Sexism on Steroids

dilbertmansplainers

Do you need me to explain the picture further? Wait, let me find a man to help me… (credit: Dilbert)

Like me, one of my sister’s friends is an ardent feminist. She works in a male dominated sector, and frequently posts examples of everyday sexism she encounters in her work on Facebook. Recently, these have included such gems as, ‘someone just offered to help me because “It’s a male thing.”’; ‘Just had an entirely unplanned full-on rant at my boss about sending men to all our industry events… AM I INVISIBLE?’; and my personal favourite, ‘Give an idea. Wait for a 20 minute pointless debate. Hear someone else give the exact same idea to universal approval. Make your own gender assumptions here.’

Many women reading this post will be acutely aware that although women have made great strides towards equality, there is still a long way to go. The subjection of women to a set of outdated, social and cultural norms in western culture is so entrenched in our individual and societal fabric that sometimes we don’t even recognise it. Sometimes women do it to themselves without even realising, as I did last week asking for some ‘big strong men’ to carry a 50kg box for me because of, ‘my weedy girl arms.’ However, what has really struck me in my latest deployment is just how much sexism impacts on my everyday work as a humanitarian aid worker, and how much harder I have to work to achieve outcomes with communities and authorities than my male colleagues.

Over the last few weeks, I have been assessing and setting up programme activities in a new area in West Africa. Part of this work is meeting local government and traditional authorities and community representatives. All of these figures – without exception – have been men. Consider now the dynamic of having to influence, negotiate and coordinate with a group of men who ordinarily never – or at most very rarely – consult with women on decision making, let alone a woman who is a complete stranger to the whole system. I consulted with women about their level of influence in community decision making structures and the response was that sometimes they would raise their opinions with their husbands, but not – it seems – any further than that.

You might now think, ah, well, it’s the ‘stranger’ aspect, nothing to do with what is – or rather what isn’t – between your legs, but when I compare the reception that a male colleague received, there was no denying it was a question of sex, and not of origin. I introduced my male counterpart to one of the traditional leaders. I had visited the leader twice before and our conversations had been cordial, friendly and welcoming. On my third visit, this time with my male colleague, instantly the atmosphere changed; I was barely spoken to, my male colleague was showered with compliments (apparently for just being able to say hello and sit in a chair) and instead, I was told to go to look at the leader’s horses, the inference being, to leave the men to talk.

Having worked with communities for several years, I am very conscious of the role of culture and tradition in gender dynamics, and of trying my utmost to set aside my own preconceptions of respect and gender relations when working in a different context to my own upbringing. What never seems to be taken into account by organisations, though, is just how much harder female aid workers have to work in these contexts to develop mutually respectful working relationships with male authority figures, and to be taken seriously by them. It bothers me, that a male colleague gets points for just showing up whereas I have to work extremely hard to validate my place at the table.

There are times when being a woman in a particular working environment is downright dangerous; when I was working in Northern Syria, representatives from the local government, various armed opposition groups and my male colleague shook hands after a successful meeting to site a new IDP camp. Unthinking, I offered my hand around in the group as someone who had also shared in this decision making and success. The group froze the atmosphere suddenly frosty and the meeting adjourned rapidly. In the car travelling back, my Syrian colleague told me, ‘That was so irresponsible; you never offer your hand to a man in this place. What if someone from ISIS saw you? You’ll get us all killed.’ Part of me would still like to believe he was over-reacting, but this is the world female aid workers operate in, where sharing as an equal in a gesture of success with men can be a fatal mark against your name.

The difficulties of operating in male dominated environments out in the field might be one thing, but then female aid workers also have to deal with this mess at home as well. There are a lot of articles detailing sexist treatment at the hands of male colleagues in the sector, and despite the fact that there are more women working in humanitarianism than men overwhelmingly, the top level positions are held by men. At a conference I attended earlier in the month, the inter-agency group for WASH took their places at a table for Q&As, and there was not a single female amongst them. My current deployment is also exposing me to this ‘in-organisation’ sexism; one of my male colleagues feels the need to copy other men – sometimes individuals who are completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand – into emails to me so that they can more fully explain the content to me.

It appears that the discrepancies between male and female aid workers extend to their relationships outside of work as well. In late night discussions with two male colleagues, we discussed our ‘extra-curricular activities’ over the past year. For them, telling a woman about their job seemed to make them irresistible; a magic bullet capable of making any woman see their sensitive caring side. For me, there have been five – yes, five – separate occasions where an interested man had cut all contact after he found out what I did for a living, and this is only in the past year. For women, perhaps male humanitarians conjure up images of strong men saving babies akin to an Athena poster from their youth; for men, maybe female humanitarians conjure up images of independent and career driven women who won’t be around to make your dinner in the evening. I don’t think there was ever an Athena poster for that.

In my own world of cripplingly low self esteem, it has been all too easy to dismiss the sexism I’ve experienced around my job as my own fault – I was doing it wrong; I wasn’t professional enough; people didn’t take me seriously; I just wasn’t good enough at my job to get the results that seemed to come so easily to my male colleagues – but such occurrences have become too frequent for me to continue blaming myself for overwhelming inequality. Since humanitarian organisations pride themselves on factoring gender equality and gender dynamics into their programmes, let them not forget that the needs and efforts of female staff too are different to that of their male colleagues. Organisations need to recognise it, and celebrate that female humanitarians persevere despite the odds.

On International Women’s Day… Where my boys at?

This week, many of my female friends have been marking International Women’s Day by sharing updates, badges and whatever else you do on social media these days to show your support for a cause. Covering your profile picture with the Suffragette flag or a giant vagina or something along those lines. One friend posted a thought that I have heard so many times, in so many countries; why is there an International Women’s Day? Why only one day to celebrate women and their achievements? Why is it a celebration when there is still not equality between women and men?

If you are a woman you are likely to receive a wage that is up to 30% lower than your male counterpart doing the same job. You are less likely to be represented in employment unions making it harder for you to ensure your rights in the workplace. You are likely to work more, for less pay, with less education and less political participation. The country in which you live may even have legal restrictions on the work that you can do. You are less likely to own your own land, even though you may take an equal (or higher share) in farming it. In natural disasters, you are more likely to die. You are almost certain to encounter some form of sexual violence (including verbal harassment) in public within your lifetime. Whilst there has been significant progress, you are still less likely to go to school, particularly secondary or tertiary education. All of this because you are a woman. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women despite all of these imbalances and encourages us all to keep pushing for gender parity.

If you are a human being, and you think women should be treated equally to men, then congratulations, you are a feminist. The mention of the F-word makes some people come across a little strange; it makes them think that if you are one, you have to burn your bra or taste your own menstrual blood à la Greer. Apparently because I don’t want to do the last one, I have a long way to go before declaring myself a feminist, however, I trust my body to let me know the stuff it wants to keep on the inside, and the stuff it thinks I’m best off letting go. Is it a ritual rite of passage for men to scoff their own spunk to be manly? Not as far as I know, but then, I may move in some pretty sheltered circles. And as for burning bras, I’m guessing that for any woman in my situation with more than a C cup, bras are less symbols of oppression and more a safeguard against black eyes on unpaved roads. Some people think of feminism and think of a load of unwashed women, munching on tofu burgers and plaiting their unshaven armpit hair. When I think of feminism, I think of dedicated human beings that believe your genitalia shouldn’t dictate your treatment in this world.

Note that I say human beings; parity, equality, whatever you want to call it, can’t just come from women alone. If we could do it all ourselves, I reckon we probably would have managed it by now. No, we need men. That might upset some feminists to say that we need men, but we do; for there to be equality between the sexes, there needs to be at least two of them. That’s just common sense. Here, I defer to the wisdom of Caitlin Moran. In Moran’s best-selling book, ‘How to be a Woman’, she gives a great explanation of why a feminist should not be either ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’; ‘The idea that we are all at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along… I’m just thumbs up for the six billion.’ It’s not men that feminists need to be fighting as Moran says, it’s The Man. The Man is the one responsible for perpetrating the never ending stream of images, words and influence that tells us women should be one way, and men should be another. Men suffer just as much from The Man as women do.

On my last deployment, I saw a film made by the Vogue Empower campaign called ‘Start with the Boys’. In it, boys are told over and over again, ‘stop crying, are you a girl?’

We forget sometimes that boys are also put under pressure to behave a certain way, and therefore treat women a certain way. If we want gender parity, we need to work together to allow humans to be who they are, rather than shoe-horning them into the neatly defined expectations we have of them based on their genitalia.  The strongest men see women as their equals and the strongest women don’t need to put men down to be empowered. So on International Women’s Day this year, big up to all the guys out there – women, men, and those who identify with neither – who are championing gender parity by being human and doing it well.