Deidre Brock MP

Member of Parliament for Edinburgh North and Leith

Career choices and challenges: the culture of casual sexism

Career choices and challenges: the culture of casual sexism

I've seen suggestions that there should be more equality training in the workplace and a suggestion that men should routinely be given sensitivity training. The real answer, though, is men should be decent human beings who don't regard women as being worth less than they are.

Deidre Brock MP

A speech I gave to the CFA UK Scottish Gender Diversity Network event, Wednesday November 8 2017

Harvey Weinstein is an extreme example of a problem all too pervasive in the workplace – men considering women to be children of a lesser god, free for the taking or worth less than the men around them – it's usual to shove an allegedly in there but I don't feel like giving him that benefit of the doubt.

Nor do I feel like downplaying what women face to allow the 'men too' argument to be made. For once let's just keep the focus on women and let the men take a seat just now because it's not just the powerful against the weak, it's the ingrained, societal imbalance in power that has existed for centuries and exists now, still, in spite of the advances we have seen in recent decades.

We can tell how ingrained it is by the way society is surprised by the idea of a matriarchal community. The myth of the Amazonian warrior women and our own myths of the freedom of the Celtic women stand as prime examples. This is an imbalance that strikes right through societies and right across the ages and the social and economic groups.

The casting couches of Hollywood are not unique; we've heard repeated stories that were direct allegations of misconduct raised by women in other professions – including finance – that were too often treated as minor disagreements rather than real problems.

The reaction is more often the 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' of the Carry-On films rather than the horror and disgust that it should generate. It's probably safe to say that no type of workplace is free of the casual sexism, unthinking free-handedness and implied male ownership that we see from Weinstein and others.

Most women will have felt discomfort in a situation where someone with power over us – professional or otherwise – makes sleazy remarks, touches us inappropriately, makes clear they want more, perhaps expect or even demand it, and maybe, like me, have felt deflated and devalued when you realise the interest isn't in your abilities, your ideas, your contribution. You knew you were going to reject his advances, and the friendliness would evaporate, career opportunities vanish like snow aff a dyke. Not because you weren't good enough, he never bothered to find out whether you were good enough.

Casual sexism is all around us – it's in the young women in bikinis draped across car bonnets in adverts, for example. That doesn't help us to be taken seriously or be regarded as equals by men. Even the men who think they're not like that – do you step in when you see the misogyny? Do you tell your colleagues the comments about other colleagues are inappropriate? Do you decry sexist jokes? Or do you keep quiet or even go along with it because it makes life easier, women should lighten up, it's just a bit of fun, it's only banter?

The lack of understanding of harassment was made clear in that grubby little list that some Parliament researchers compiled about Tory MPs. There were examples in there of people who were in a happy, consensual relationship with each other or whose felony was their sexual orientation and they were in the same list as MPs abusing their staff and some serious allegations that should be referred to the police.

It is not simply naivety, it's a wilful ignorance of the issue.

We still live in a world where a woman like Cate Blanchett, my fellow Australian, points out to men that the way women dress does not say they consent to sex and the comment makes global headlines. It shouldn't have needed said.

The repercussions are not just personal, either, there's an economic price. A woman facing that kind of strain, ignorance and bias cannot be as productive as a woman who is encouraged in her job. A woman who is not promoted to a position where she can do more good is a woman who is contributing less than she gladly would, and a woman who is forced out of an organisation won't be contributing to it at all. That's before you get to the men whose minds aren't on the job and how unproductive they are. It's a cost we don't have to bear.

I've seen suggestions that there should be more equality training in the workplace and a suggestion that men should routinely be given sensitivity training. The real answer, though, is men should be decent human beings who don't regard women as being worth less than they are.

The solution is men policing their own behaviour and considering whether it's appropriate – BEFORE they do it. The solution is men being told by their employer that the shoogly peg has let go of their jaiket when they offend. The solution is for employers to make it clear that all of their employees are equal and that none should be harassed or belittled or targeted or made to feel uncomfortable and that disciplinary action will be taken against employees who ignore those simple points.

I've come some way from my roots – I was an actor in Australia and I've worked in backpacker hostels in Edinburgh, done office duties in Holyrood, driven myself half-daft trying to get Edinburgh Council to work and have finally fallen so far I became an MP. Those experiences have taught me some other things that are relevant to tonight's topic, too.

I had my daughters before I started my career in politics but I've seen other women lose massively from a few months' maternity break. In politics that break is never complete, you still have to keep it going, but the women who give birth are, all too often, just sidelined. Things move on quickly and if you're not keeping up with everything all the time you're falling behind. Once you're behind you get forgotten. Young women who give birth are placed at a severe disadvantage to men of the same age whose partners give birth. I'm going to guess that it's the same in nearly every profession out there – out of sight and you're just a memory.

Interestingly, men in academia who take a sabbatical for one reason or another don't seem to suffer the same fate; they are seen as developing themselves rather than taking a career break – perhaps women having children should be regarded in the same light?

Then, of course, a father who works is just a father who works but a mother who works has to deal with all of the societal opinion on her, whether that comes from the hidebound tradition that say she should stay at home and look after her children – which only the comfortably-off were ever able to do, or from the more modern pigeon-hole that says she should be at home giving her children a launch-pad for their successful lives, or from the "well done" brigade who applaud her return to work, or from the well-meaning chorus of "we really must provide childcare facilities" as if only one parent was responsible for the child. It all holds women back, it all burdens them with additional responsibilities, other people's opinions, and the aspirations that other people have for them, their children, their careers, their futures. A working father might carry a briefcase, a working mother carries society.

All too often, of course, there is also the confidence factor. Society still encourages young women to doubt themselves and young men to believe that they are the answer to everything. That creates a power imbalance that has its roots in every area of our lives and its top brushing against that famous old glass ceiling. Harvard Business School published an article titled "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?" A fine title. The conclusion reached was that "the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence."

There's a mythology that stalks business that there is a magic quality that some people have; a sorcery we call leadership, and we mistake hubris for that quality. Ironic, really, because good leadership requires an absence of hubris and the best leaders are usually humble, but we appear to be programmed to believe a man who says "it's this way, follow me" without asking him whether he has read a map.

I am in a profession where we do not lack men with egos the size of planets whose arrogance and self-belief have propelled them to the top which has led to a Foreign Secretary who thinks his job is to insult other countries and a Brexit Secretary who thinks his job is to irritate the EU. Lacking in intellect, lacking in self-awareness, lacking in compassion, empathy and human decency they plough a furrow of destruction through the lives of others and chirrup after that these people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves "like wot I have done".

We can change this. We can harness the underdeveloped and, in many cases, untapped potential of women – both societal and economic potential – but we have to change the cultures we operate within.

We have to stop seeing boastfulness as an asset, we have to require self-belief to be tempered by self-awareness, we have to start asking what the qualities are that we need in leaders – whether political or in business – rather than allowing those who want to be leaders define what the job should be.

We have to start looking to bring people back into the workforce and allow them to plough onwards after a career break for whatever reason. Perhaps most of all we need men to start understanding that women are their equals, that a female colleague is not a perk in their employment, and that respecting women is not a weakness. We can do better but we have to believe properly in equality to do it.

Best reform of House of Lords? Scrap it
Supermarket surgery this Thursday


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Thursday, 18 July 2019


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