I wrote previously about the silencing tactics often used on women who challenge damaging sexist norms. It’s something I find galling – the frequency with which a woman draws attention to a piece of sexist/unfair behaviour, to be told it isn’t a problem and to stop complaining.
It’s a double whammy: you have the oppressive silencing tactic handed to you as a cherry on the cake of whatever was sexist in the first place.
I came across a classic example of this today. Retailer M&S is running a ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign that includes models chosen for their achievements. Enter Roma Agrawal, an Indian-born structural engineer who worked on the Shard in London. She got involved to encourage women and girls to become engineers, and to challenge the UK’s perception of girls’ and boys’ subjects in the UK. In her words:
“There’s less of a divide between girls’ and boys’ subjects in India than here. It’s normal there for girls to study science. I didn’t realise that a gender divide existed until I came to university at Oxford. I looked around the lecture theatre and there were about 10 girls in a class of 150. That’s when I thought this was kind of weird. We are designing things for society and if the people designing them only represent a small proportion of society we probably can’t deliver well.”
So far, so good. Kudos to M&S for choosing role models on the basis of their academic/professional achievements, and to Agrawal for trying to show women that science and engineering are valid career choices. Where it turns to shit is the following crap reporting from the Evening Standard:
“This softly spoken 30-year-old in a yellow dress is the woman who made sure the biggest erection in Western Europe didn’t fall down”.
Obviously, what an article reporting on celebrating women for their achievements really needs is an allusion to the women’s sexual appeal. She might have helped construct the Shard but let’s not forget her ability to sexually excite men!
Agrawal’s spot-on response was to challenge the paper, on the basis that “this one sentence contradicts the core message of the article: that women can excel in engineering and other male dominated industries on their merit. I believe women should be judged on their skills and contribution in the workplace and shouldn’t have to fear being sexualised”. The Standard refused to edit or remove the comment, on the basis that it was, in their own words, “light humour”.
So there we have the sexist shitcake. Now for the cherry silencer, which came in the form of a comment from the charming ‘Whigwham”.
Note the helpful copy-and-paste explanation of the word ‘erection’. Silly engineer lady doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and clearly needs to be told!
I was tempted to respond with a correspondingly helpful explanation of the word ‘pun’, but sadly the comments thread had closed. To illustrate that the “light humour” (the Standard’s own phrase, remember) of the comment hinges on the dual meanings of ‘erection’: she helped erect the Shard and she can erect penises too! See what the writer has done there? Clever, eh Whigwham?
“What’s the problem?”, he asks. (I am assuming it’s a he. If he/she is reading this and wants to correct me, feel free). The problem, dear sir, is that this woman has raised a legitimate objection to a sexist remark, made doubly worse in the context of an article about valuing women on their achievements, not their sexual attraction. But of course, you, being a man, know better. There is no problem, no sexual objectification, and if anything this woman is prejudiced and needs to take a look at herself! Why is she complaining?
Astoundingly, five other fuckwits read that comment and decided that the appropriate response was to recommend it.
You do have to wonder about people who dismiss someone’s rational, well-reasoned point of view so casually. Their thought process seems to be that because they haven’t experienced sexism themselves, it doesn’t exist. It seemingly doesn’t occur to them to listen to their fellow human beings – if they’re women, at any rate.