Sexism’s about power, not sex

sexist headlines

Sexism is about power: guess which way George Clooney’s marriage was reported?

A sleazy chat-up line live on TV from T20 cricketer Chris Gayle to a female sports reporter was all the news this week, but in all the analysis, defensive and offensive, something seemed to be missing: a clear definition of the crime he was committing… Sexism.

Sexism is prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination against women, on the basis of sex.

What is missing from this definition is the background: power usually rests with the men, and they use this power to keep women down (whether deliberately, accidentally or by design). They do it in the workplace, and across many industries, and have done so since time immemorial. It does not make it right, but it’s still happening. For the past two decades, women have been paid about 83% of what men earn across the nation. Women tend to be pushed into the lower paid, usually temporary or casual ‘caring’ industries, find it difficult to climb the corporate ladder (only 17% of CEOs are women) and make up a small minority of senior management and Boards. They rarely find positions of power. And when they do, they can be subject to further torrents of abuse. Think Julia Gillard.

In the same way ageism is not about age, it’s about power, and racism is not about race, it’s about power, so sexism is all about power, and not about sex.

Gayle probably clumsily thought he was being ‘sexy’ (not sexist), and possibly funny. He laughed it off at the time (laughter probably through embarrassment at the way Mel Mclaughlin visibly recoiled to his unwanted advances) to which he then quickly followed with a “Don’t blush baby”, further demeaning his victim. Live on TV. She had the presence of mind to say strongly “I’m not blushing” and ended the interview as soon as she could. Within a few minutes, the three (always male) commentators in the box apologised to the audience for Gayle’s comments, and nobly stuck up for Ms Mclaughlin.

The following day Gayle was fined for “inappropriate comments” in what his club called a “one-off incident”. Yet within hours many other people (not only women, but also fellow male players) came forward recounting stories of similar, if not worse, behaviour from the West Indian, over many years. Others in the media felt he should be banned, at least for one game, never invited back to the Big Bash (due to the shame he brought on it) and that a $10,000 fine was immaterial to the multi millionaire player.

Gayle, rather begrudingly, apologised at a hastily arranged and very swift ‘doorstop’ at the airport that day, which Ms Mclaughlin accepted, yet he then posted an Instagram photo making light of the affair.

He clearly hadn’t learnt anything. If you want to judge the man, look at it his Instagram account… or rather don’t, as it’s just a stream of selfies of him beaming with shirt on, shirt off, in various locations around the world, bling shining. You get the picture.

Typically, a backlash then came from those who thought this was all too dramatic a reaction to what was a ‘joke’, a ‘lighthearted moment’. Are we becoming ‘too PC’ now, bleated some? Some other Gayle apologists even claimed the situation was ‘cultural’. Puhleeze. Gayle is a man of the world, and in any case, wherever you work, you have to be aware and sensitive to its own culture. You can’t impose your own.

Sadly, Ms Mclaughlin’s career will now be known for this incident, not for the work she does and the career she has carefully built to date. To be accosted in this way, live in front of hundreds of thousands, and then repeated for millions more, around the world, will define her. She did not ask for this, expect it, or deserve it. This was her place of work.

And this is where the ‘power’ bit comes in.

In demeaning her as interviewer, and someone who merely has ‘lovely eyes’ and maybe could ‘have a drink later’ with him, Gayle was treating her as someone in a pick up joint, a piece of fluff, not a serious journalist. This was not some sleazy night club. Yet he behaved as if it was. He was putting her down, he was in the position of power, and he was demonstrating that over her. It had connotations beyond the immediate situation. Context was everything. At best it was cringeworthy, at worst it was a totally irresponsible and clear sexist act, and a terrible example to set to those many hundreds of thousands of younger, impressionable cricket fans watching.

The central point is that if he’d done this to a male interviewer, it would not have had the same power dynamic. With the power context absent, there can be no sexism. Women cannot be sexist to men, unless they are in a position of power over them, and using their gender as an excuse to put them down. Sexism is usually inflicted on women, as it’s the men who usually hold the power.

People who refuse to hire or promote someone simply because they are female are abusing their power over them and discriminating on grounds of sex (= sexism), in the same way someone who refuses to hire someone merely because they are too young or old are being ageist (assuming age is irrelevant and the person is suitably qualified), or purely on racial background are being racist. This is illegal! And rightly so.

Gayle obviously doesn’t get this at all, even after all the reaction to the incident. In fact, although he will probably be more careful in interviews in future, I bet this has hardened his views, rather than taught him an important lesson. If I’d been his boss, I would have immediately banned him for a game, and put him through some training which clearly taught him what sexism was, and why people were outraged. If he’d then shown humility and understanding, I would then re-engage him for the rest of the season (although his team probably only has 2 more games left in any case). I doubt I’d ask him back the following year.

Context is King

It is clear that the women have been held back in almost entirely male orientated industry (female sports journalists are relatively few and far between) and a sport that has been almost completely male dominated for 150 years (women’s cricket is only now slowly gaining some acknowledgement). Women journalists and cricketers have to put up with incredibly oafish behaviour (again, demeaning, which is designed to keep them down) that their male counterparts would simply not have to endure.

For more excellent analysis of this situation and examples, read this from Marina Hyde or this from Russell Jackson in the Guardian this week, and this from Cricinfo’s Raf Nicholson (written in 2014).

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