This post has been bubbling away in my brain for a while now; brought on many small things I’ve noticed in the previous months that are all underlying signs of a much bigger problem.
The final straw for me was watching one of the recent Celebrity Big Brother evictions when the crowd started baying: ‘Get Saira (Khan) out!‘
Now, I do understand why she provoked a reaction: she was a straight-talking person who used her ‘honesty’ to fire painful bullets of truth. She was that curious mix of being too thick skinned to understand when she was hurting people’s feelings, but super sensitive as soon as any criticism was directed back at her.
But she wasn’t nasty – just really bad at reading a room.
Stephen Bear’s behaviour, on the other hand, was vicious and vindictive. He antagonised people for sport, but if someone dared to come back at him with an actual or perceived slight, he gunned for them with biblical-style vengeance.
We had two people, both being obnoxious in their own ways, so why did the woman cop all the flak? Why are females vilified for having confrontational personalities, while males are more likely to be let off as ‘just the way they are’?
It’s this kind of everyday sexism I’m noticing more and more often – perhaps it’s because I have two young daughters, and I’m thinking ahead to the world they’ll be tackling on their own in a decade or so. Perhaps it’s because I’m angry that this sexist rubbish is still occurring 25 years after I had to put up with it.
It annoys me that I had to argue with someone the other week about why women tennis players at Wimbledon deserved the same amount of prize money as men. ‘But they don’t play as well as the men,’ was his justification. ‘Women have a different biological makeup,’ I replied. ‘As a result they’re going to play differently – but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying just as hard, or achieving just as much on a relative scale.’
Saying someone deserves less of something – recognition, money, success, respect – simply because they’re female is the same as discriminating against someone because of their skin colour. It’s just wrong.
There’s been talk about how the coverage of women Olympians focused more on how they looked and what they were wearing, than the amazing sporting feats they were achieving. Which segues me nicely me to this video, released late last year by #CovertheAthlete.
We’re so immune to the trite, sexist language women are subjected to every day that we don’t even comprehend their full obnoxiousness until we hear those same words directed back towards a man. How sad is that?
The other day I was listening to one of the songs by US girl band Fifth Harmony, who are billed as strong, modern, sassy women: ‘I know you’re always on the night shift, but I can’t stand these nights alone, and I don’t need no explanation, ’cause baby, you’re the boss at home…’
Surprise, surprise – a bit of digging revealed the song was co-written by five men. C’mon guys, it’s 2016, not 1961. I don’t want my daughters absorbing that rubbish into their subconscious.
Then, on Channel 4’s social experiment, Eden, where a group of men and women are dispatched to a remote Scottish peninsula to set up their own self-sufficient community.
The show deliberately throws together a mix of people, skills and personalities – just like real life – and observes how they interact as they create a new world from scratch. What shocked me was the chauvinistic attitude of some of the men: a handful of them were incredibly disparaging, completely writing off the women in the camp.
One woman in particular, Tara, was singled out. To be fair, she wasn’t providing the same level of manual labour as some of the others, but – although vitally important – life isn’t ALL about the grunt work, and a successful community needs a wide variety of skills and talents to work.
Rather than giving her some time and encouragement to figure out her meaningful role in the new society, a couple of the men branded her a ‘waste of space’. They plotted to make her life miserable, and bullied her emotionally until she ended up walking out.
GIRL VS GIRL
But what saddens me the very most is when women work against other women.
We already have the gender hurdle to overcome before we can reach the professional and social heights men are handed by birthright. So why do we insist on putting additional obstacles in each other’s way?
I noticed it at the BML 2016 blogging conference; the eye-rolling and behind-the-hand whispering when some of the bloggers were speaking. Why? Even if a person isn’t your cup of tea, we should ALL be proud of women who are scaling new heights, defying stereotypes, and forcing open doors.
One woman’s success doesn’t take away from another’s – quite the opposite – it paves the way for bigger, better and more plentiful opportunities for all of us. And, perhaps more importantly, it creates visible, accomplished female figures our own children can see, and be inspired by.
We complain about being judged on our looks, yet what is the first thing we do to other women? We scan them up and down. How many times have you heard another woman mutter under their breath: ‘Oh my God, what on earth is she wearing?!’
WHY DO WE SABOTAGE TO SUCCEED?
Dr Sally Austen, of AUSTEN PSYCHOLOGY, has some interesting insight into why women can be so harsh on each other.
‘Fundamentally, people are competitive,’ she reveals. ‘We are each consciously or subconsciously fighting for survival, and this instinct often overrides logic or compassion.’
She uses the analogy of a cavewoman to illustrate her point; in prehistorical times females needed to compete against each other to attract the best mate. This was so they could bear the genetically strongest babies and also to give them, their families and their DNA lineage the best protection moving forward. This deeply embedded drive to ensure ‘survival of the fittest’ was the foundation of human evolution.
Even though tens of thousands of years have passed and we no longer routinely die from starvation, or childbirth, or pterodactyl attacks, it seems some of those prehistoric instincts still remain.
‘There is still within us a sense that we can only promote ourselves if we demote others,’ Dr Austen explains, ‘the analogy of crab trying to climb out of a bucket pulling each down, rather than giving each other a leg up.’
She also says it’s part of our inbuilt survival instincts to spot negatives more quickly that positives: ‘Cave folk standing around admiring the sunset died sooner than those spotting trouble ahead!’
This is why the words that fall unchecked from our mouths are more likely to be negative and competitive than ones that are more considered. Makes sense right?
Dr Austen says men AND women are both equally guilty of these ruthless reactions, but they may seem harsher coming from women due to the stereotype that women should always be supportive and nurturing, rather than strong and assertive (compared to men, who are encouraged to be aggressive – particularly in business).
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So the simple answer could be for us to think more before we speak – take a deep breath and let those judge-y initial thoughts subside before coming back with something more supportive and encouraging instead.
But it’s not all bad news for modern feminism, as there are also some amazing things happening at the moment: the UK (somewhat unexpectedly) has just seen its second woman Prime Minister come to power.
The USA might very soon (please, please, please!) have their first EVER Madame President (edited – sadly, we’re still waiting for this momentous occasion), while Poland, Myanmar, Namibia, Norway, Bangladesh and Germany already have female leaders.
There are successful businesswomen smashing glass ceilings or creating entirely new industries to excel at (shout out to Sheryl Sandberg, Ella Woodward, Zoella and even our own Vicki Psarias-Broadbent), and strong record-breaking female Olympians (to many to list them all, but you can read about all the winners HERE).
We have hardworking mothers revealing their family lives – the good, the bad and the ugly – through beautifully written blogs. There are entrepreneurial mums running successful businesses from their kitchen tables while simultaneously breastfeeding the baby and cutting up toast for the toddler.
We see smart, capable women standing alongside and supporting their influential husbands without being reduced to smiling, waving arm candy (hi there, Michelle Obama).
And, for the first time I can ever remember, we have a blockbuster big-budget film that stars FOUR brave, funny female lead characters who are seriously kicking some supernatural butt, whilst turning the ‘helpless supporting actress who gets screams a lot and eventually gets saved by the man’ Hollywood stereotype backwards, and inside out.
It’s so important for girls and boys to grow up seeing these examples in the public eye, so that successful women are considered the norm rather than the novelty. I’m heartened by the fact there are so many wonderful female role models out there today for our children to admire, and aspire to be.
So let’s stop competing with each other, and start supporting each other instead.
We’re doing such phenomenal things already with the odds stacked against us – just imagine what we could achieve if we all worked together to turn them in our favour.
• photo ‘Empty highway and traffic sign over it‘ courtesy of Shutterstock