Friday, 19 July 2013

My everyday sexism experience at the House of Commons

When I lived in the UK I worked for a charity who held a function at the House of Commons each year attended by supporters and members. When I'm in the country, I try and support the organisation by attending. Plus it gives me a chance to catch up on any gossip from my former colleagues and drink wine on the Terrace.

This year, a friend and I were in conversation with two academics, both women about our age. We had discussed their research and their departments at both highly prestigious universities. My friend and I had explained our links to the organization and field, when the topic of conversation moved to gender responsiveness, and then to gender stereotypes.

(OK I confess, both of these issues were brought up by me - gender responsive ideologies and practices within the criminal legal system is something I have been working on for Justice Now, and my thesis was about gender stereotypes in election campaigns).

We started talking about a news story from that week, which had discussed prescribed gender characteristics in young children. In particular we were discussing environments in which women and girls are not encouraged to speak up.

One of the women we were talking to was literally in the process of describing she how difficult it sometimes is for a woman in academia to get their voice heard, when out of nowhere a man bursts into our conversation and asks her a question. As she was in mid-sentence at the time, it took her a moment to respond. The rest of us caught each other's eyes. The irony was not lost on us.

The man in question we'll call Professor X, which is by the by as he wasn't a Professor and I have a secret penchant for Patrick Stewart. He repeated his question, as if to imply that she hadn't heard him. It wasn't an interesting question, just about someone they both knew and had been speaking about in the entrance queue. He then started introducing a colleague he was with, at the same time asking our names.

When it got to me, I told him that I'd met him on a number of occasions before, having previously worked for the host organization. There was no way he was going to remember me this long after I'd worked with him and I genuinely didn't expect him to. He apologized for not recognizing me but made no effort to acknowledge that he'd hijacked our conversation. I announced that I needed a refill and we could carry on our conversation later, and asked the still aghast woman he'd interrupted if I could get her anything?

Making a hasty exit, the remaining three of us moved away and immediately turned to each other. None of us could quite believe the comedy timing of his interruption. None of us were surprised. This happens all the time and each of us had other personal and professional examples which we shared.

I've had people talk over me when I've been talking about football or baseball, as if my opinion isn't valid or I don't know what I'm talking about. I've also been talked over in strategy meetings and classrooms. A former colleague I was talking to about the situation later told me that her husband has had to intervene at PTA meetings when men have spoken over women. Ask a woman in your life and I bet she can tell you a story of it happening. I bet very few of them have such perfect ironic comedy timing as this one.

- The Future is Unwritten. Make the most of every single day.

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