Yorkshire Post - - FEATURES & COMMENT -

IN YEARS to come, 2017 may well come to be seen as a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the fight against sex­ism.

The ini­tial shock and re­vul­sion at the scale of the ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions that emerged against dis­graced movie pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein quickly turned to anger. It has be­come a scan­dal that’s trav­elled far be­yond Hol­ly­wood, send­ing seis­mic shock­waves through the high pow­ered worlds of busi­ness and politics.

It was this groundswell of anger that spawned the #MeToo and #TimesUp so­cial me­dia cam­paigns and brought to­gether women (and men) from around the world to share their sto­ries of sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

Then came last week’s story, ex­posed by an un­der­cover jour­nal­ist, of a menonly char­ity din­ner hosted by the Pres­i­dents Club where hostesses, who had been in­structed to wear skimpy black out­fits with match­ing un­der­wear and high heels, were re­port­edly groped and sub­jected to lewd com­ments by the guests.

It was a de­press­ing re­minder, should we have needed one, that sex­ism is very much alive and well in Bri­tain to­day. Jo Swin­son, the for­mer women and equal­i­ties min­is­ter, said the din­ner was proof of a “rot­ten, sex­ist cul­ture” in parts of the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

The MP has been bang­ing the drum for women and gen­der equal­ity long be­fore it be­came a and in her new book pub­lished to­mor­row, she high­lights the scale of the prob­lem while also mak­ing the case that ev­ery­one has the power to in­sti­gate change, whether they’re a teenage stu­dent, a global CEO or a taxi driver.

The Lib­eral Democrats’ deputy leader vis­ited Sh­effield last week to give a talk about women in politics as well as Har­ro­gate where she was among the speak­ers at the lat­est Ber­wins Sa­lon North event. Swin­son be­lieves gen­der stereo­typ­ing and vi­o­lence against women, along with the gen­der pay gap and sex­ism, are all in­ter­linked.

“It’s clear to me that these are all part of the same is­sue. Gen­der in­equal­ity is such an in­tractable prob­lem and the Gov­ern­ment can­not tackle it on its own.

“The only way we can crack this prob­lem is if we get peo­ple up and down the coun­try tak­ing ac­tion and mak­ing changes in their ev­ery­day lives, be­cause gen­der in­equal­ity is in­grained in our cul­ture from the first mo­ments of a child’s life all the way through to old age, and it’s so in­grained we al­most don’t even no­tice it.”

She was so ap­palled by the al­le­ga­tions that emerged from the Pres­i­dents Club event she wrote to the Char­ity Com­mis­sion de­mand­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether crimes were com­mit­ted. “That some­thing like this can be con­sid­ered ok by the es­tab­lish­ment is what I find so galling,” she says.

“Women in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try are ha­rassed ev­ery sin­gle day. There are women work­ing in cof­fee shops, ho­tels and night­clubs who to­day, tonight and to­mor­row will be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment.”

It’s a prob­lem that she says is “em­bed­ded” in all ar­eas of so­ci­ety. Though Swin­son says she hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ism in Par­lia­ment she did when she was younger.

“I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual ha­rass­ment but then show me a woman that hasn’t... When I was 16 years old I used to work in a McDon­ald’s. I did one shift a week af­ter school and an­other on a Satur­day and one Mon­day evening a guy came in and started ask­ing me whether or not I’d do the job topless.

“With hind­sight I’d have told him where to get off, but I didn’t have the con­fi­dence that my man­ager would back me up. This isn’t the worst thing that can hap­pen to some­one but it just shows how com­mon­place this kind of be­hav­iour is.”

Swin­son says it’s im­por­tant for women to share their sto­ries, either on so­cial me­dia or with friends and fam­ily. “That’s one way of mak­ing this prob­lem vis­i­ble which is what we need to do.”

She also be­lieves that the fall­out from the Har­vey We­in­stein scan­dal marks a sea-change in pub­lic at­ti­tude and aware­ness.

“We know about We­in­stein now but this is not a one off. I think peo­ple look at some­thing like the Pres­i­dents Club and think it’s hor­ren­dous but see it as a set of bad ap­ples.

“But hav­ing worked around gen­der is­sues for many years, this is just one end of the spec­trum.”

At the heart of the prob­lem is an un­der­ly­ing gen­der bias. “When you ask chil­dren to draw a fire­fighter and a nurse they draw a man as a fire­fighter and a woman as the nurse and these norms are em­bed­ded at a re­ally early age.”

The ques­tion is how you go about chal­leng­ing such norms. “You can’t fix ev­ery­thing so fix the bit that you can. It might be that in your work­place you can raise the is­sue of ha­rass­ment pol­icy and whether one ex­ists.

“There are plenty of peo­ple who have taken this on like the 17-year-old school­girl who chal­lenged the A-Level exam board over the fact an en­tire music syl­labus had 63 com­posers and they were all men, and she got them to change it.”

When Swin­son talks about gen­der equal­ity she means for both men and women. The East Dun­bar­ton­shire MP was in­stru­men­tal in the move to give fathers more parental leave which, she says, is one of her proud­est achieve­ments from her time in gov­ern­ment.

“We shouldn’t let this be­come a bat­tle of the sexes. It’s not about men los­ing out. I think a more gen­der equal world is good for women but it’s also good for men be­cause some gen­der in­equal­ity af­fects men, whether it’s about be­ing able to talk about their emo­tions or men­tal health is­sues, or the way fathers are rou­tinely un­der­val­ued by so­ci­ety for the role they play as dads.”

Next month it will be 100 years since the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Peo­ple Act be­came law, giv­ing women over the age of 30 who owned prop­erty, or were mar­ried to a man who did, the right to vote.

So how far have we come since then? “There have been big steps for­ward and there has been progress. We don’t have equal pay yet but we have much bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions than we used to have. We need to cel­e­brate the mile­stones and re­tain that hunger for change. I think we need to be bench­mark­ing at 50 per cent, rather than say­ing ‘isn’t it good that 32 per cent of MPs are women’.”

She’s re­signed, how­ever, to the like­li­hood that this won’t hap­pen overnight. “No coun­try has achieved gen­der equal­ity but if we cre­ate a move­ment across so­ci­ety that chal­lenges these things in our cul­ture and our work­places then we can build a real mo­men­tum for change. I’m 38 and I hope in my life­time that it’s achiev­able... but that’s the kind of timescale we’re prob­a­bly talking about.”

Jo Swin­son pic­tured in Sh­effield re­cently; in­set, stars wore black gowns at this year’s Golden Globes in sup­port of the Time’s Up move­ment.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.