Tag Archives: sexism

Pretty as a picture?

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Alexander Carter-Silk, the senior partner at a law firm who was taken to task by a strident feminist when he mistook the business networking site LinkedIn for a dating website. It’s an easy mistake to make. In response to a connection request from human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman, he messaged back, ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!’ The hapless Carter-Silk – whose over-zealous use of exclamation marks surely reveals his benign intent – was promptly outed by Proudman on Twitter for his sexist behaviour. Can’t a lady take a compliment?

Carter-Silk gave his online audience an insight into the subtle workings of his legally-trained mind when he sought to clarify his intentions: ‘Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.’ Let’s gloss over Carter-Silk’s sloppy comma splice and incorrect use of a subordinate clause, not to mention his gutless refusal to accept responsibility for the offence he caused. Could he just explain why he acknowledged that it might be viewed as ‘horrendously politically incorrect’ to make what was, after all, an innocent observation about the professional quality of Proudman’s photograph?

As Proudman rightly pointed out in her response to Carter-Silk, comments like his are a means of exercising power over women and detracting from their professional achievements. Objectifying a woman for her appearance is just one example; I could cite many instances of blatant sexism from my own working life. Once, at a job interview, a recruitment consultant enquired as to whether I was married. When I asked why this was relevant, he explained that my husband might be annoyed if I had to work late. On another occasion, a senior civil servant suggested that a post in the Department for Education would be ‘a nice job for a lady lawyer’, the implication being that HM Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were strictly for the chaps.

There are a thousand other ways in which women are judged, stereotyped, undermined and silenced at work. Those who say they have never experienced workplace sexism might consider how often male colleagues have talked over them or ignored their presence at a strategy meeting or a client drinks party. When women are sidelined in this way, a small internal voice whispers that it’s because they have nothing interesting to contribute: must try harder. By contrast, the standard male response would be simply to turn up the volume.

The subtle, pervasive nature of the attitudes revealed by such incidents is the reason why idiots like Carter-Silk need to be called out. I’d like to think that he has now been reprimanded by his firm and that his fellow partners will seek to distance themselves from his comment. Knowing how the law works, though, I fear this incident will simply bolster his client following and furnish him with an amusing dinner-party anecdote (cue much male guffawing at the humourless feminist who dared to speak out). In the meantime, he might want to take some advice from a PR consultant on how to frame an apology, as well as a refresher course in the basic rules of grammar.

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There was an old lady…

Earlier this month, I finally caught up with Luca Guadagnino’s highly stylised film I Am Love on DVD. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the elegant, ethereal matriarch of a privileged Milanese family, so it was unfortunate that I spent much of the film pondering the implausibility of her alabaster forehead and flawless complexion. Although entirely appropriate to the role, her striking looks were a distraction, mainly because she appeared to be twenty years younger than she is.

If youthful good looks seem incongruous in a middle-aged woman, consider the alternative. Those of us not blessed with Swinton’s natural, ageless beauty seem to disappear as we grow older. Like many women, I’m far more assertive and outgoing in my forties than I was as a solipsistic twenty-year-old. I also feel I have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to impart, especially after a few glasses of red wine. So why does there appear to be an inverse relationship between my increased confidence and my ability to get served in pubs? Why do strangers fail to grasp that a muttered, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you,’ only adds insult to injury when (as happens with increasing frequency) they elbow me aside at the checkout or veer into me on the pavement?

Some women of a certain age try to shrug off this cloak of invisibility by making an effort with their appearance. But all those visits to the gym, beautician and cosmetic surgeon seem like an enormous waste of energy when time is running out and there are many more important and interesting things to be getting on with. And it’s always a delicate balancing act: the ageing woman who strives to be noticed risks ridicule for trying too hard. As a man, the fifty-something artist Grayson Perry looks attractively rumpled; as a woman, with his frou-frou frocks and stencilled eyebrows, he resembles a pantomime dame.

The sidelining of older women is particularly obnoxious in professions where maturity might have been thought to be an asset. Where are all the female Jeremy Paxmans and Jon Snows? I recently came across an illustrated magazine article in which a number of eminent fifty-plus television presenters – among them, Joan Bakewell and Miriam O’Reilly – debated whether the BBC was guilty of discriminating against its older female staff. Depressingly, their photographs were styled like a fashion shoot, their heavily made-up faces and dyed hair serving only to perpetuate the ageist, sexist culture that they denounced.

Are we to understand that grey hair and gravitas are acceptable only for men? Do women bear some degree of responsibility for reinforcing this attitude, or is it excusable if they doctor their appearance in whatever way seems necessary to preserve their livelihoods and social standing? I have no answers and can’t help but bring my own prejudices and skewed perceptions to the debate. One thing, however, seems increasingly clear: while my male friends mature into elder statesmen or silver foxes, my own ageing process is likely to involve a steady loss of status, recognition and perceived attractiveness. This is no country for old women.