Some friends and I decided to organise a meeting in Sheffield on sexism at work through the local Workers’ Liberty branch. We had bonded over our experience of being women training or having worked in “men's jobs”, and between us we built up a small network of women engineers and construction workers meeting occasionally to drink and talk.
I think we all considered ourselves pretty 'thick-skinned' and hard-working. Most people in the group I'd met had a middle-class, undergraduate background. We were also reasonably familiar with leftist politics and ideas. At the universities in Sheffield, sexism is present but it seems to be on the back-foot. The number of women student engineers, for example, is growing but in the FE colleges and the workplaces, we were shocked at the levels of prejudice that were commonplace.
We decided to run the meeting along the lines of a 'consciousness raising' session from the feminist traditions of the 60s and 70s. It was initially uncomfortable – my experience of meetings containing nothing but emotions and anecdotes has has not always been positive. I went to a Trans 101 NUS meeting years ago where a much older woman came in to interrupt the chair, talk at great length about prejudice and trauma, and cry, leaving the chair and attendants speechless. On the other hand some faction fights in the student movement have abused the radical sincerity of consciousness raising to manipulate and score points off each other – opening a door for a backlash.
There was also the concern we all had that our resilience and understanding of our position in male-dominated workplaces would be questioned if we talked about 'our experience', or that making events public would amplify the sexism into something more threatening, especially in our own heads. A friend who had complained of harassment to 'friends' at work hadn't been believed, and I have found that many colleagues (male and female) were genuinely convinced I had been given a job to meet a politically correct quota. All of us were knocked sideways when we discovered we had no common understanding from fellow workers.
During the public meeting we took it in turns to tell our stories. A common theme in construction and engineering is a feeling of physical weakness; having tools taken off us, jobs re-allocated or being unfairly criticised. In construction, using the toilets poses problems as women can't just pee in a hedge, and client's bathrooms are off-limits if you're covered in dust. We'd been involved in chauvinist conversations about women where men either ignored our presence or pretended we were on “their side”; we'd been humiliated and insulted then told to be tougher, or that we were wrong-headed; we'd not been believed when we spoke out.
In the meeting discussion we talked about 'culture clash' and 'inner voices'. The backlash against fights for liberation demonstrates how effectively bigotry divides us. The bad ideas expressed in good faith are not intended to hurt, but are in some ways worse than maliciousness, because they are sincerely believed. If everyone at work genuinely thinks that you are weak, you can begin to see yourself as weak, or even deluded. Anyone who is 'different' to the predominant culture becomes exhausted second-guessing (or just avoiding) their colleagues.
A (male) friend at my college once remarked on the racism and homophobia among the students that it was “just ignorance”, that education can “sort us out”. To an extent I think this is true, but accepting that as the total explanation is intellectual snobbery. We end up quoting statistics and playing political 'fact tennis', when 99% of the debate is about emotion and experience.
In their book about inequality, Wilkinson and Pickett talk about the connection between bigotry and inequality, and their ideas have stuck with me:
“...human group conflict conflict, such as racism and sexism, stem from the way in which inequality gives rise to individual and institutional discrimination and the degree to which people are complicit or resistant to some social groups being dominant over others.”
In other words, inequality creates shame and humiliation, and bigotry is a reaction to that. This is especially so in the workplace, where battles for status are loaded onto us by capitalism, unless we fight them with better ideas and try to overhaul the way society works.
Finally, we considered if the culture around sexism had changed (in the UK) for good, or if we would have to consider going back to basics as environmental and economic recession bed-in and the right-wing wins victory after victory – we have no answers yet, but we'll keep talking.