frequently personal: “Well I’m certainly not sexist (or racist, etc)! How dare you call me sexist! You’re the real problem here!”

The problem about pervasive, ingrained prejudices and systems of power is they’re like the Force: invisible, inside all of us,* binding us together. This makes it easy to brush off: “Look, he didn’t call you a bitchslutwhore, so you must be reading the sexism into his statements!”

But sometimes sexism really, really isn’t invisible, and the least you can do, dudes, is challenge it when it’s right in front of you.

 

*The Star Wars expanded universe ysalamiri can shove off.