Sexism is alive and well, and it's not funny.

I have worked in IT, Oil & Gas and more recently the space sectors most of my working life. I have experienced my fair share of discrimination, bad behaviour and being ignored in my career.

I learned to deal with most situations, and thought that such behaviour was relegated to the past. There has certainly been a marked change since the 1980s. We must also remember that women can be equally cruel to men, it just doesn’t happen so often.

 

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However there are a few things recently which made me wonder if sexism is still alive and well and has been driven underground. I heard two stories recently from women of different generations.  The result was that one woman resigned rather than continue working in the environment, and the second decided to stay quiet rather than risk her career. In both cases the companies would undoubtedly have policies in place against such behaviour but these will only be effective if the culture of the company means they will follow up. Telling a female employee 'You should have come to us earlier.' is simply not good enough.

So why am I writing about this now? I found the Daily Mail heading  of ‘Legs-it’, demeaning and insulting. Yes, we can poke fun at our politicians – but this goes beyond that. It reduces our Prime minister and the First Minister of Scotland to... legs. It’s not funny, and Sarah Vine should have known better. It reinforces a culture which enables sexist behavior to be treated as acceptable.

An article published by the Independent (Sweden is the best country in the world for women) provides an insight into Sweden's actions to create an equal playing field for women. The article is worth a read and covers things like equal pay for equal work, and analyzing companies where there are big gender gaps. Sweden has a very different culture from the UK – but perhaps we can learn a few lessons.

There is a huge push to get more young women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) courses and careers. There are some great adverts on TV and the cinema focusing on young girls and actively encouraging a career in STEM related jobs. I too am an advocate of getting more women into these fields BUT only if our culture means that they will be treated properly.

Things have changed a lot since the 1980s, but maybe not that much if sexism is alive and well, but underground. There are many defining episodes in my career, but three in particular helped me figure out the work place:

  1. The first incident was when I was in the pub with a number of colleagues (all male) and I was told in no uncertain terms that “You’ve got ‘t**ts’, so you can’t be one of us. Clearly this was in the days before political correctness but at least I knew where I stood.
  2. The second incident was with one of my software team. He told me that even though I was his boss, that because he had a wife and two children he should be paid more than me.  So in his mind pay was dictated by sex, not by seniority or what you do!
  3. The third was potentially the most serious. I had been the brunt of some very abusive behavior and retreated back to my office very shaken. My boss came down to me and said that of course I could go to HR, but think carefully about the effect this may have on my career. He went onto say that the chap who had behaved badly was a highly valued employee. Actually, he was a contractor – not even an employee.

You could say I was ‘lucky’ to have these experiences. The first two episodes helped me deal with the male dominated industry I worked in because I knew I would be treated differently. The problem now is that young women believe they will be treated fairly and with respect. When this doesn’t happen, then they don’t know how to deal with it. Remember that sexism can be insidious and intimidating. It is not easy to stand up and make a statement or complain. Blatant sexism is perhaps far easier to deal with. Once it’s been driven underground then the rule book has been thrown out the door.

There are many different type of sexism, and they apply to both men and women. The three top ones for me are:

  • Blatant sexism where it is obvious to everyone. Hopefully companies and orgnaisation have a means of managing this.
  • Underground sexism where the organisation or company has a culture which ‘turns a blind eye’ and would prefer to pay someone off rather than change the culture or deal with difficult situations.
  • Ignorant sexism where the person may not even be aware that his or her actions could be construed as sexist.

The latter two are far more difficult to deal with and yet in this day and age Sarah Vine and the Daily Mail still thought the ‘Legs-it’ front page was OK. 

Read next: Women in Technology

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"Sexism is alive and well" first published on Company Connecting March 2017

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