When ideologies and sexism collide: workplace sexism

Caitlin Spring, workplace sexism, feminism
Caitlin Spring

By Caitlin Spring

Oh, so this is what they were talking about when they discussed sexism in the working world. It usually wasn’t particularly overt, several people who witnessed it probably didn’t even notice, and some who did thought it was pretty funny; some good banter.

I had made it through my undergrad without ever having to do any group work. However, I was recently part of a team with a definite power hierarchy and a formal working structure. This year’s senior leadership body was comprised only of men, and initially I saw no problem with this. We’re a very liberal group. We stand on the right side of issues of oppression and discrimination. However, throughout the process of working in this team, certain situations arose that made me feel deeply uncomfortable: they contribute to the discourse surrounding sexism in work environments. Once I’d had some distance from the group I was able to reflect, and what I looked back on was highly problematic.

It’s important to remember that sexism is almost never going to involve your boss standing in front of you saying, ‘You are a woman, therefore you are inferior to all the men here’. Instead, it will be a series of trends that, when examined together, show women consistently undermined in various subtle ways. Patriarchy is powerful, it’s built into how we speak and how we act, but there’s a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves so we don’t propagate the kinds of misogynistic behaviour I experienced.

When I started to reflect, I realised that the two people the group leader had the biggest issues with were women. They were both women who executed their jobs really well. They were women with strong personalities: so they were labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘stubborn’. They disagreed with the group leader on some of his decisions. I didn’t find the fact that there had been disagreements problematic; no one is going to agree all the time. However, I found the manner in which these disagreements or conflicts were handled, particularly so. When these women voiced their opinions over the table as supposed ‘equals’, these were often disregarded in light of their ‘difficult and unreasonable’ viewpoints. A lot of the team saw these women, who were brought on board for their expertise in their respective fields, being publically undermined in meetings, and did nothing.

Then there was the time when I disagreed with the way my work was handled. Instead of my concerns being respectfully listened to and considered, the leader sent me a picture of his name and title, and I was told that this ‘isn’t a democracy’. I was then told to stop being so ‘emotional and sensitive’. My rational concerns were reduced to my temperament. I was later told to be mature. For decades, women’s concerns have been reduced to infantile irrationalities. Small actions like this speak to how women are professionally undermined. It is the compounding of these small instances that do great damage to how women are seen (by men and other women) and how women see themselves in workplace environments.

And then there was the time when the sexual relationships of people in the group were discussed in a working Whatsapp chat. No one shut down the inappropriate and offensive jokes that sprang up from this. Comments like, ‘oh, that is poes funny’ were used. Using ‘poes’ is problematic enough, using ‘poes’ in response to slut shaming made me deeply uncomfortable. Anything that contains a ‘bros/hos’ binary is problematic, especially when done in a seemingly professional context.

Something we released for public viewing was called out for having homophobic undertones. Nothing constructive was done in response to these allegations, and those who raised the concerns were ridiculed behind the scenes. Laughing at anyone who’s standing up for gay rights is not okay.

Throughout this experience I was so tempted to justify why I had a legitimate reason to be frustrated. Yes, I was directly affected, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be objective. So often the victims of discrimination feel the need to defend ourselves to prove that we aren’t crazy, that it is real, that we have a right to be upset – and this is dangerous. I know I’m not subjectively twisting and fabricating the truth, nor was this article written out of angry emotion, despite accusations to that effect. This is an article about how easy it is to be part of the problem and what I’ve learned from my experience.

I’ve learned that people who are perfectly nice can be extremely misogynistic and oblivious to their role in propagating patriarchy by undermining, dismissing, and slut shaming the women on their team. I’ve learned that most people simply won’t understand why you’re upset when these instances make you uncomfortable. I’ve learned that far too much is defended in the name of a joke, too many ideals forgotten for a moment of banter. However, I’m not the only one who saw these things. I’ve spoken to various people on the team who hold varying levels of power and when pressed a lot of them agree with me. But if so many of us were uncomfortable, why didn’t any of us speak out sooner? Everyone needs to speak out when someone is being targeted; a disrespectful act is never small. Surely we’ve evolved from letting the popular kids pick on someone? What is it about a group dynamic that allows for such unacceptable interactions to take place? I think a strong responsibility rests on leadership to set the boundaries for social interactions, I think there needs to be a definite line of what constitutes ‘going too far’. I think that line was absent. I don’t see the senior leadership body as a homogenous group of sexist men; I know that isn’t true. A lot of the sexism was propagated unintentionally, but lack of awareness is not a sufficient excuse.

That being said, I’m horribly disappointed in myself for not speaking out sooner. But it’s hard to go against a group dynamic and sometimes it’s hard to realize how problematic a situation is until you’ve had some distance to reflect on exactly what it was that made you uncomfortable. And it’s also important to remember that even though I didn’t speak out enough at the time, those who propagated the wrongs and I are not equally guilty.

Sometimes people aren’t receptive to being called out and can get ugly and defensive. Don’t let someone intimidate you as they try shift blame from their own discriminatory actions to your uncomfortable silence.

We are the future leaders of this country. Our interpersonal relationships have to be conducive to the society we want to live in. No sexism, or racism or homophobia can ever be tolerated for a joke. Let’s not write essays about a just society and then act in a way that destroys that future in our next social interaction.






Why the casual sexism at UCT matters

Dela Gwala
Dela Gwala

By Dela Gwala

“The girls here are all sluts man, is it any better at Rhodes?”. I overheard this question on Jammie plaza last year. The unidentified dudebro essentially ruined my lunch and made me vow to continue hiding out in the postgraduate corners of this institution.  Against my better judgement, I continued to take tea breaks on those pigeon-infested stairs. One day, I came across a poster promoting UCT’s netball team. It was basically a full-blown shot of several pairs of disembodied legs with the catchphrase “UCT netball team revealed”. Strange I thought, whenever I see a poster that concerns the rugby team their legs are attached to the rest of their bodies. A few days later, walking back to the dingy postgrad labs, I noticed another poster. This one was advertising a College House party. In the bottom right corner it said ‘R 20’ and underneath that ‘Puss ‘n Pint.’

I’m not the only one that continuously bumps into UCT’s culture of casual sexism. The First Year’s introduction to life in a campus residence seems to be a training ground for misogyny.  A recent Facebook post that popped up on my timeline spoke of the questionable war cries sang by members of some of the male residences. Apparently, in recent years, the Smuts Hall boys sang that they could go to Fuller House and get some free vagina…And they sang this to the Fuller girls. Also, the Kopano boys had been heard listfully wishing that women’s buttocks were like buns.

Opening up the latest edition of SAX appeal, the editor started his letter with the sentence “Nabeel you’re going to get all the bitches”. It’s satirical social commentary they said. Sian Ferguson, UCT alumnus and current Rhodes student, tweeted “good satire should make the oppressor feel uncomfortable, not the oppressed”. The common denominator in all of the above examples is that a group of people that are often socially, politically and economically marginalised due to their gender are thrown under the bus for the sake of humour.

“When we live in a world where street harassment is just a normal part of life it sets up a culture where even worse things happen behind closed doors.” These were the words attached to a piece of street art whose image made its way around social media a couple of months ago. The same goes for casual sexism. When you create an environment that is accepting of gross objectification of women then you are fuelling a culture that will ignore the violence committed against them. If we’re all just skanks, sluts, hoes and bitches then what happens to us is inconsequential – we had it coming anyway.

I wonder if the unidentified dudebro from the beginning of this article is aware that the language he uses comes straight out of the mouth of a sex offender. Words that demean women because of their sexual past/activities are always the first port of call to rationalise what they’ve done. Policing women’s sexuality allows for a social space where they get blamed for sexual crimes committed against them. If you think our worth or respectability is determined by how much sex we are or aren’t having or the amount of clothing we wear then those will be the first questions that come up when you’re trying to determine whether an act of sexual violence has happened or not.

Being on a campus where judging women’s sexuality is part of everyday conversation means we don’t ask important questions. We don’t ask why we’re not sure of the procedure/policy of reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus. We don’t ask why we don’t know the statistics of how many of these incidents occur on campus. We don’t ask why DISCHO, the body in charge of dealing with these cases, is underfunded and understaffed.  We don’t ask these questions because we’re too busy blaming women for going about their lives the way they see fit. We don’t ask because we don’t really care. When women are only vaguely human – owners of body parts we mock and objectify – then why should we?

Claire Martens

Coping with violence in a patriarchal world

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

I long for a time when the world will be a safe place for women. But with the way things are, it will never be in my lifetime. The stories just keep on coming. If it’s not 300 young girls kidnapped in Nigeria, it’s a 22-year-old American man seeking “retribution” for being rejected by women and killing 6 people in the process. The international response to both incidents has been different and, in many ways, unrelated, but that is a topic for another blog. Right now I want to speak about one outcome to the Elliot Rodger event which tells us something about the Nigerian kidnapping, almost as much as it does about the killing spree.

The media is inundated with articles about the motivations of Rodger, but for me the most interesting part was the start of the #yesallwomen campaign. While the two incidents, due to their horrific nature and violence, demonstrate the harshest terms of women’s enslavement under the worst conditions, the hashtag #yesallwomen demonstrates the prolific and invasive nature of patriarchy and its evil cousin, misogyny. While I think it may be a little tenuous to believe that misogyny leads to murder, there is a certain level of violence inherent in patriarchy that we cannot ignore.

What the kidnappings and killings tell us is that some men believe that they deserve a woman’s attentions, they have an entitlement to a wife and to sex and whatever else women are expected to give them. Some men may believe that women are expendable, that their lives carry no value. Always, women are only people in relation to men. What #yesallwomen shows is that an undercurrent of violence, fear and intimidation exists in many women’s lives, no matter where they live and what they look like.

#yesallwomen started soon after the Elliot Rodger event. Through it, women are attempting to expose the pervasive nature of patriarchy and misogyny. Their tweets demonstrate the trends in the fear they carry on their shoulders, in the harassment they face every day at the hands of men, in the names they are called and the abuse they endure.

The #yesallwomen campaign is a continuation of many similar protests and campaigns, such as #everydaysexism, so it is not necessarily unique in its approach, but it also came at an odd time for me. I was visiting my doctor recently with a complaint of stomach aches. She asked about my anxiety levels, explaining that many women who visit her are suffering from a kind of general and prolonged stress which they find difficult to deal with. She asked me about my history, my friends and my family. She asked if something had happened to me to make me feel anxious.

Well, no, and also yes. I too live in South Africa, in a state of fear, and even if nothing as horrific as rape has happened to me, it does not mean that I cannot acknowledge the pain it causes. It doesn’t mean that my experiences as a women are insignificant and that I am not affected by the environment I live in. In fact, it was in becoming a feminist that my world was opened to the reality of the situation of women and of myself – an awakening that was both crippling and liberating.

I know enough about the lives that women lead, the statistics on rape and sexual abuse, the incidences of domestic abuse, and the children who are raped, to know that we live in a sick society. I also think that even though I am merely experiencing it second-hand, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a general low level of anxiety, all day, every day. It’s always there, this fear, and it’s not baseless or silly, but derived from our everyday experiences, the thoughts we have, the stories we hear, the people who are affected.

I was shocked to read about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in women in South Africa, that our levels are so high that they are practically at the level of warzones. What kind of world do we live in where a vast percentage of women show symptoms of PTSD, even though the country itself is at peace?

What is unbearable for me is the knowledge that this is not one, or ten, or even one hundred men who are raping or abusing women, but thousands. That is the nature of patriarchy. Men do not have to be evil or stupid or crazy to be part of it, as long as the culture permits them to practice patriarchy. In a blog posted on the Guardian website, Jessica Valenti writes the following:

The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tells them that their hatred is both commonplace and justified. So when we say that these things are unstoppable, what we are really saying is that we’re unwilling to do the work to stop them. Violence against women does not have to be inevitable, but it is almost always foreseeable: what matters is what we do about it.

So how can we cope with the violent nature of our society; not just to overcome the abuse of women and children, but to stop all forms of violence directed at all citizens of this country? My doctor said something interesting which I want to share with you in the same form of analogy she used.

She described how, when she first started working at her new practice, she found her colleagues disrespectful. She wasn’t sure what to do about it but she decided to work really hard, stay long hours, and be really good at her job in order to earn their respect through her actions. But after months of doing so, she wasn’t any closer to getting their respect. That was when she realised that she permitted the disrespect in the first place.

How people treat us is not really about who we are, but who they are and the kind of society they function in. If we want to stop violence and abuse, we should not allow it to be permitted. I am not sure how to do this, how to make our worlds safer, but I think we may start with the little things like rape jokes, belittlement, catcalling and the rest. No one should ever feel powerless. Men should never feel entitled, or that we are ornaments for their own lives.

There are violent individuals who commit horrendous crimes, and we may feel unable to do anything about them, but we can try to change the manifestations of patriarchy, and not necessarily ourselves, so that society can stop breeding the types of people who commit crimes against women. We cannot compromise, the results are fatal.

If you want to read some various takes on the #yesallwomen campaign, the following are a few links I found interesting: