Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Freshers' Week Sexism: It is that bad.

The Guardian recently had an article about 10 types of sexism experienced by female students at university this year. Many of the 'types' actually have more than one example; fifteen specific examples are given.
The response to this from many however is ''it's not that bad.''.

Stop right there. 

Fifteen examples of, at times quite repulsive, sexism directed to female students. Any single one of these happening once would be ''that bad''. That at least fifteen clearly defined incidents have occurred to fifteen individual women is definitely ''that bad''. And, we know from some of these examples that these attacks (and they are attacks) are not happening to individual women, they are happening to groups. That groups of women are suffering this means it is ''that bad''. Further more these are just the examples being talked about.
These are just the examples which have come to light and been made public instead of grimaced at quickly or cried about in private.
Why do people dismiss these things as 'not that bad'. Just because you didn't experience them personally, why dismiss the upset and discomfort of so many others. Yes, when they are gathered into one short article it can seem more dramatic that when it is spread over an entire degree course, but does that make these instances any less real, despicable, misogynistic or distressing? No it doesn't. Sexism in British universities really is that bad.

Let me pose to you an analogy:
You are searching for a hotel online. You find somewhere which may be suitable for your needs and decide to look at the customer reviews and notice that since September (since the beginning of the academic year) there have been a dozen negative reviews citing bed bugs, mould in bathrooms, food poisoning from the breakfast, stained sheets, rude and obnoxious staff – every bad experience you could imagine in a hotel. But there is a positive review in there that says 'It's not that bad.'.
Personally, unless that was absolutely the only option, I would look for a room elsewhere. I'd presume, that at some point health and hotel inspectors would be swooping down on the place to do something about it, because surely it shouldn't stay in operation with so many hazards.
When it comes to misogyny in universities I want the same response. Just because not every student there has experienced these issues (and that is some small relief) doesn't mean there isn't a major problem that needs to be addressed.
Just as I would expect our fictional hotel manager to look at the complaints and invest in new linen and deep cleaning, I would expect university deans, presidents and SU leaders to take a very close look at what they permit in their institutions and what steps they are going to take to stop these things happening. The problems are there, the complaints are being made and it is long past time that corrective action was taken. No female student should be made to feel unwelcome in a class. No student should think that her classmates think rape is a joke. No student should be given the message that submitting to unwanted sexual contact is the safest and expected option.

Other comments on the Guardian piece state that they don't worry about sexist university society initiations and dubious T-shirts when there are bigger issues of women entering a male dominated workforce, continued job inequality and major gender divides in academic subjects. If I am honest, I am somewhat baffled by this argument. Perhaps I am naive, but I am simply unable to see the examples in the Guardian as a separate issue from employment inequality and pervasive gender stereotyping. As I see it, the two are intrinsically linked. As long as female students are being treated as nothing but sex toys, there for the amusement and domination of male students then they are being seen as less. As long as female students are being devalued and treated as jokes or out of place on campus then their education, ability and worth in the wider world is also being devalued.

It perpetuates the culture were women are not as valuable and equal in business or academic arenas. It teaches the male students that when they are in the working world they can look at their female colleagues as lesser. Women are treated as sex objects, jokes and targets in fresher's week because society teaches that women are of less value than men and need to be firmly put in their place as subservient. Women continue to be undervalued in academia and professional circles because group after group of graduates have just spent three years accepting that male dominant behaviour is acceptable and normal. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken at every opportunity.

Saying 'It is that bad' when we hear examples of overt sexual harassment and discrimination in university is a step toward breaking that cycle.
Saying 'It is that bad' to tutors, presidents, deans, leaders and above all students is a step toward breaking that cycle and demanding a change.
Just because it could be worse is no reason to maintain the status quo.