The myth of ‘Everyday Sexism’
Sexism in the workplace is rife, according to a new study commissioned by employment law firm Slater & Gordon. Sixty per cent of women, the report suggests, have had a male colleague behave ‘inappropriately’ towards them. Now, putting aside the obvious point that an employment law firm may have a vested interest in unearthing potential new cases, the report hardly stands up to scrutiny. Do the 1,036 women who participated in the survey represent a cross-section of society or is the data based on self-selection? Are there any editorial processes or judicial procedures in place to decide what does and does not constitute sexism, or is it merely a case of ‘it is if she says it is’? And then there’s the issue of context. In the report, incidents of harassment includes everything from having a colleague putting their hands up a woman’s skirt, to touching their legs or thighs and placing their hand in the small of a woman’s back. Surely there is a difference between your boss randomly groping your breasts and that over-familiar male colleague slapping your thigh after they have told a dirty joke?
Rather than providing any useful insight into sexism within the workplace, these findings have seized upon a few headline-grabbing anecdotes to make unwarranted claims about society at large. Indeed, the report is no more scientific or insightful than the Everyday Sexism Project, whose founder Laura Bates is gushing over the findings. A year ago, Bates set up the Everyday Sexism website ‘to collate women’s routine experiences of prejudice and harassment’ and along with its Twitter hashtag #shoutingback, the project has so far gathered over 25,000 entries from around the world. They range from sexual assault to workplace harassment to the shouted sexist jibe from a passing car, from women of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic positions. To colour in the findings of the Slater & Gordon report, Bates relates one or two anecdotes shared on her website:
‘Had a manager that said he would “totally rape me”.’
‘A guy at my work told me he’d get me fired if I didn’t have sex with him. His brother was the boss.’
Clearly, these two examples are not comparable; one is a terrible joke and the other is genuine harassment, and it is an insult even to look at them together. Much like the Slater & Gordon report, the Everyday Sexism Project is mostly an invitation to moan. It is anecdotal evidence of ‘bad things’ that happen to some women possibly because of their gender – there’s no need to verify this, it’s enough that this is how the contributors perceived it – that is blown up to represent deep-seated sexism in society at large.
The big questions of feminism used to be about tangible, practical things: should women have the right to vote, to the contraceptive pill, to equal pay? Now, the ‘big’ questions are introspective, self-absorbed questions mired simply in identity politics, and based on small, perceived instances of sexist abuse. This new trend not only degrades the gains of feminism but women themselves. The concept underpinning both the Slater & Gordon report and the Everyday Sexism Project is that all women are the default victims of male dominance. The implication is that men act, while women are acted upon. We are told that we’re afraid, oppressed, we are kept down and persecuted and there is nothing we can do on our own to get out from under this enormous, nebulous burden of fear and misogyny that is endemic within the workplace, and Western society in general.
Projects like Everyday Sexism are nothing more than the nag’s charter of modern-day feminism. It’s not a tool to fight gender inequality, it merely wallows in the idea that women are delicate, fragile beings wont to breakdown entirely at the utterance of a dirty joke. Rather than solving problems, such initiatives implicitly denigrate women.
Saleha Ali is a writer and researcher based in London.
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