The Blog

Sexism: Still All Around Us

I never gave much thought to sexism while growing up. After all, it was the 1990s and then the twenty-first century. But I have begun to notice sexism around me - not overt discrimination as such, more a tone in which women are spoken about, or just a person's awareness of someone's woman-ness.

I never gave much thought to sexism while growing up. After all, it was the 1990s and then the twenty-first century. The suffrage movement was a chapter in history books which I studied at an all-girls private school, where dozens of women each year went on to study at Oxbridge and then to successful high-power careers. Any inequality in this scenario was not a problem of gender.

But I have begun to notice sexism around me - not overt discrimination as such, more a tone in which women are spoken about, or just a person's awareness of someone's woman-ness. At this week's Golden Globes, where women from Jodie Foster to Lena Dunham were celebrated and co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler stole the show, the ladies were scrutinized for their fashion choices and number of facial wrinkles.

The wonderful Jennifer Lawrence - the youngest person ever to receive two Academy Award nominations for best actress - won a Golden Globe for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. But her dress seemed to be more worthy of comment, sparking the busiest Twitter traffic of the evening. Some declared it a hit, some dubbed it a disaster - but everyone had something to say. As for Ben Affleck, Daniel Day-Lewis and Quentin Tarantino? No one blinked twice at their choice of attire.

Admittedly, people rarely take to Twitter to discuss what I'm wearing. But I've been the subject of other instances of sexism. Just a few weeks ago I was reporting a post-Hurricane Sandy story about lines at a gas station which involved me interviewing several people waiting in their cars. One man I approached immediately started flirting - asking personal questions, making suggestive comments and asking for my phone number. It made me uncomfortable and it inhibited me from doing my job properly. Would someone walk into a male lawyer's office and comment on his looks, pry into his personal life or respond "what will you do for me?" if he asked a question? I doubt it.

I experienced sexism of a less intrusive nature at university. When I was elected to run a major university society, the student headlines screamed, "Women take command at Union." I was the 24th female president in a history of many hundreds of presidents, admittedly, but despite a recent run of female presidents and committee members, the press still felt the need to comment on my gender. When my female successor was elected, the student tabloid headlines said, "'Drop Dead Gorgeous' [Candidate] Wins Uphill Battle." Would a newspaper comment on the gender or physical appearance of a male election winner? I doubt it.

Sexism is not just confined to personal encounters or tabloid headlines. Last year, I went to see award-winning movie The Help at the cinema. It is one of the few films that truly pass the Bechdel Test - the rules are that two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man - with flying colours. It has a strong and inspiring cast of female leads who speak out against racial discrimination and act with bravery. Standing up to stretch at the end of the film, my male friend commented: "Good movie, but I would have liked to see more men in it." Did he ever remark on the lack of impressive female leads in action movies? I doubt it.

I have no doubt, however, that sexism still exists. Take, for example, the Royal Wedding in 2011. It was an event that united a country and celebrated an age-old British institution with all the inevitable pomp and circumstance - but the biggest news stories of the event turned out to be Kate's hair and Pippa's bottom.

Anna Van Heeswijk, a women's rights campaigner, summed up the wider problem in a video interview with the Guardian. Speaking on the 42nd anniversary of the Page Three girl - a young woman who poses topless for the first inside page of the Sun, Britain's most popular newspaper, and an "innocuous British institution" according to its editor Dominic Mohan - Van Heeswijk said, "I can choose not to buy [the Sun], but the thing is I can't choose the kind of society that I live in."

"If other people are forming attitudes and behaviours which are discriminatory against me, that has an impact on me," she said.

In the US - a country that has never had a female president - a mere 15.7% of people serving on Fortune 500 boards are women. In the UK - a country that has had one female prime minister - only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board directors are women. In Australia - a country whose female prime minister (its first one) felt the need to address the opposition leader's sexism while speaking in parliament recently - women count for 12.5% of ASX 200 company boards. In China - which has also had one female leader - the comparable figure is just 8.1%. I don't need to argue that gender discrepancy exists; the figures, in politics and academia as well as business, speak for themselves.

But the problem is far bigger than sexism still being rife. The real issue is that people don't think it is. In Western countries, women have had the right to vote for decades, they say. Women are welcome to be chief executives, prime ministers, lawyers, doctors, editors and academics, they say. Women have represented more than half of enrollments at American colleges for years, they say. The gender revolution is so last century.

Not so.

We still live in a society where our woman-ness defines us, where lewd gender-based jokes are made at our expense, where wolf whistles on the street are so commonplace we hardly turn our heads, where George W. Bush's views make him a ridiculed person but Sarah Palin's comments make her a ridiculed woman, where female comic book and action characters are overtly sexualized and seductive, where male presidential candidates debate whether women should have control over their own bodies and where it is worthy of note when a woman makes it to a position of leadership. These are just not issues that men face to anywhere near the same extent.

It is these long and gnarled fingers of sexism which probe their way into issues of body image, self-confidence, ambition and public attitude; they twist how we treat our fellow human beings and how we develop as a society. For the sake of everyone - both men and women - sexist treatment of women is an issue that needs to be, once again, at the front of the public consciousness.