Everyday sexism – it cuts both ways

philbirchbw-e1297112991794There is no doubt that sexism exists, and not just in the workplace. It is a part of everyday society. Does this mean that it is acceptable? No. Does this mean that everyone is sexist to some extent? Maybe.

We exist and strive here at the3rdi to address sexism in many of its covert and overt forms. We give voice and support to a myriad of theories views and experiences. Through this, we try to remain neutral and balanced. There is a perspective here however that is unashamedly singular, sexism from the male perspective. I ask you to set aside any immediate prejudice in this area and such sweeping generalisations as “men cannot multi-task” to present before you the statement that sexism exists in both directions. Sexism can be experienced by men from women as well as on women from men. This is not a general comment; these are facts. I know them to be true because they are my experiences, first hand. They are my facts and they are true.

When starting my corporate career I completed a management training programme with a global engineering company. I travelled around the organisation spending time in just about every department, from marketing to HR, from Accounts to the factory floor.

I encountered direct sexism on many occasions. When acting as apprentice in the manufacturing section I worked for periods of eight and 24 weeks on various assembly lines. In the teleprinter area which required a higher degree of dexterity and less heavy load work, the majority of the workforce were women. I encountered sexism every minute of every day from having to squeeze between two workbench staff that had moved their respective chairs too close together in order that I made physical contact (this causing me great embarrassment and them hysteria). I was regularly required to pick up dropped screws and bolts whilst the “girls” watched and commented and hailed innuendo. I was regularly asked what I wanted for lunch “poke and stuffing today” (a vulgar reference to pork). If I commented or blushed, the ridicule was heightened. “Oh! Look Christine, the little boy is embarrassed. Come here love, I’ll show you what to do with your soldering stick!” In the offices, the same again but marginally less overt. Mother-hen middle-aged desperate housewives and admin pools that delighted in my obvious embarrassment at discussions about their respective partners lack of sexual prowess or the regular refuge of the slighted lady, ‘women’s problems’.

As I matured and developed into management, the game was still the same. NEVER question ‘women’s problems’, repeatedly having to tread on eggshells in an attempt to work out who of the 12 women that I worked with were, at which stage of the cycle and why that mattered. Don’t get me wrong, this was a professional organisation but let me ask you this. What would have happened if I had gone to HR and complained about sexual harassment? I think you know.

As senior manager and director the issues never went away completely it was just that the tactics changed. Women that stood too close, extended eye contact, the odd touch of a hand on my arm, whispered comments as I passed that I was supposed to hear but not supposed to hear. I have witnessed ‘power sex’ traps with fellow Directors, broken marriages from late working and gate-keeper secretaries.

My point is a relatively simple one. Sexism is not just in the workplace. If you are sexist, you are sexist. It’s that simple.

If you cannot see past the gender to relate to the person them self, you are sexist. If you set up groups that exclude one gender or the other, you are sexist. If you look for gender-based excuses for lack of promotion, look in the mirror first; how do you behave with the junior male trainee or the new manager or your line Director? Do you use your ‘women’s worldly wiles’ or rely upon your feminine charms? These are you using your gender energies and your gender assets to further your case, career or conversation. Do you make random, unqualified generalisations such as “it’s different for men” or “he can handle it” or “typical man, can’t multi-task’” or have you ever flirted or manipulated a situation with your feminine charms? If so, you are sexist.

There is undoubtedly an imbalance in the workplace when it comes to senior roles. There is also an imbalance in the number of sexual harassment cases. But I have seen cases and experienced events that were just as sexist and just as unfair and there is another point to consider here; just how many men feel that they can actually complain? The whole world of male ego turns against itself here.

I am not looking for sympathy, just recognition that it is a two-way street. I could cite further repugnant examples from Monica Lewinski to screaming hen parties. You may defend them, justify them even. That is up to you, the mirror and your conscience and for the record, mine is clear.

I came up with the idea of the 3rdi; my idea, my name, my vision. Karen has taken the magazine to people and places that I could not. Karen has met wonderful women and been involved in fantastic events, I have not. I have been asked to speak at one event in the five years that we have ran this magazine together. I stepped down from MD in order that the magazine, the cause, could develop. I have watched and listened from the background as we continue to address inequality and inequity in business and society. I have promoted women’s events, rights and causes without question and without reward. I will continue to do this with all the passion and focus that I have because fairness, balance and respect are key to my work and life and these values are NOT gender specific.

In essence, I walk my talk. Do you?

Phil Birch is a founder member and regular contributor to the3rdimagazine

6 Comments on Everyday sexism – it cuts both ways

  1. It’s good to have a male perspective on this Phil. As I said in my article, there are many men who are supportive of the right for women to be treated equally and we should be mindful of that. We also need to be mindful of the fact that men also suffer from sexism and that often goes unrecognised. Sexism is wrong no matter on whom it is being perpetrated and it behoves both sexes to recognise this in order to eradicate it from all our lives.

  2. I was interested to read this article because I think this is a relevant and little discussed topic. I also agree with Anne that it is important to have a male perspective of sexism in the workplace. However, I am moved to say how disappointed I am in the article. The tone is one of personal anger and bitterness. There is a marked lack of any kind of supporting research and the analysis is limited to the personal experiences and feelings of the author. Whilst these are valid on an individual basis and could be useful in a case study appraoch or to illustrate some broader findings, to limit the article to what seems to be an outpouring of emotion utterly weakens it. An example: ‘I encountered sexism every minute of every day.’ This kind of hyperbole only serves to focus the reader on how bitter the author is, not on the seriousness of the issue. The concluding paragraph is another example which demonstrates clearly the fact that this is an article about the feelings of a very angry man, not about an issue that deserves to be highlighted.

  3. I disagree Hazel. I did not read it as the words of an angry man. I read it as outrage and impotence, emotions that I can relate to as feeling in similar situations. I also think that all our stories both male and female are important in getting over the need to tackle the iniquity of sexism, therefore are relevant.

  4. Thank you both for your comments.

  5. Marek Styczen // October 15, 2013 at 10:16 am // Reply

    Interesting thoughts.

    I can base my comments on my somewhat limited experience of sexist attitudes towards men and conversations I had with male friends. I found there is room for raising awareness across the wider spectrum about the nature of sexist behaviour.

    Interestingly enough, I was subjected to similar behaviour to that described in the article above – although only once in a really explicit way. This happened several years ago at an event and involved an attractive young woman. The thing is, I was so shocked that I did not know how to react. As I found my physical personal space invaded and as uncomfortable, repeated physical contact was being made, I realised I was not prepared by my life experience to address a situation like that at all. I recall an overwhelming feeling of panic and thinking ‘Can anyone else see that?’ ‘Am I making this up?’ Since this is not widely discussed in the context of men being targeted, it perhaps exploits what I found is an unexpected vulnerability. I would always argue that women tend to be targeted far, far more often but could it be that it allows them to develop coping mechanisms, at least for the less aggressive forms of this behaviour? Or is it that I am being naïve and it is just the skills I am somewhat lacking that stem from emotional intelligence that carry people through that? It is very sad that these mechanisms need to develop in any case.

    Thank you for giving me food for thought.

  6. I agree with Anne, I don’t read bitterness and truth is as it is personally experienced. In this, as with any other personal report, we must acknowledge personal truth.
    Anecdotal again for sure but my father and husband were both subjected to sexually explicit taunts in their workplace so I accept that it is certainly a two-way street.
    Here we reflect issues from a woman’s perspective to redress the balance as we can all agree that it isn’t a dual carriageway; more like those road signs with a big arrow heading in one direction and a smaller one heading the opposite way.
    And we should also acknowledge that there is a lot of support from men against sexism and certainly we need to thank Phil directly for his role in founding this magazine.

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