Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Everyday Sexism and Pet Names

Yesterday a male colleague ended a phone conversation with me by saying "good girl" before the more usual "bye". Before I could think about it for too long, I tweeted the experience to @everydaysexism. Afterwards, I felt pretty awkward, both from the encounter and the instantaneous tweet. Although very few people in my department use twitter, it's fairly obvious that I'm me, as it were. I'm identified by name, but also by job and location on twitter so anyone viewing it from my organisation is likely to be see the connection. I'd worried, after when I'd had time to think, that the gentleman would be able to tell that this apparently obscure tweet was about him. He would quite rightly wonder why I hadn't raised any objection on the phone, or what was so heinous as to deserve this. I also worried that, since I knew he was senior to me, there would be repercussions. And that's just for starters. I worried, as I have done the past two times I've responded to the Everyday Sexism project, that it's all just a storm in a teacup. That now that I have somewhere that it's ok to talk about these things, I'm looking for them and seeing things as an issue that I wouldn't have not too long ago.

Those worries are why I posted before I could think properly. My gut instincts told me that this was wrong, and I felt odd and uncomfortable and embarrassed when I came off the phone. I feigned anger to my colleagues to hide my upset and I felt myself blush. I stand by that reaction, and my (albeit quick) decision to tweet it. However, when I got home from work later on and I had a reply to my tweet: 
I responded fairly quickly after having seen the reply, but it did get me thinking. The worries from earlier that I'd overreacted resurfaced. Husband had gone for a shower, so I wandered off to do the dishes and have a think. I am a diminutive blond, and I do have a rather high pitched voice. All things over which I have no control, but which influence people's perception of me. Not their fault, or mine. I understand the purpose of pet names, or generic monikers like 'love' (which is fairly gender neutral, both men and women call me love). It is not always possible to remember, or even know, everyone's name who you interact with. Reverting to a 'Sir' or 'Madam' is no longer possible in our much more informal society, and can make you should like a bit of a tosser. So, what are we left with? Love, hen, pal, mate, dear, pet... I frequently get 'pal' from the security staff at work, or taxi drivers. A close female friend calls me 'love', and I get 'hen' quite often. None of these upset me and @denisoconnell63's tweet got me thinking about the difference.

It took me some time, but I got there in the end and as with many things its is the specific context rather than the general situation. As I said in my reply, I see something quite different in a generic, and vaguely gender neutral moniker than in being told that I was a "good girl" at the end of a conversation with a senior colleague. I may have been jumping the gun a little, but I doubt that he would have told my male colleague that he was a "good boy" for performing his job efficiently. And that's the bit where you find the sexism - I'm called a "good girl" but to flip it round to my male colleague he wouldn't be called a boy. He might get "good man", but that is quite different. I'm in a subordinate position to most people in my organisation and I am quite young, but by no means the youngest and I don't think that being called a girl (good or otherwise) is appropriate for a work conversation. 

A whole blog about this may seem like I'm exaggerating things, and blowing them all out of proportion and I almost talked myself out of it as well. And then I read Hugo Rifkind's article in The Spectator. What stood out for me was the balance and uncertainty:

"A while ago, I started following a Twitter stream called @EverydaySexism, in which women tally their survival of wandering hands, off-colour remarks and attempts at assault. Individually, often, they don’t seem a big deal. ‘Quit moaning,’ you might say. But Christ, so many of them, one after the other, day in, day out. Like a Chinese water torture. I don’t think I’d have ever sidled up to a stranger and told her she was pretty. Not really my style. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve come to grasp that if I did, it would not be an event in isolation. It would sit alongside the bus driver’s ‘love’ and the eyes of the silent, spooky cashier in the shop where she bought her newspaper, and the man too close on the train, and the boss who asks her to make the coffee, and the husband she’ll one day have who expects her to quit work for the kids. And yet, at the same time, I still don’t know if she minded. And it’s complicated, also, by how very thrilled I know I’d be if a woman — even one who looked like Robin Day — should ever lean in close and say such a thing to me."

This might have been, for me, the final straw in a day when I'd unconsciously catalogued various little instances. I don't feel like it was, but then that's the whole point of the unconscious bit in that sentence. I don't doubt that it made me feel genuinely uncomfortable and that I  have the right to express that, and yet...

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