Gail Trimble shot to fame last week on University Challenge, as the terrifyingly knowledgeable captain of the victorious Oxford University team. Trimble has been described as the ‘smartest woman in Britain’, and has the distinction of being the first contestant to stun Jeremy Paxman into uncharacteristic silence. Yet Trimble has been praised and vilified in equal measure for her seemingly endless knowledge, with critics citing her apparent smugness and snobbishness as reasons for their vitriol. She has received unprecedented publicity over the last week, which culminated in the ubiquitous offer for a ‘tasteful’ photo-shoot with Nuts magazine. The extraordinarily hostile public reaction to an intelligent woman, and the predominant focus on her appearance, prompted inevitable cries of sexism. Trimble herself attributed the attention to good old fashioned sexism, saying, ‘Suddenly…I find all this reaction to me, and I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case if I wasn’t a woman.’
As Labour MP Harriet Harman is trying to push forward her new equalities bill this month, perhaps it is time to consider whether sexism is still an issue in the UK. Harman’s bill will allow companies to discriminate in favour of female candidates to achieve more balance in the workplace. This is a prime example of the kind of action that makes so many equate anti-sexism with feminism, and unfortunately feminism is still a dirty word. Part of the problem is that ‘feminism’ is an anachronistic term; an ideology which has become a caricature of its former self, and will never quite come out under the shadow of the radical 60’s feminist still looming large in public imagination. What might have been empowering and radical in the 60’s is now seen as something obsolete, and subscribed to only by unattractive angry women seeking scapegoats to blame for their own inadequacies. Of course, this is grossly unfair and feminism is about equality rather than female supremacy. But the enduring power of the stereotype means that today’s young women are reluctant to identify as feminists, even when they admit to having values which fall in line with the feminist ideology. They find the idea of a feminist an outdated one, because all conspicuous battles have been won.
Yet sexism is still rife today. There remains a large pay gap between men and women, which increases as you get higher up the professional ladder. Women earn approximately 80% of men’s salaries for the same work, and bosses have admitted that they consider employing women to be riskier and less value for money, with the obvious risk that they will take time off to have children. A recent article in Cambridge’s Varsity newspaper revealed that male academics earned on average £10,000 more than their female counterparts, and claimed that universities are still rife with institutional sexism, with women failing to reach the highest positions in academia. There are still large numbers of claims of discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and still a tendency to focus disproportionately on a woman’s appearance. It is unnecessary to recite the usual litany of charges of sexism and injustices against women in the workplace. Of course, sexism extends far beyond the work-place; yes, women who have a lot of one night stands are often viewed negatively whilst men face no such stigma; yes, Jennifer Aniston is portrayed as a sad old spinster, whilst George Clooney, almost ten years older, remains the eternal bachelor…you’ve heard it all before. The case of Gail Trimble shows that sexism is still very real; why else is it that the Cambridge educated Stephen Fry is an intelligent and lovable geek, whilst Ms Trimble is the smug embodiment of over-privileged arrogance? Even in the 21st Century, the British public is still more comfortable praising male intelligence than praising an intelligent woman.
What is less often mentioned is that sexual inequality exists for men as well as for women, and both men and women are subject to prejudice and discrimination. Women have a longer life expectancy than men do, but the current state pension age is 65 for men and 60 for women. The NHS provides screening programs for cancers which are common in females, breast and cervical cancer, but not for cancers affecting men, such as testicular and prostrate cancer. Cases of domestic violence against men receive almost no attention, despite the fact that most studies into domestic violence show that cases are split roughly equally between the two sexes. There is huge stigma around the idea of men being physically abused by women; obviously men are physically stronger, but physical abuse often has a psychological element rather than simply being a matter of brute force, and both sexes have the right to be free from abuse. In a recent study, one in nine women reported to using physical aggression against their partners, whilst the figure was only one in ten for men. Sociologists RL McNeely and G Robinson-Simpson said, ‘while studies consistently show that men are victims of domestic violence as often as are women, both the lay public and many professionals regard a finding of no sex difference in rates of physical aggression among intimates as “surprising, if not unreliable, the stereotype being that men are aggressive and women are exclusively victims.”’ Even governmental material published to promote safety, and raise awareness about domestic violence, tends to present women as the victims and men as the abusers.
Three quarters of divorces are applied for by women, yet men lose out both financially and emotionally, with men more likely than women to end up poorer after the divorce, and extremely likely to lose control of their children. Men lose the chance to bond with their children from birth, as women are entitled to up to 39 weeks leave with statutory maternity pay whilst men are entitled to only 2 weeks leave with statutory paternity pay. Women are free to work or to stay at home, but in the unusual instance that a man chooses to be a stay-at-home father, he tends to be viewed as lazy, ambitionless and slightly peculiar. Meanwhile the UK education system is letting down a generation of young men. There are four times as many female primary school teachers as male teachers, meaning that young boys are left at an impressionable age without the help of the necessary role models and mentors. The culture of examining students at increasingly younger ages benefits girls as they mature earlier and tend to be more conscientious at a younger age, and more inclined towards the rote learning needed to pass GCSE and A-level exams. It is hardly surprising that women now comprise about 55% of first year undergraduates.
Sexual inequality for men exists in matters of sex as well, with both men and women liable to suffer from imposed gender stereotypes. In some ways men have more sexual freedom than women, but men who cheat are subject to unequivocal condemnation, whilst female cheaters are often portrayed as confused, lonely and simply misunderstood. In addition to these inherent discriminations, now men may also face legalised discrimination. Harman’s equality bill will allow employers to discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities, against equally qualified white men. It is immensely worrying that a prominent minister is prepared to put forward a principle of institutionalised inequality against men. This is not only active discrimination against men, and white men in particular, but damaging and patronising to women, who may find themselves accused of progressing through affirmative action even if they succeed entirely on the back of their own talent. Discrimination cannot be cured by more discrimination; this will only serve to breed resentment and even retaliation.
This is not to suggest that men are more or less discriminated against than women because both sexes are discriminated against in different capacities; both have to battle against limiting gender stereotypes, and a male nurse faces prejudice just as a female executive does. What we need now is to reconcile the fact that men and women are innately different with the understanding that many are capable of defying these stereotypes and going on to excel in unexpected fields. We have different strengths and different weaknesses, and we make different lifestyle decisions based upon our respective needs and priorities. Women are more likely than men to choose a lower paying job over a higher paying job, to take time off, and to choose to work with less responsibility, often citing friends, family and other hobbies as reasons for these decisions. They earn less on average in a lifetime and tend to hold more junior positions, but it would be rash to make an assumption of discrimination on this basis. Women choose to change jobs more often than men do, and are much more likely to switch careers entirely, making them less likely to develop the necessary experience and contacts necessary to achieve the highest promotions. So many charges of sexual inequality are based upon the wholly irrational assumption that representation implies equality, and that companies should somehow be striving to achieve ‘balance’ to prove that they do not discriminate. They should not; ‘balance’ may be encouraged, but not at the expense of rejecting the best person for the job. On the other hand there have been, and there will continue to be outstanding female scientists and inspiring male teachers, and their progress must not be impeded; we should not strive for equal representation in various career areas but for equal opportunity.
The anti-sexism debate is naturally dominated by talk of equality for women because of the legacy of female suppression, and the fact that in the majority of developing countries, women still do not have equal rights. The reality is, however, that sexual inequality in the UK exists for both men and women. Until we have a clearer understanding of differences in gender, and learn to celebrate and utilise those differences, sexual discrimination will remain. Most forms of discrimination stem from ignorance, and so employers need to be free to question and analyse the relative advantages that are inherent in employing a male or female. The progress that has been made towards greater equality for women must not be tarnished by legalising sexual inequality against men.