MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM— It might sound silly that being polite could hold women back, but it’s common and often goes unrecognized. While completing an internship at a regional newspaper recently, a call came through to the news desk and as I was the only available person, I answered. On the other end of the phone, a man referred to me as the receptionist and stated he had spoken to the “other receptionist” (who was, in fact, a reporter) at the news desk earlier.
I was taken aback by the implication of his statement, which was sexist in that a woman answering the phone would be a receptionist instead of a reporter. And I was faced with this dilemma: correct and offend him or be polite, carry on and undermine myself.
Choosing the latter and my inability to correct him has stuck with me. The recent #MeToo and Times Up movements forced me (and other young women like me across the globe) to reflect on that experience and others.
I realized that while I didn’t like the male caller’s statement, my reaction is an equally real problem. For all that man knew, I could have been a receptionist. The ball was in my court to correct him. As usually happens, in the moment I couldn’t think of a reply and went along with his assumptions.
Simply put, I worried it would come across as rude. I was trapped by my own timidity. It’s very easy for a person to underestimate how much societal norms influence their actions and here was my first taste of that uncomfortable truth. I realized how little women are encouraged to speak up.
It’s unfortunate, but I suppose this experience was due at some point in my life and it won’t be the last. If we look at the figures from research conducted by Britain’s Young Women’s Trust in 2016, 52% of women experienced unwanted behavior at work, including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes.
I’m shocked that with all the progress that women’s rights movements have made it’s still not enough, and young women are entering work environments rife with sexism. It’s an unfortunate fact and one that the population doesn’t always like to address, in part because men and women don’t always view discrimination against women as sexism. The research conducted by Young Women’s Trust also reports that almost half of female human resource directors and decision-makers believe sexism is widespread in their workplaces compared to only a quarter of men in those same roles.
Speaking out against sexism and discrimination is difficult. A stigma exists with women being viewed as aggressive, which has negative connotations for a woman and can lead to ostracism. The effect of the threat of social ostracism is worrying.
When discussing the topic with other young women, I learned that I was one of many. The conversation included examples of objectification in interviews and sexist jokes within a male-dominated office. One of the stories stayed with me. A young woman told us, “I’d fallen over whilst jogging over the weekend and had been rewarded with a large graze on my knee. I was wearing a knee length skirt on the next Monday. My boss spotted my knee graze and made a suggestive comment as to how I’d got it in front of several other male colleagues. I laughed along with the others and tried not to look as embarrassed as I felt.”
Recently Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that results from the British Chartered Management Institute (CMI) discovered that 85% of women have encountered some form of gender discrimination at work (however mild). This startling fact demonstrates how common it is.
One woman I spoke to remembers a time in her life when she viewed her ability to dissociate from feminine stereotypes as a method of gaining respect. “I absolutely prided myself on being a tomboy,” she told me. In many ways it’s understandable and something that public female figures, such as German premier Angela Merkel, have taken on board.
But why do we have to deny our femininity in order to be taken seriously?
I’ve heard the argument that feminism has finished, that it has served its purpose. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The insidious nature of sexism and gender discrimination only makes the need for feminism stronger. Young women today find themselves in an oxymoronic position in society. Like a man, they can work, but unlike a man, they are often not treated with respect within that environment.
Eleanor Forrest grew up in the U.K. and studied history at the University of Manchester. She continues to live in Manchester, pursuing her career as a journalist and writer.
Photos: 1) Shuttershock; 2) Ms. Forrest’s own