It’s been a few hours now since I first saw the headline in Alan Cochrane’s column in the Telegraph today. “Wee Nippy’s role may signal big changes in strategy”. I wondered who Wee Nippy was. Could it be some cartoon character in a forthcoming film or something?
But no. Cochrane is referring to our Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, whose new role in Government is to sort all the independence related matters out, to agree the process with the UK Govenrment, to pilot the legislation for the independence referendum through Parliament. Now, it has to be said, that the second part is not likely to trouble her greatly given that she has a built in majority.
The substance of his article doesn’t really matter, but who the blazes does he think he is referring to the Deputy First Minister of the country in such a derogatory manner? You can bet your Better Together car sticker that if she were male, she would not be referred to in that way. If you type “Nicola Sturgeon nippy” into Google you come up with numerous examples of male journalists writing about her in this way. Cochrane was far from being original.
So what is it about Nicola that makes her “nippy”. Well, she has a straightforward way of communicating with people that’s arguably more effective than Salmond’s bluster. That’s why it was quite a clever move to put her in charge of the referendum. She says what she thinks clearly and without any sort of apology. Men do that all the time, of course, but when a woman does it, she’s seen as strident, or nippy, or opinionated.
One of the things women do too often – and I have been very guilty of it myself – is to apologise for their opinions before they start talking. “I might be being stupid here, but……. How many times have you heard that? I expect that this phrase has never passed Nicola Sturgeon’s lips. She’s confident about what she’s saying and just gets on with it. This is a good thing. I mentioned my disquiet at Cochrane’s article on Twitter and @fingchewy referred me to this post by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper on Assertiveness and testimonial injustice. It’s very well written and, although I’m not sure that I agree with all of her conclusions, I do think it’s important that we try to identify and banish prejudice in our communications with each other. Reilly-Cooper explores the idea that apologetic communication from women doubly undermines them:
So then the worry is that when I make these self-effacing, timid sounding preambles to my arguments, I am not only undermining my own status as a bearer of knowledge and encouraging my listeners not to take me seriously. I am also reinforcing these prejudices in the minds of my audience. Given that I am a woman, they may have already been predisposed to deflate my credibility. When I express myself in an apologetic, tentative manner, I thereby present them with more evidence to confirm their biases, both with respect to myself, and women speakers in general. The prejudice is perpetuated, and my listeners are more inclined to dismiss my contributions, and further, those of other women. So perhaps I owe it not only to myself, but also to other women, to try to eradicate these displays of reticence from my speech, and be more confident and assertive. Perhaps I ought to be much bolder, more direct, perhaps even aggressive, in the way so many other people (men?) seem to be when engaging in debate.
Changing her behaviour is an idea she later rejects on the basis that timid people will just shrink from a debate they have every right to be a part of if they are expected to change their behaviour to become more combative. For me, the other side of the coin is that when women do behave in an assertive manner, they are penalised for it and that’s just as wrong.
Cochrane and his male journalist colleagues, even if they don’t say it out loud, or even admit it to themselves, seem to have been socialised into thinking that women, when offering an opinion, should do so with eyes downcast, demurely and prettily. In other words, she should be as inoffensive as possible and definitely not scare any horses. It’s all very Stepford, don’t you think?
Sturgeon has a lot to prove in her new role, and she needn’t think she’s going to get an easy ride from me in it. What she doesn’t have to prove is her right to be taken seriously and be treated the same way as a male politician would be. In a man, being able to make your point clearly and effectively would be seen as an asset. In a woman, it’s seen as somewhere between strident and inappropriate.
In the second decade of the 21st century, it’s not too much to ask that our male journalists should shed their stone age ideas and treat people equally.