As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote in the UK today, the fight for equality feels far from over, says historian Dr Amy Erickson

The aim is to change the accepted cultural norms of workplaces and communities, even of a conversation, because most of us want to live and work in a more tolerant and supportive climate

A hundred years on from women winning the vote in this country, gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and everyday sexism are still making headlines.

While gender pay gaps and sexual harassment were certainly overt in earlier centuries, it is difficult to say whether the everyday sexism was more common.

While women were economically active in most sectors of the economy, and in much larger numbers than is usually thought, they could be legally excluded from high-status forms of employment by guilds and professional bodies.

In 17th century London, Samuel Pepys itemised in excruciating detail the sexual exploitation of female employees, friends and acquaintances in his meticulous diary. His actions may have been unwelcome but none were illegal unless they resulted in pregnancy. This kind of diary was fairly unusual. But the language to describe the commerce proliferating in early modern England and the language describing sex overlapped. A woman’s credit was largely sexual, whereas a man’s was financial. The range of options to discredit a woman was wide. In the introduction to the 1855 Philadelphia edition of Pepys’ Diary, it describes “almost every word in the English language designating a female, having, at some time or another, been used as a term of reproach”.

In the early 17th century, women sometimes sued name-callers for defaming their reputation. This largely disappears later, though probably because the legal defence of a woman’s reputation was no longer seen as necessary rather than that the name-calling stopped.

Feminist campaigns for equality since the mid-19th century achieved real improvements – first higher education in the later 19th century, the vote 100 years ago today, then birth control and statutory equal pay in the 1970s.

But even those radical achievements did not create a situation of equality. That is not because of any biological differences between the sexes, as some suggest. Cordelia Fine, in her books Testosterone Rex and Delusions of Gender, clearly outlines the very small biological differences between women and men.

Be aware of your bias

At least part of the answer – and it is not comforting – is that, in general, we have an ‘implicit bias’ in favour of male (and lighter skinned) people. Psychological work on these cognitive errors has been around for 30 years. We know that employers, whether male or female, rank a CV for a job application higher with a man’s name at the top than the same CV with a woman’s name at the top.

Similarly, ‘Anglo’ sounding names are preferred. One writer who ran her own personal experiment found that literary agents, who are predominantly female, were eight times more likely to respond to the same proposal coming from a (fictional) man as from a (real) woman, as Mary Ann Sieghart found out last week on Analysis.

These biases are unconscious, based on associations that are made in the culture around us, regardless of our personal beliefs. But the one thing that history can teach is that culture does change.

The Everyday Sexism blog, which documents incidents ranging from trivial to criminal anonymously, as a way to share frustration and rage, is inconceivable in any previous century -- and not just because the internet is recent.

Jennifer Saul’s article ‘Stop Thinking So Much About “Sexual Harassment”’ (Journal of Applied Philosophy 31/3, 2014) directs attention away from the legal procedures and towards practical means of intervention in unacceptable situations, to intervene in the culture that tolerates discrimination. 

Cambridge University’s Breaking the Silence campaign, as well as the wider movements of #MeToo and Time’s Up both speak to the possibility of changing the ‘climate’ of our institutions, even as we can expect to have to work towards that end on a daily basis.

When girls get shamed for their appearance, or boys for emotional vulnerability, or the founder of #MeToo gets abused as ‘too ugly to rape’, or one of your peers after a few too many says ‘you only got the job because you are a woman/black/asian’, it can be hard to remember that we are living in the 21st century.

Why is this kind of hatred and fear still around, in apparent contradiction to both laws and generally tolerant cultural norms?

Challenging a culture of discrimination

An institutional ‘climate’ of discrimination may arise from countless small incidents: a racist or sexist joke that passes unchallenged, for example; or a series of meetings or public forums where the voices of white men dominate.

These days, discriminatory comments may be subtle, or passing, or ‘jokey’, in such a way that makes them not worth following through with a formal complaint. Most of us don’t know how to respond in such situations, whether we or someone else is the target: we are embarrassed or freeze, hoping it will go away, or perhaps it never really happened?

But the one thing we can be sure of is that this situation will arise again. And if we do not intervene, it will continue to happen, and perhaps even more frequently. Bystander training offers options to stop the behaviour and give support to those who are targeted. The aim is to change the accepted cultural norms of workplaces and communities, even of a conversation, because most of us want to live and work in a more tolerant and supportive climate.

Sympathetic but effective interventions counter everyday sexism and racism. For example, one of the best ways to ways to deal with offensive ‘jokes’ is not to laugh. Smiling or laughing gives the speaker the impression that everyone around agrees with him.

Often comments are more thoughtless than malicious. Open-ended questions that give the speaker the chance to apologise are a good way to challenge quickly and effectively: "Why do you say that?" "How did you develop that belief?" If our first response is anger, then questions like these can help to buy time to recover our temper and think more clearly.

It can be hard to challenge prejudice without feeling like you’re making a scene or causing a fuss. It is hard to step in, and can feel costly. But as The Breaking the Silence film says, it is also hard to imagine that the cost you may experience will be equal to a victim’s suffering.

Alone, we can’t change a culture, but if attitudes are challenged, together we can change a climate of discrimination.

Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk.


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