After Harvey Weinstein there have been suggestions that we’ve reached a ‘tipping point’, that the genie can’t be put back into the bottle and that our society will clean itself up with respect to sexual harassment. I wish. In the meantime, the low level denigration of women continues, from wolf whistles in the street to offensive casual remarks, as illustrated by the Virgin tweet enquiring if someone who had objected to being called ‘honey’ by one person, would prefer ‘love’ or ‘pet’ instead. Some people simply don’t get it. The recipient of this tweet, Emily Cole, wrote a very well-argued piece in the Guardian about what this episode demonstrates about ‘toxic masculinity’ and how it impacts on everyone, whatever their gender. I would like to think Virgin trains will be running some training sessions for staff, both those on trains and those who are in charge of their social media, so that similar embarrassing and offensive remarks do not recur.
What can the community do? To begin with it behoves all of us not to tolerate disdain and belittling behaviour, whether addressed to you or directed at someone else in your hearing or sight. Remind people that the world has changed and what might have been regarded as OK in your parents’ or grandparents’ generation is simply not OK anymore, be it in words or actions. In order to achieve this, all of us in a strong enough/senior enough position to do something need to be mentally prepared to act and to follow up after the event where required. I am not particularly optimistic that collectively society will change, but it certainly won’t if pressure is not put upon it. I, like many another woman I’m sure, has tended just to grin and bear the tediously common low level misogyny I’ve faced, from teenage years on: I used to think there was something odd about my face which meant people shouted ‘cheer up love, it may never happen’ at me repeatedly. Being wolf-whistled at on the way to school was just a fact of life (and it happened despite our not particularly fetching dark green school uniform and knee high socks; even, for a couple of years, being required to wear a beret).
However, from now on, I will be less tolerant of taxi-drivers calling me darling in a sneering kind of way, as illustrated by my recent explosion – and complaint to the firm – under these very circumstances. I will speak up about people’s inappropriate behaviour when directed at me. If people are prepared to do this to me, they almost certainly will also have been doing it to much more vulnerable, less senior people. So, if I’ve been touched inappropriately I will let people know, politely but in no uncertain terms when they have crossed a line that is likely to cause some people offence. Since such behaviour may also land them in hot water, you could be saying I’m doing them a favour! Not so long ago I was even kissed by a very senior, even elderly, someone who told me ‘I do like kissing games’, I quote, before they acted. This was in the not so distant past, but I did not complain let alone stamp on their foot. I regret that.
During my career the senior male who patted me on the arm has been all too common. In most cases it was a case of old-fashioned patronage that surely was not meant to cause offence. Probably, these older generation folk thought they were just being friendly and supportive, although plenty of people – for instance, my one-time mentor Sir Sam Edwards – could be both without ever getting close to arm, shoulder or any other part of my anatomy. Nevertheless 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago, I thought little of it other than ‘here we go again, I wish he’d desist’. But, this particular worm has turned; I’m not going to shut up any longer.
Before Christmas I was at a dinner when my host and neighbour at the dinner table repeatedly patted me patronisingly on the arm. It happened to be in the presence of the University’s new Vice Chancellor and it did not feel the moment to make a fuss or slap the guy, however irritating he was. Instead, I decided to mention his behaviour in my note of thanks, being very conscious the guy in question would be likely to interact with many students from all round the world; some of them might justifiably be not at all happy about such unwanted and unwarranted light touching, and/or might well feel they were being inappropriately condescended to.
I wanted to keep this low key and, rereading what I wrote, I still think my email was to the point and hardly abrasive:
In today’s rather febrile atmosphere, and with changing attitudes, you might find that some people – from different cultures, gender and degrees of seniority – might find your friendly pats on the arm unacceptable. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but younger folk may feel differently. Hope you take that in the spirit intended!
I got no reply, but subsequently saw the email appeared still to be sitting in my drafts. Feeling embarrassed that the thanks which had started off the email was going to turn up awfully late, I decided nevertheless to send the email. To which the curt reply came
I got your message the first time. Thank you
That was it. An inadequate response if ever there was one. I have to hope that, despite the unforthcoming tone, my message had got through. If it happens again, with him or anyone else, I think it is incumbent on me to do the same again.
I am glad to say the men with whom I work on a daily basis are not of this inclination. The men with whom I’d choose to go out for a drink do not casually dismiss women as post-menopausal or hot totty or a bit of all right. Their conversations demonstrate their acute sensitivity to unconscious bias and I’m sure they would be the first to highlight a letter of reference as being inappropriate when describing a woman as feisty or that they’d only got as far as they had because there were so few women in the field. But it is impossible not to know that there are plenty of men in labs and offices around the university who simply don’t realise that they are being inappropriate, insensitive or worse.
So, although we all know new year’s resolutions are made only to be broken, perhaps this year I really will be motivated to stick with mine: not to let such behaviour pass by without some comment, be it at the time or privately later. If more of us (senior) folk not only felt empowered to act this out but actually did so, perhaps academics and taxi-drivers alike might shower fewer unwanted pats, darlings and worse on women. One can only hope.