Our unions should challenge sexism

Submitted by Matthew on 9 September, 2010 - 3:24 Author: A woman RMT member

Have you ever experienced sexism at work? Have you ever witnessed it? Sexism can be very prevalent in male-dominated industries and often goes unchallenged. But women should not have to go through it, and the unions should do something about it.

What is sexism?

Sexism is discriminatory and demeaning behaviour towards members of the opposite sex. In the vast majority of cases it is men behaving like this towards women.

Sexism reinforces the inferior and constricted position in society that women have occupied for centuries. When working-class women have to come up against this in their workplace and in society, it creates divisions between them and working-class men.

In the workplace, it takes many forms.

Some examples are:

Sexist jokes. Have you been asked to make the tea simply because you’re the only woman in the room? It’s not that most people think a woman’s place is strictly in the home; these days, such jokes are “funny” because we all know a woman’s role is more than housework. But sometimes it would be nice to make the tea without any reference to gender.

Sexually inappropriate comments. Some men, particularly if they are in a superior grade (which men often are), only relate to their female colleagues through flirting. Some think they have the right to make comments like “been keeping you up has he?” if you come into work looking dishevelled. Again, this can be funny up to a point, but why can’t men and women just talk to each other like two human beings?

Not being respected in our jobs. Does it ever feel like you have to work so much harder to prove you can do your job than your male counterpart? Do you feel you get treated with less respect than male colleagues?

Bitching about women who need to have a flexible working arrangement or who have medical restrictions because of health problems or pregnancy. Employers often treat women in these situations really badly, and the last thing they need is workmates adding to the stress. If male workmates think it is acceptable for bosses to harass women who are pregnant, the same bosses will think it is okay to harass all workers if they are e.g. sick.

When sexist remarks or “jokes” are made by someone who has power over you — your supervisor for instance — it becomes very difficult to challenge if you are not backed up by your union. You can’t even “needle” them as a reply, make a disparaging joke about them, because the chances are their reaction is going to be to make your working life difficult. They are using the sexism to put you down.

All workers need to understand that sexism is an additional weapon that managers and bosses have in their power to use against all of us.

How do we respond?

Hopefully, in most workplaces now, a racist joke would be met with outrage. But sexism is seen as “just a bit of banter”, which we laugh along with in case we get accused of “having no sense of humour”.

Similarly, if women want to be talked to as an equal, rather than “flirted with”, we get accusations of being prudish.

These accusations silence us from standing up to sexist attitudes. Women can often feel like they are treading a balance between “having a laugh” with colleagues and not taking unwanted comments. It shouldn’t have to feel like that.

Some women are more affected by it than others. If we don’t like it, we can feel there is “something wrong” with us. Comments about personal subjects e.g. our sexual behaviour, can be personally upsetting, and that makes it hard to stand up to

It is not easy for women affected by a sexist culture to have the confidence to stand up to it especially if we feel like we’re on our own.

A recent motion to RMT conference offered a few ideas on how to challenge sexism at work. This might be adapted to fit other workplaces and industries.

• Carry out a survey of women’s experiences. This will hopefully break down the feeling among women that they are the only ones suffering sexism.

• Run workshops on challenging sexism. Once we have found that we’re not alone, hopefully we will feel confident to come forward with a collective voice against this. We can learn from each other.

• Run a national campaign. It will be easier for individuals to challenge sexism if there is a campaign from their national union behind them.

• Train union reps and members on the importance of standing up to sexism at work. Fighting sexism should not be a battle just for the women affected, who can often be a minority in a workplace. A better culture is one where every worker understands and takes up these issues. But even union reps can sometimes be guilty of sexist behaviour — or of letting it go unchallenged — sending out the wrong message in a workplace.

This is just about workers standing together to stamp out prejudice and ideas that divide us. It is sad that this doesn’t already happen.

Our bosses can exploit these prejudices and divisions to weaken us and attack all our rights. We should fight those divisions.

"Sexism is not something we have to tolerate"

Interview with a female London Underground worker.

Women working on the Underground often have very different perspectives on sexism. What one woman sees as “banter” is seen as hurtful and insulting by another.

I was speaking to another woman worker (and union activist ) recently and she told me she hadn’t any problems with male colleagues. She said they called her a “bitch” and a “prostitute” all the time. When I said I thought this was horribly sexist, she said also called men very rude names. But the names she gets called are gendered, are derogatory towards women in general.

Either, because this sexist language hasn’t been challenged in the past and women haven’t formed a view that this is a problem, or women simply do not see it as a problem.

Either way, dealing with the issue should not fall back on an individual’s level of toleration.

On the other hand the variation in an individual’s level of toleration makes it harder to argue the need to do something about it.

Even when you are relatively clued up about issues like sexism it is easy to become “desensitised”. It was only when I started talking to friends about things I had experienced at work, and they expressed their horror, that I began to get some perspective, and objectivity, and began to think “what we go through is mad”.

If we begin to talk about the issues, then people may start to change their ideas and some behaviours associated with sexist ideas. The idea that workmates should talk to each other as equals will begin to permeate.

That process is important because it a matter of giving confidence to women. If they do have a problem with sexist remarks then it is not that there is something wrong with them for feeling uncomfortable or wanting to object. If we do not talk about these things, then we leave women isolated.

The exact same principle is necessary in relation racist and homophobic remarks.

It is much easier to challenge the sexism of workmates that are your equal, are in the same grade, than it is to challenge that of your supervisor — and most of the supervisors on the Underground are men!

“Laddishness” is an issue. During the summer women come through the station in short skirts and little tops and the men ogle. They can be serving a woman but also obviously looking down their top. I’ve seen male colleagues on the gate have their heads at an angle, as if they wanted to look up women passengers’ skirts. I don’t want to be working on the same job with male colleagues who are so blatantly ogling women in a really disrespectful way. It makes you wonder: if they think about women like this, what do they think about me?

When I tackled someone about the ogling he said. “It’s just natural. Men can’t help it.” I said “I’m pleased that you acknowledge that this is a weakness.” “Oh, no it’s not a weakness. It’s just natural”. “Okay,” I said, “It’s natural for women too.” Then he said “Oh no, if a woman is behaving like that, she must be very damaged.” These are the backward attitudes you come across.

Of course it isn’t wrong, in general, to look at people and women do it too. And personally I find it surprising the way heterosexual men don’t go for stereotypically “beautiful” female physical types. But even these preferences are expressed in sexist terms — “fat birds in tight clothes”!

Often men feel like they have to play along with unpleasant sexist “banter” of the “alpha males”, the men who are most sexist. Even though some men don’t like it and they don’t really think like that about women, they can be cowards, going along with the everyday sexism. But you can challenge most men (men in your own grade anyway) about this kind of acceptance of sexism.

If there were more women supervisors and they challenged the sexism, the male supervisors might be forced to listen to them. But it’s no good having just one or two women supervisors, as we do now. They get a lot of sexist shit too.

Having more women supervisors might also work against the general lack of respect women get for doing their job. On the whole, women are less likely to get promotion.

Perhaps women’s lack of confidence stops them going for promotion. Men may more easily see themselves in a role that involves taking more responsibility. If you don’t see many women doing different jobs, then you tend not to think “That’s something I could do!”

Managing shift work and childcare responsibilities can be a bigger issue for women. One woman I know did get a promotion but she could not get the flexible hours she needed. Higher grades tend not to be offered as part-time work. Some grades have to do night work which is obviously awkward if you have childcare responsibilities, even shared ones.

With job cuts and new rosters coming in, it is going to be harder to accommodate flexible working.

It is going to be more important to get female reps and these reps will need to be fully backed up by the union. In a recent dispute I was accused (by people who didn’t back the strike) of getting “too emotionally involved” because I tried to tackle the level of scabbing. That kind of criticism would not be made about a male rep.

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