Recently I was in conversation with a commercial lawyer who was discussing her career in a male dominated industry. Unswerving confidence in her own skills, being focussed on the job, and strong communication skills has steered her upwards trajectory. But it comes as no surprise that her ascendance has not been without some sexual harassment by colleagues along the way. This is not unfamiliar territory to many women in business in the UK, and those who choose the courts to protect themselves often find the experience more damaging (personally and to career) than the incident itself.
Sexual harassment, whether occasional or mild is unacceptable. It momentarily redefines the woman as public property to be freely touched, her intimate physicality to be talked about. However it is difficult to defend women’s rights across the world when it would seem that our culture, particularly in the UK seems to have developed double standards.
The Suffragette movement in the early 20th century and fifty years later Women’s Liberation, whatever your view of them, made huge changes for women. They fought tooth and nail so that we can vote, receive a full education, compete shoulder to shoulder with men for a career and make our own decisions about how we want to live. Our freedom to determine our own path has meant that we are no longer chattels and what we earn is ours –and the taxman’s, of course.
So, UK law endeavours to give women and men equal rights, and is constantly being amended to ensure greater equality across all aspects of society but it appears to be vague where exploitation of the sexualisation of women is concerned. Images of women as sexual predators are visible across the media and on the internet for all to see uncensored, but alarmingly women are taking control of such images for hard cash. Women now have the power to dictate just how much or how little we will exploit our sex. We can determine the boundaries of acceptability, but these have gradually widened over the last twenty years since the arrival of the internet and the creation of celebrity culture.
This has meant that anyone can gain five seconds of fame and a shoeful of money if their face and body fits and their exploits are outrageous. The more flesh exposed in the press, on tv, on the internet, the greater its value or hits online, and women are the exponents and the subject. Women are making short term easy money diverting attention away from careers that have a more positive impact on society.
As a mother of two teenage daughters I am disappointed by the way women are allowing themselves to be portrayed. This is not a prudish or protective reaction but one that is founded on a desire for my girls to have confidence in who they are and be successful in their own way without the need to exploit themselves. When I have asked how they feel about the subject of self sexual exploitation by women they are quite ambivalent about it. They neither aspire to be celebrities themselves nor do they see anything wrong with girls who seek public approval in this way. And most of their friends share their views so what does it say about our society when our young adults accept that women will agree to be portrayed as sexual objects?
And how does it assist women in the workplace defend our rights not to be seen as sexual objects? As a woman in business I feel let down by my celeb sisters. They trivialise what our forbears fought so hard to achieve. Gossip magazines are lunchtime reading for many women who, on the one hand do not want to be sexually harassed by their work colleagues, but on the other hand buy into the concept of women furthering their celebrity careers by exposing a little more flesh. We have set a double standard that we will find difficult to retract without an impossible shift in our culture and our views on women in society.
If we are shocked by the exploitation of women across the world, then we should take a hard look at what we are doing to ourselves at home.