Fighting Fog

6a015436eb4a84970c0192ac870d39970dThis blog has been a long time in the making.
There are times in my life and my work where I have the sense I’m fighting fog. Like somehow I’ve just lost a game I didn’t know I was in. Where I become aware that I’m feeling angry and somehow disadvantaged and I can’t quite work out how or where it has come from… where the rules of engagement seem to suggest everything is fine and normal and good – but my instinct is all is not right and I have an urge to kick back and bite…..
So when David D’Souza wrote his blog last Sunday on Sexy Women of HR– I found myself profoundly, almost comically angry… and I mean properly, arrestingly – WTF angry….. but I couldn’t quite find the words for or understand why.
And I’ve sat quietly with a question of what “that” sense of anger was…. and then a lot less quietly when I talked to David about the blog, my response, others’ responses… (In a highly emotional, pointy way after too much wine… Sadly my courage sometimes needs to be Dutch.)
Having processed it, what it comes down to, mostly, is this. There was something about the tone of the piece that made me furious.

“THAT’S SEXIST, WE AREN’T JUST OBJECTS (I hear some of you cry because you like feeling offended – and particularly on social media where we can be offended all the time by everything).”
“I liked Baywatch. Baywatch was brilliant and officially one of the most watched TV shows in history. Whilst part of the attraction was (doubtlessly) the depth of character portrayal and complex, multilayered narrative – I have a feeling that some of the pull was the range of very attractive blondes with wonderful chests on display.”
It’s not that what was written was or wasn’t sexist (I certainly don’t believe David is sexist. I know him well, hold him in very high regard and I know he has been rocked by the reactions he’s faced. He has subsequently written more about his reasons and approach to the blog here) While the blog appeared to make points about attractiveness and intelligence that were way off what I believe to be so, there was, perhaps, some truth in what was being said. I could bring in counter points about Beauty Myths and ask what happens if we unpick “attractiveness”? Does that mean if you are of a certain “look” you are not attractive?  Are non-white women and men limited in a majority white culture where the notions of “attractive” may be skewed?   There is much I could say… but that wasn’t the source of my reaction ( the fuel, but not the flame)
It’s just that tone – that jocular nature that suggests this is all a jolly ruse. That thing of: “well you just like to be offended, what does it matter if we objectify because it’s popular”. Something along the lines of “I’m simply saying what others are thinking”  “I don’t SERIOUSLY think this, I’m just poking and being provocative” (as someone darkly said this week – “Sometimes? There is a reason people aren’t saying it.”  In other words sometimes by amplifying certain thinking, we perpetuate or encourage it… or, as seems to have happened, there is much chatter about the fact that what is written is offensive, which somehow removes the focus from what the offence is.)
That tone…..
Its familiar
It’s foggy
It makes me uneasy….
Let me try to be clearer….
Perhaps the pull of Baywatch was the attractive blondes. It just pisses me off that it is OK to reduce someone to a hair colour. Male or female. And just how deep that acceptance that this is OK actually goes, culturally and organisationally
My point is perhaps better summarised in Amanda Sterling’s post “Just because I’m young blonde and quiet doesn’t mean I’m stupid” Amanda encountered a Black Jack Dealer in Vegas who said she couldn’t comprehend how to play black jack and there was no point him helping me learn how to play’.
But it’s what happens next that I recognise:
“I didn’t realise he was having a go at me until one of the American’s at our table starting ripping into him for calling me stupid and that that wasn’t very nice.”
To be living in a reality where it is even POSSIBLE that someone as bright and driven as Amanda didn’t notice the put-down speaks to something subtle and insidious.  It speaks to a phenomena where someone gets stung so many times, they become immune to the stinging sensation – even though the sting still carries poison… that stuff messes up your perception of the world and your ability to function well in it.
At this point, I think it’s worth looking at the work of Laura Bates and team on the Everyday Sexism Project – which captures many of the daily stings faced by women ( and men on behalf of women). And because I try to be an equal thinker, it’s also worth having a look at the excellent content on The Good Men Project – which counters notions that all men are X. Browse and think.
Oh, hold on, I was being angry – my reaction last week  took me back to being in my early 20’s. In an meeting with the male Ops managers I was attending as a newbie HR pro. I can’t remember the exact words now, or how many times during that meeting I was told something alone the lines of “after you’ve finished painting my nails or whatever it is you do in HR, you can bring down the absence figures.” Etc. I do remember being told my recruitment seemingly meant more men were willing to come to the HR office – what was unsaid but alluded to was this was not because of anything I brought professionally, intellectually or practically.
At the time I was angry and slighted. I went out into the Car Park and took deep, shaky breaths.  I talked to my manager. His view was “It’s harmless, really, they are only joking. This is the reality of working here. Better toughen up and get used to it”. Something felt wrong, though. Over time, I found mechanisms to work around it. Some of those mechanisms involved me not showing my full intelligence or ability. I’m not proud of that.
There is a lot bound up in these interactions – in the instances of Amanda’s or my experience, the blonde/ female thing runs… but in other instances, that feeling powerless/ not even noticing the insult could just as easily be a good looking/ male thing. Or a race thing. Or a disabled thing, or a sexuality thing. Or a North/South thing. Or a Rich/ Poor thing.
And here is the conundrum that I found myself facing last Sunday – one I hadn’t really felt so strongly for a long time, and I wonder if this is something more universal that people encounter when fog-fighting – The question emerges: How do I respond?
If I argue – I run the risk of seeming humourless. A bit of a sour puss. Someone with an unreasonable chip on my shoulder. Oh for God’s sake, It’s a joke, we are kidding… come on fuchsiablue, get with the lightness.
If I say nothing, I’m left angry but with no where to go with it…I’m cross and feeling silenced.
If I say something like “yes, I get the joke, how funny”.. I hate myself for playing into something that I fundamentally can’t find amusing
If I show just HOW cross I feel, then folk might be shocked, or look at me funny, or whisper in corners.. heaven forbid, I might become the Angry Consultant.
If I raise it, I could be accused of overreacting, being overly sensitive….
So no action feels right, but nor does inaction…. Damn that Fog.
My choice, these days, is to sit with the feeling – to hang out with it and play it out through talking, writing, paying attention. Only then do I find a means to express myself back better….  I used to just get really cross, but was then unable to articulate my point well,  and then I’d cry from frustration, then I’d be annoyed at my weakness and so it cycled. This is where my interest in dialogue is forged from – a deep need and want for people to be able to speak up and out with greater clarity about what is true for them – palatable or otherwise.
I don’t think feeling angry was wholly and solely about a sense of female oppression – though some of the rhetoric was of the ilk I have heard for a life time and it makes me exhausted – but I do think my response was grounded in a powerlessness and feeling of fighting foggy power systems that I am lucky enough to so rarely encounter these days…
I guess what I’m trying to say is, as the jokes and the fog clear, I really notice the stings now.

31 thoughts on “Fighting Fog

  1. Reblogged this on 101 Half Connected Things and commented:
    Powerlessness simply sucks. Feeling a lack of control simply sucks. I’m pretty confident on those two points. I’m not sure that it matters how the truth is bundled as long as it is heard. Maybe sometimes it is the truth that is most unsettling. I’m not sure, but I’m open to being wrong. I don’t think there is a ‘perhaps’ to the fact that the pull of Baywatch was the attractive blondes. I don’t think I can justify my blog by highlighting the quality of Julie’s thoughts – but this really is a pretty tough ‘do the ends justify the means’ problem.

    • I beg to differ, dds… I’m fairly certain some of my mates didn’t watch Baywatch for the blondes, but for Billy Warlock… so it is blondes AND….

      I could pull my academic stick out and start talking about a paradigm based on both the male & female gaze, reductionist in its view of humanity which socially constructs a view of the world that has interesting implications for those who don’t match up….

      Or I can say that you summarise it well with Powerlessness Sucks.

      What you wrote sparked a reaction. I chose to write about that reaction, rather than not. Last Sunday I had nothing to offer that was sensible or wise – others very definitely did and I was glad to hear from them.

      Would I have had you write it better? sure. Was I disappointed in your view because they seemed to come from “one of the good guys”? Yup. Did I despair that someone intelligent and articulate seems to be offering a opinion forged around puberty? That too.

      But I don’t deny those thoughts and opinions are out there. I’m not into stifling the debate.
      What I can do, I think, is show something: That there is an impact.

      Reduce me to blonde or attractive or unattractive and hold me in that space & I will rage, or be less, or go quiet…..and I don’t want that for anyone – male or female.

      So let’s see what comes….

  2. Julie, thank you for writing that. It sums up how I felt when reading David’s posts and I couldn’t find the right form of words for Twitter or as a blog comment at the time so I understand why it took a while and some rumination for you to write this. You’ve summed up the mixture of emotions that happens when someone makes comments I’m uncomfortable with as a woman, whether on a blog, in person, in the workplace or socially. Sometimes I find a way to articulate those feelings and that can lead to a conversation and a better shared understanding of how the words we use can unintentionally perpetuate division and structures of bias etc. But other times I don’t and it’s those times that stay with me, the feelings simmer and are often mixed up with a lot of self-doubt, why didn’t I say something? Surely I can’t be the only one who was troubled by that? It’s doubly worse when you respect the person who made the original statement. So thank you for finding the words. Talking it out has got to better but it can be exhausting sometimes!

    • Thank you Kandy.

      I’d delighted you commented… was worried it would all go tumbleweed silent. I hope others join in too…

      It’s been a interesting process, built from conversations and paying attention to stuff over the course of the week..
      Int he end it took my longer to edit than any blog I’ve written, because I kept wandering off piste… it feels large and complex and could go many places.

      in the end… I think I’m learning most about how I respond to feeling provoked. How do I hold myself, my opinions and my emotions in enough of a place to maintain a sensible point of view?

      I’m wondering about developing a anti-fog mechanism for my conversations…..

  3. Some articles & Comments from Twitter this afternoon:

    The female ‘confidence gap’ is a sham
    Women’s lack of confidence could be just a keen understanding of just how little society values them:

    HBR ‘main reason 4 uneven management sex ratio is inability to discern between confidence & competence’

    Blog: to succeed, be a disagreeable narcissistic overconfident psychopath

  4. As always, you leave social media for a few hours and the debate has moved on…but anyway, here’s my 2p worth.

    As I said on Twitter, your blog is an excellent response to David’s original post and makes a lot of points that I had thought and agree with. What I found intensely annoying about it is that in 2014 it was necessary for you to write it at all. I’d like to think that the debate has moved on since the mid 80s when I entered the world of work, but clearly it hasn’t much.

    As a male I’m sure I carry around plenty of sexist assumptions and behaviours, but as an HR professional in a work situation my role is to ensure that my own personal prejudices are managed and don’t impact on my advice, judgment or the way I manage people. David made a valid point that we can’t pretend that we don’t find some individuals “attractive” – but we shouldn’t let that affect us doing our job. The tone of his post that “I’m only saying what everyone thinks” was what I call the Nigel Farage approach – and I was doubly disappointed by the fact, as Kandy also says, that he’s a blogger and HR person I’ve normally got a lot of time for. It may not have been his intention in his post but it was certainly my perception.

    I also wanted to talk about the wider point of stereotyping that CEOs pick pretty blonde young women to do HR because they are unchallenging. While I’m sure some CEOs think this way I’ve yet to see any evidence that it’s a common management practice – also by phrasing it in this way it’s almost like we set about trying to undermine the “pretty blonde young women” who are in senior HR roles because of their skills and abilities. I’m guessing that any of those who come across this viewpoint might now be questioning whether they are in their job not because of their talents but because the CEO had the “hots” for them at interview.

    It’s also reflected in the ghettoisation of HR as a “female” profession – in part because of the perception that women are innately more “caring and nurturing”. We’re into a debate that I don’t claim any expertise on but I do wonder how much of this view is because women adopt this approach because it’s the role that they have been assigned by a male dominated society – in other words how much gender identity is a social construct as opposed to a biological issue.

    Finally, (and just for the record!) I always thought Baywatch was pretty crap and never thought the rather airbrushed and objectified women on it were particularly attractive…

    • Hi SImon,

      I mostly share your annoyance that I am writing this type of post about gender today – but in the reality of a stubbornly consistent 25% pay gap, some ludicras double standards around attractiveness and capability (BBC presenter Susanna Reid reduced to a “pair of legs hidden by a desk” is on my mind) I’m afraid it is depressingly necessary.

      I know David’s piece was intended to jolt us into thinking – and it did just that. Of course I would have preferred the subsequent discussion to have been enabled without someone having to shock and annoy..but I am a pragmatist and it’s not like I’d Raged Against the Machine of late…

      with regard to the CEO’s hiring thing? Again – it speaks to a wider issue and yes, if you are a good looking woman, particularly if you are young, I can almost guarantee at some point there will be a insinuation that you slept with or did something waaaaay off your job description to get where you are. Blonde or otherwise. I don’t think there is a male equivalent.

      I understand that this is partly set in the DNA of traditional, hierarchical workspaces. I’m interested in seeing how /if some of the less structured, traditional organisations we are starting to see more of now will impact on that really rather Git-ish attitude. Time will tell.

      And yes – the role of HR – how it is viewed in orgs, the power and systems that sit around its effectiveness can very easily be looked at through a feminist lens – it’s a debate we rarely have, that the people stuff is more populated by female practitioners & has less power than the money stuff…. hmmm…

      The intention of the blog was to describe a reaction – a visceral response – to feeling disempowered and dismissed. For me, this was bound in gender. For others, it may be bound in other factors.

      I have been humbled and astonished by the reactions ( suspiciously all positive) to the blog….
      And thank you for commenting.

    • Hi Simon,

      A couple of points from me. The Farage comparison seems a little soundbitey in itself – the obvious difference being that Farage employs that tone specifically to get people to agree with him – I used it in the hope of disagreement. I’ve made that pretty clear subsequently – although the majority of people picked it up at the time. Uncomfortable, unpalatable? Yes – but actually I’m ‘only saying’ what regularly gets vocalised and acted upon by men. Which, is scarier but hardly reflects directly upon me.

      I’m not as worried as you are about getting people to question why they have been hired. Should attractive young blonde women not consider that they may have been hired based on looks? Should black men not consider they may have not been hired due to the colour of their skin? Appreciating there is a real world is the first step to changing it. You won’t challenge what you don’t question. We do significantly differ on that point.

      I’d rather broach the issue to attempt to create dialogue about resolving it – part of that involved provoking a debate where I could inevitably have been portrayed as the bad guy. The reputational damage to me is acceptable due to the momentum it created. I wouldn’t have got as strong a reaction any other way. I’m glad people are speaking out now, but please make sure not to close down the complexity of the argument by outlining the way things should be. I don’t think anybody finds that tricky. That would have been a safe and easy post for me to do.

      It is being honest about the gap to reality that is the braver requirement. Feelings will get hurt – that’s better than systematic failure continuing.

      By the way – I really like your stuff too.


      • “Should attractive young blonde women not consider that they may have been hired based on looks? Should black men not consider they may have not been hired due to the colour of their skin?”

        No. Because that reduces you to a less-than-whole human.

        If I hired you for your beard and spent my days basing my conversations and your performance on the strength of your stubble, it would be ridiculous….

        You are right – you won’t challenge or change what you do not question and, based on above, I would offer you are asking the wrong questions.

        • I can’t believe you don’t think people should consider they may have been victims of prejudice… The fault isn’t on the part of the victim. If I’ve been hired on the basis of my looks I’m no less a person than I was before. If I haven’t been hired due to colour – I’m no less a person than I was before. The interactions I have with others dont allow them to determine my worth. That’s the crux of it isn’t it? That others can’t and shouldn’t bluntly apply value to you based on one trait. You are encouraging people to be blissfully blind rather than see the world as it is if you are asking them to deselect the ugliness of other people’s motivations.

          • 3 quick points
            1. David – your original post did pose some very relevant questions which we should debate, my issue was the style and tone and the apparent underlying assumptions which I didn’t like at all.
            2. Totally agree with Julie on the recruitment point. Successful candidates should assume they got the job on merit. It’s HR’s job to ensure this happens and to be fair to line managers, I can’t think of any of the hundreds I’ve worked with who’ve recruited on looks or to ensure they achieved some sort of quota (unless you count the one who checked sign of the zodiac before making a decision).
            3. The Farage reference was perhaps a little below the belt & I apologise if I offended. But I still stand by the underlying point I was making

            • 1. I’m hoping sign of the Zodiac was a joke…
              2. I get (and am open to) criticism of the technique. That’s completely fair and I wouldn’t expect you to do anything other than stand by it, I know you care about this. Farage…eek.
              3. Candidates should think hard about why they did and didn’t get jobs – including the unpalatable factors. It is about being socially aware and is hugely important. There is discrimination happening every day that people should be aware of and care about…
              It is a societal problem that is too big for HR to police. Campaigns like everydaysexism work because people are open to looking out for contra-indicators to fairness. That includes when you succeed as well as when you fail. I’d like white, middle class CEO’S to question what advantages they had and how to level the playing field – not be complacent that it was all down to them. The same applies across the spectrum.

          • I’m not encouraging people to be blissfully blind, I’m encouraging other people to be better and see further than skin-deep.

            as a once-young blonde woman, I can categorically say I didn’t question that I had been hired for anything more than my experience and work potential. When others suggested it might have been for my looks it was offensive and actually quite depressing…. what was the point in working hard and studying if actually I would be reduced to “young blonde woman” – YOu are right – I absolutely was no less of a person than before, but I became acutely aware that not everyone thought that.

            THe interactions I have with others don’t allow them to determine my worth in an ideal world – if you are talking about reality, by the time your realise you have been “reduced” in value by someone else, it is often too late…

  5. Hi Julie, thank you for a very insightful and completely unfoggy article!
    I agree with Simon that it is very disappointing to be having this conversation in 2014 but I think the reason this topic has ignited discussions around the world is that there are still a number of issues that we pretend aren’t happening because we’re so enlightened. But they are still happening, they’re just being ignored or shrugged off.
    I don’t want to put off young women (or men) in HR roles – but if we don’t talk about why they are being appointed, things will never change. On the #nzlead discussion last week some participants had good points about younger people being able to ask lots of ‘why’ questions and challenge traditional ways of thinking – but often you have to ask a better question than that to really spark thinking, and those questions require experience and knowledge that you physically cannot have when you are 23 years old.
    Thank you Julie for continuing the debate and raising some well thought out issues.

    • Hi Angela

      The complexity of the topic is mind boggling at times – it’s a bloody minefield to raise gender, power and status. There is so much we are “not allowed” to say.

      I heard a few guys at conference last week talk about David’s post and say something along the lines of “good luck with that can of worms, mate.”

      I was curious about this – some of it seemed to be grounded in “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” -type terror. (which irked – as if angry women were somehow a crazed force not to be taken overly seriously, but to be placated)

      Some of it seemed to be grounded in “it’s huge. you’ll never win” – which is where I hang out often.
      Better to get your head down and live well within the system than keep banging your head off the brick walls it’s built of….

      There is something in this about working with young people to see the system they operate in well – there is also something in this about talking amongst each other more for the same outcome. Gender politics make many people want to run screaming to the hills – you can’t win if you are male and uninformed, I sense.

      That’s why I loved the Good Men Project – it offered a different view of masculinity one often more closely aligned with the men I was raised with – smart, kind, protective, trustworthy, non predatory, irritating, loving, crap at navigating an emotional landscape, proud and awesome men.

      I have a sense that there will be more comments today, as people begin to formulate their thinking… this can only be a good thing.

      Thank you for starting this.

  6. Julie I worry that centuries of gender schema will not be undone in our lifetime. But we can continue to be heard and seen. We can continue to have these discussions and support younger women to be confident and empowered. As I discuss some of the research behind these ideas with younger women, I find it really helps them see it as cultural rather than personal. We can only change how we react to it.

    I have worked in male dominated areas my whole career and I’ve loved it, despite the issues that arise. However, it is much easier to show your displeasure or concern when you are face to face. I’m confident my raised eyebrows tell my story very clearly. Often resulting in an apology. I believe most comments are made out of desire to be clever and amuse others rather than offend. Those that mean to offend, I address.

    It is important that we don’t mask our feelings. Our feelings matter. That one took me some time to work out. I also know better now when a ‘joke’ really needs to be addressed so that I don’t walk away with my monkey mind playing it over in my head.

    It’s a great discussion to keep having as the path still has a long way to go.

    • Nah – it’s SO not gonna happen in our lifetime – but we can have a damn good kick at it for others.

      And it’s not just about gender, for me, though gender is my experience of this feeling of powerlessness….and I would have the discussion shared with younger men, too…

      thank you for reading & commenting… i’d like to hear more about your research.

  7. I’ve been walking around with a puzzle – why this blog provoked such a reaction in me and until I read your comments – so elegantly articulated – I don’t think that I understood why I was feeling the way I was.

    It also feels uncomfortable to share my responses here rather than on the original blog, but – I guess I’d rather engage with your comments.

    I suspect the high viewing figures may reflect people like me reading it several times to see if I had actually read it right. I couldn’t believe that in 2014 this is what people still thought and yet I saw RT’s saying this was a brave blog. *Heart sinks.*

    What is at the heart of your blog for me are your questions about how I respond. Whilst I don’t know David well, he is connected throughout my SoMe business network and – via twitter, we can all feel we do know each other well. There was a reticence in me – what if other people did agree with this? Yet I suspect, – I know – I am not the only one who reacted and was reticent. It makes me feel vulnerable just to write this – expressing an inner fear of being/saying something unpopular – but in the interests of reciprocating your honesty, I offer my veracity – because perhaps when we know, and then say, what we’re really thinking, something may change.

    So you have made me think deeply about the daily sting, and how I respond differently in different situations and how hard it is to respond when our core values are crossed.

    I’m grateful to you Jools for writing this so utterly bloody brilliantly.

    • I’m so glad you wrote.

      I could cut into much of what you have said with “yes”… but your comments speak perfectly for themselves…

      I guess the invitation is to notice the response you want to make and work from there?
      Folk won’t all agree and I’m deeply curious as to what is unsaid here on the comments – mostly people have been respectful and kind – I suspect there will be eye rolling & all sorts of other reactions – I suspect there is everything from equal irritation at this blog, to total apathy and everything in between

      Sod it. it was my experience. I chose to share. In future, it may well help me deal with my own crappy responses with an ounce more grace and courage…. let’s see.

      Longer convo… I look forward to having it with you.

  8. Julie, I read what you write because I learn from what interests you. Your reaction to being ‘WTF angry’, and the comments here, have really made me think. Thanks for sharing, all who have.

    I’m trying to de-fog the resulting thoughts. Yes, there’s sexual attraction between people who work together; and power relationships – from ‘hire’ to ‘fire’ and everything in-between. Those with the power – often older men – can use it to advance some higher purpose, help people grow, or indulge themselves and sting others. David said, ‘you are a good person based on the choices you make’. Holding people to account for their choices is work for those who hold power, those with less of it and those who advise and engage with both. Out of anger, challenge. I think I see that happening here.

    ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’ (Oscar Wilde)

    • I can’t argue with anything you have said here – you expand and clarify points made artfully and I very much enjoy the Wilde quote.

      Somewhere in all of this, today and yesterday, my thinking is developing and shifting – and the biggest feedback has been “you have made me think”, which is heartening, but I”m curious as to what end… I suspect David & I are both interested in what the ACTION from that thinking might be.
      If folk behave a little differently as a result of all that has been said in the last 24 hours, I’m good with that – as long as the different involves good choices…..

  9. I did not watch Baywatch, but do believe that we all make judgements about all people instantly. It is said that you get 4 seconds in an interview before the interviewer has decided about you and speaking personally, I have experienced upside down discrimination at the hands of female HR people. One example was when I was described as ‘eclectic’ and ‘intelligent’ in an interview as a justification of not getting a job in HR by a female HR person. The terms were used as ‘criticisms’ and I’ve often wondered what the motive was, having survived for 20 years running a successful business. I’ve also been described as too enthusiastic by senior CIPD people – is it possible to be too enthusiastic when you are giving someone your discretionary effort?

    I accept that the majority of comments about women focus on their appearance, and that is indeed unfair, but it cuts all ways.

    As soon as we stop having the ability to laugh at our frailties as mere human beings, I feel the world is a much poorer place. We cannot deny our biology, the best we can do is to honestly acknowledge it with all it’s attendant strengths and weaknesses.

    • I think this is fair. I’m not denying biology – I was trying not to pull that into the debate.

      The blog is about a response – a response to a perception of being disempowered, of having no-where to go in those moments when you really want to be able to argue back.. of feeling doubtful and fearful of your own instincts. Of feeling you ought to defend yourself, but feeling foolish – like your defence is an overreaction.

      You still carry the words “eclectic” and “intelligent” and “too enthusiastic”.. these stung.

      My stings are different – often less clearly articulated by those who slighted – mine are a sense. A sense that folk were coming to the office because I was to be looked at, not because I was offering anything that I classed as “adding value”. I wasn’t working in Hooters. I didn’t ask to be gawped at.

      I couldn’t turn up for work without my body, my physical presence – and I’m no bloody supermodel, for christ sake… that speaks to a WHOLE other fish kettle – but for those things to be the bigger focus of what I brought was uncomfortable. To not be able to speak that discomfort without being told I was too serious, too boring, a woman without humour was… just shit, frankly.

      and the risk here is I sound like I’m moaning – see… how quickly it catches…- my intention is not to moan. My intention is to say that actually, the serious, boring, humourless stuff sits firmly with those who would see me (or anyone, male or female, rich/poor, ethnic minority etc) as anything other than a complex, multi faceted human being…

      And I’m kind of glad someone else didn’t watch Baywatch….

  10. This is going to more of an incoherent set of comments, rather than the insights in your post and in all the comments to it. And it might be longer than your post.

    I said in my DM to you on Twitter that the post knocked the stuffing out of me. That’s not an exaggeration. I felt deflated. I had to go and bend the ear of a friend in the village. She and I have similar backgrounds – poor, council house and clever. Our way out of poverty was grammar school. I’m the wrong side of 55 and she is a wee bit older. We’re both physically attractive in our own ways. But our identities are defined by our intelligence and capabilities, by ourselves and others – always were, still are.

    I asked her if she ever felt her gender was an advantage or disadvantage. The question did not compute – all she ever focused on was her professionalism and her practice as a psychotherapist. Her attitude is the same as mine. We know what it is for other people to try to define us by our looks, attractiveness and sexuality. For goodness sake, we worked in a pre-politically correct age. I started work at the end of 1974 and the Equal Pay Act had only been passed in 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 and the Race Relations Act in 1976.

    Women of HR are sexy? Or in any other profession for that matter. Tell us something we don’t know. Of course people in the workplace find each other attractive. Like, duh.

    I love the image of fighting fog. Like you, it was the tone of David’s original piece that bothered me, not the topic. Suggesting people are hired for their attractiveness is not what dismayed me. The post felt to me like link bait so I ignored it for a week. I didn’t want to join in the bun fight. I would have remained silent until I read your post and your comment about sensing that you had just lost a game you didn’t know you were in. That beautifully articulated what might be at the root of my response to David’s post. I’m still not sure.

    You see, my way of not letting others define me was to just concentrate on my work and what interested me. And what happened time and time again was the men I worked with mentored me. They treated me like a sister or daughter. They often saw capabilities where I saw none, and they created opportunities for me. I’ve often felt lucky to have been treated so well, while remaining sensitive to the fact that it wasn’t always like that for many women. My workplace issue when I did leave to work for myself was linked to my own lack of power and abuse of power by someone else. But it was not gender related.

    Like Simon said in his comment, perhaps pretty young women reading David’s blog post might question “whether they are in their job not because of their talents but because the CEO had the “hots” for them at interview.” Well, I might not be young and pretty but I really began to doubt my own long experience.

    Had I been stupid? Was I in a game I didn’t realise I’d been in? Had I not recognised that all this mentoring and help I got was because my ex-colleagues found me attractive? I’ve decided that maybe they did, probably they didn’t. Even if they did, they were still kind, generous people using their power (influence) “to advance some higher purpose, (to) help people grow.”

    I’m going to proceed as I’ve always done – getting my head down, trying to do stuff, trusting my instincts and ignoring the stings. And adopting the same attitudes towards others that I experienced, creating opportunities for them – if that might be within whatever power I have.

    • Wow.
      Right now I don’t want to respond other than to acknowledge what has been written – I want to sit with this too and think a bit, if this is OK.

      I want to thank you for responding – I know there was some hesitation – and say yes, please, continue as you always have because in you I see and know a pioneer, deep thinker, rebel and inquirer.

      There is much in what you say… perhaps others would also like to add to this.

  11. Having read David’s original blog while with you, you know how much it made me roll my eyes at the tiresome task of yet again trying to explain everything that was wrong about what I had read. Yet like many others I didn’t quite know how to respond and I left it and stewed in my anger instead. I felt I couldn’t ‘win’. My past experience is that every response a woman gives to a ‘sexist’ conversation usually gets twisted negatively back on them by men and women alike and this is just one of the points your blog captured it perfectly.

    I have never questioned why I was offered job but have suffered many an inappropriate and uncomfortable comment related to the assumption that my (then) youth, blonde hair, tall (and therefore long legs) and slim frame are the real bonus or value to the company (makes me fume just typing it).

    Basically I was also in the fog and this blog response captures it perfectly. It is bloody awesome and you have totally rocked the response!!! Thank you x

  12. Hi Julie,

    I sense from the above that you were aiming to bring this topic to a close but I’ve been pondering on this since I read your post on Sunday so I hope you don’t mind me adding (this rather lon post) to it…

    When I read David’s article the first time I tried to ignore the provocative parts and focused on what I felt was the underlying message (which I took to be that acknowledging the realities of human behaviour is the best way to guard against abuses by it) and I complimented David on raising the point.

    As criticism (and support) for the article appeared I went back and read it again and this time focused on the ‘overlying’ aspect and it was clear to me what people had found offensive (and what I had chosen to skip over).

    It says a lot about my own continued capacity for and tolerance of sexism (not to mention the ‘immunity’ of being a man) that I wasn’t arrested by those comments in the first place to the extent that that aspect became my focus.

    I think it also says a lot about choosing provocation as a means to convey a message / stimulate debate. Uncovering bias was one of the concerns David stressed in his article. Unfortunately provocation has a tendency to provide cover for those who are not as in touch with, or not as willing to uncover, their own biases. It is, ironically, a predominantly emotional rather than intellectual tactic.

    Many of the subsequent responses from men have struck me as inadequate (the ‘I can’t be sexist, my daughter’s a woman’, the ‘we are still animals, so we can’t help it’ or the ‘I’ve been maligned by a woman at work too’ do not speak of understanding a woman’s experience of sexism) and I think the nature of the article helped to stimulate rather than discourage that.

    I can’t speak for women (actually that’s not true, I do it all the time) but we men all (yes, all) demonstrate sexist behaviour to an extent, and quite often. It is culturally established, which is an explanation and not a permission. It’s quite refreshing to be able to say in public that I can be sexist. I think it says something about the nature of the group that I’m communicating with here that I feel confident to say that without fear of reprisal (or at least confident about discussing strongly held responses). I think that possibility is available elsewhere in private but the more public aspects of the debate about sexism is not necessarily helping.

    I have read in recent months challenges to men by high profile female journalists to join the debate about sexism. I’ve always felt silenced by that challenge which I’ve experienced as provocation, because provocation is typically, as I have said above, emotional rather than rational and I find myself at a loss for words (not to mention quite hugely disempowered). It has been a useful experience on which to reflect about sexism and power.

    To enter a debate from a position of emotion requires support and/or huge confidence both because the expression of emotion is widely derided (hence its frequent emergence in such debates, if at all, as resentment or outrage rather than as anger) and because it is only in the expression of emotion that we find the language to join a debate on intellectual and equal terms.

    Ironically, it is, I feel, men’s incapacity to express the genuine, lived experience of being sexist that stymies debate about sexism in general. I feel confident that within the community that is developing here we are getting closer to being able to have that conversation but I think we need to think carefully about how we make that happen.

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