How do we tackle entrenched sexism at work?

Why Cressida Dick’s resignation needs to ignite a wider reflection on how we tackle entrenched sexism in the workplace.

two british police officers in a crowd of people


When Cressida Dick resigned there were tweets saying more or less that, yet again, a woman at the top has been taken down by a misogynistic, racist culture. Yet the articles coming out suggest that she didn’t do enough to tackle that culture or listen to those who explained what it was like.

Maybe both are true. Dick must have herself been affected by that culture in her rise up the career ladder. Maybe it had just become part of the job to her, maybe resistance – reinforced by a sense of us against them – made the task too overwhelming for any one person, maybe because she was a woman Dick was under pressure to appear ‘one of the boys’ to get to the top or maybe her loyalty to the force – and all that they have to deal with – overrode concerns about the culture. Who knows?

But what happened raises difficult questions about how you tackle sexism and racism because we know that the Met police force is certainly not the only institution where it is deeply engrained. As a woman, you assume that it is there in many workplaces if you don’t know it for certain from experience of ‘banter’ or worse or haven’t felt the full force of it.

It’s in our general culture after all and I’m not sure it’s getting any better. After Sarah Everard’s death, there was a discussion about sexual assault at my daughter’s school as part of a sixth form assembly. Because of Covid, assembly took place in all the different form rooms. My daughter recounted how girls stood up and told the class about their experiences of objectification, assault and more in form after form. The boys routinely told them they were overreacting and didn’t listen to what they were saying. Only a few brave ones spoke up for the girls. There was shouting and many tears. This happened in every form. Was it happening because girls are more and more the target of this kind of thing or because they are more aware of it, have seen other women standing up against it and have had enough or is it, again, a mixture of the two?

As parents we are only too aware of the dangers that lurk on the internet and can seep into everyday life. It’s part of our job to worry and there seems to be a lot to worry about. We know that hard porn pops up randomly on the most innocent of websites, we know that gamer chatrooms are sometimes full of incel-type comments and could be grooming rooms for paedophiles, we know that this is the swill that our children may be swimming in daily. Maybe we imagine it is worse than it is because we are hyper alert to all the reports about its different forms – about girls being drugged at the pub or nightclubs, for instance – or maybe it is that bad. We can try and do our best to stem the tide, but it sometimes seems overwhelming. My son plays Minecraft on something called Discord. What if the people on there are drip feeding him misogynistic or racist comments? The low-level  ‘jokes’ and comments that are everyday are perhaps the most insidious.

I’ve written about the impact of boys accessing hard porn on their phones on girls. I’m no Mary Whitehouse, but I’m not taking it as a positive for women that girls are saying that they are being expected to be throttled during sex even if a lot of what is pushed to them is done under ’empowerment’ and liberation messages. I’m not necessarily blaming the boys who are just responding to the messages they too are receiving, but we certainly need to have a big conversation about this kind of stuff as a society – at school, at home and at work. Yes, we live at a time of heightened activism on these issues and progress is being made in many areas. It’s not all gloom and doom certainly. But it runs alongside and is subverted by counter movements which are sometimes presented as progressive and which make for a psychologically damaging cocktail.

The first step to doing something about this type of culture is to truly recognise the extent of the problem and how it is holding many people back and causing misery. Talk to people. Listen to what they are saying. Encouraging others to listen when they don’t see what is in it for them, whether they don’t want to lose face or say the wrong thing is perhaps the hardest thing of all and involves creating safe spaces for discussion rather than blame and an empathetic culture generally where bullying is not just discouraged but actively dealt with, particularly when it comes from managers.

As parents, we have to have conversations with our children so they can make their own way through the maze of mixed messages and before peer pressure takes over. At work, in addition to opportunities for genuine discussion about how we treat each other in the workplace, it needs to be made clear why that matters and what doing better means for everyone. Leadership is important and leaders have to join the dots and set the vision. It would, of course, help, if we had some political leadership, but its absence is not a reason to do nothing. Solutions cannot be imposed; sexism and racism cannot be solved with a half-day unconscious bias exercise. It is not about initiatives that are run for a couple of years until the next thing comes along.  This is a long-term challenge and it has to become part of how we do things because everyone is better because of it.

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