Insights from Equate’s Director – April 2022

Why is it still all about sex, power and class?

On good days, we talk about a progressive society and workplaces, and how far the rights of women have progressed but then two events in the last week make us recalibrate a very different reality.

It’s probably fair to say that I am not an avid reader of the Mail on Sunday.  It’s also true to say I am even more unlikely to be one, following the debasing misogynistic feature run over a two-page spread about Angela Rayner (deputy leader of the Labour Party), and the apparent power she has by simply crossing and uncrossing her legs. Read more about the reaction to this here.

Aside from the editorial decision to print the story in the way it did, (and this was a deliberate choice), it was the use of the Sharon Stone image from the film Basic Instinct that really brought this article well and truly into the gutter.

This article was aimed at one of the UK’s highest profile political figures and what message this sends is that successful women – and in particular, women from working class backgrounds – who achieve success are still fair game for what seems to be the perpetual open season when it comes to de-basing language, comments, and behaviour. It also says that lessons in the media are not learned – or more likely by some simply not caring – as when going back to 2017 the Daily Mail ran a “legs-it” feature following a picture of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May sitting together at a Brexit meeting.

Why is this crass, undermining, demeaning, and sensationalising of women and sex still so prevalent in our society, workplaces, and in all walks for life – even just for women walking down the street? If these women, in high profile and influential roles cannot escape this very particular type of sexual violence and harassment, then what hope have the rest of us got?

Well – let me now draw to your attention the publication last week of Engender’s report into sexual and sexist harassment in workplaces in Scotland.

In short, it was a difficult read. Having worked in industry for over 30 years, I actually now conclude that the level and intensity of this type of misconduct and behaviour is worse now than at any time during my working life. When the stark reality that 4 out of 5 women won’t even report sexual harassment to their employer this paints a picture that should worry everyone.

As Equate Scotland’s own Intersectionality in STEM study showed, women have to pick their battles at work, what they chose to fight for, and when. When you are also a person from a minority ethnic background, or who identify as LGBTQ+, or have a disability, or a combination of those characteristics, then the challenge is even greater.

Even through lockdown, there has been no let up to this behaviour. A study from legal firm Slatter Gordon indicates examples of this new context with bosses telling female staff to dress ‘sexier’ and wear make-up for video calls.

At the end of the day this issue is at the core of true progression of equality in the workplace and wider society. It is also, as the Engender report highlights, an issue of health and wellbeing. If your day-to-day work experience is a constant grind of low-level microaggressions, like the outdated assumption that as the women in the room you will take the minutes or make the tea, to unwelcomed comments about clothing, make-up, or invasions of your personal space and unsolicited touching then it is not surprising that women often chose the path of least resistance and don’t complain. Or simply leave. Especially when the perpetrator is the boss.

As the Fawcett Society report illustrates – it is still pretty much all about sex and power.   Who has it, and what they do with it. “With men still dominating every sector of politics, public life and business parity for women in most areas of public life appears to be decades away. The picture is even worse for women of colour – who are simply missing altogether from the highest levels of many sectors.”

In so many of the equality issues facing women the solutions do not solely lie in our hands.   In Equate training sessions we talk about being a bystander in relation to not calling out equality issues. Right now, it feels like we are at a tipping point. Unless more men are willing to actively engage in calling out this behaviour things are unlikely to change.

Employers too have such a vital role in helping to get this right.  Of course it will be challenging – culture change always is.  However, that’s why we have a number of events in the next few months that just might help gather your thoughts, build your strategies and your allyship on this issue.  You can find out more and sign up for them here.