Imagine you are in a meeting trying to make your case. How would you feel if, every time you opened your mouth to speak, somebody interrupted you before you had got to the end of your first sentence? Not just once. Every. Single.Time.
Imagine you are in a meeting, trying to make your case, but the decision has clearly been made by a small cabal of powerful men who have reached their own understanding over dinner and some booze the night before, at an event that you were not invited to.
Imagine you are in a meeting trying to do your job responsibly, but because your recollections or views don’t fit in with what others want, they become aggressive, shouting you down, demeaning your abilities, decrying your right to suggest something different. You feel completely under attack, humiliated, your heart is racing, you can feel the tears stinging and try to suppress them because you sure as hell aren’t going to give them the satisfaction of showing weakness.
These are just three examples of behaviour I’ve repeatedly experienced and witnessed while going about my Lib Demmery over the years, and it still goes on to this day. And virtually always, the aggressors are men, who would never behave towards other men in such a manner.
You will always to a certain extent get people who will take advantage of their position and power, but this is not what I’m talking about. That’s kind of part of politics. I’m talking about those men who, whether consciously or not, treat women with less respect than they do men. It’s almost as if they think we’re interlopers. I would not for one moment think that this sort of behaviour is confined to the Liberal Democrats, or even active politics, but it’s my own party I want to change.
Academic Mary Beard, who has been the victim of Twitter trolls, has given a lecture, reported in the Guardian, about the way women are treated when they dare to put their heads above the parapet and speak out. She says that from Homer to Twitter, prejudice hardwired into our culture leads to vocal women being treated as “freakish androgenes.” Dealing with that can’t be remedied by measures like all women shortlists alone:
But if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still tend to pay a very high price for being heard, we have to recognise that it’s more complicated and that there’s a long backstory.”
Women’s interventions were often described as “strident” or “whining”. “Do those words matter? Of course they do – because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It’s an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people “whinge” over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words,” she said.
“Contrast that with the ‘deep-voiced’ man, and its connotations of profundity. It is still the case, I’d argue, that when as listeners we hear a female voice, we don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather we haven’t learned how to hear authority in it.”
What is her solution?
“We just have got to have a bit more onsciousness-raising, old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising. How do we use language? Why does it matter? And how does it put women down?”
This isn’t about robust exchange of views. Anyone in politics should expect that. And anyone in the Liberal Democrats should always relish reasoned debate and discussion as a way to learn as much as a form of combat. Nobody in any position of power within the party should expect their decisions to go unchallenged. No, my concerns relate to a specific issue with how some men behave towards women.
Sometimes they aren’t even aware. In my first example, of the man who interrupted me every time I opened my mouth, I eventually took him to one side and, very gently, asked him why he did that. He didn’t even realise he was doing it but when I gave him a whole list of specific examples, he started to get it and to his credit worked at changing his behaviour. Our working relationship improved vastly as a result.
So, what’s the solution? Well, it’s certainly not easy. It is a problem, though that we ignore at our peril. I’ve seen good women driven away from active politics out of sheer exasperation at the way powerful men exclude and demean them. Participation in politics should not require putting up with such behaviour and politics itself is better when it more accurately reflects the society we live in.
A start would be for us all to be much more aware of our behaviour and that of others. Men in powerful positions, have a look at your own behaviour. Do you exclude women, do you behave aggressively towards them in a way that you would never do to a man? If so, change your behaviour. Decide that you won’t do that in future. It’s not difficult.
The rest of us need to look out for women who are being treated like this and challenge disrespectful behaviour. Even if we don’t agree with what they say, we should always support their right to be heard and treated with dignity. Let’s tackle our everyday sexism.