I’ve been meaning to write this post for months and as today is International Day of the Girl, it seems a good time to do it. I don’t want my daughter to ever have to feel second to anyone else, especially not based on her sex. It’s time that men and women made a stand against the blatant sexism that is experienced on an everyday basis.
To be honest, I think I’ve been sheltered from sexism for years. Okay, an occasional sales rep will ask “is the boss around?” and as they get short shrift, they soon learn.However, as I’m self employed in an occupation that doesn’t involve meeting too many people, I genuinely haven’t come across it much. I wrote a column for the Scottish Farmer months ago about the different attitudes I encountered within a single week on the farm:
- Our elderly vet offering his hand as I clambered over a gate to calves and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of chivalry and good manners. I did wonder how he might react if I helped him, given his age, but he’s pretty strong, hale and hearty still.
- Lorryman saying “fair play to you” when he saw me carrying large buckets full of milk to calves but the tone was kind of admiring. As he then said he’d heard me talking on the radio a couple of weeks before, he seemed impressed that I could walk the talk!
- The sales man who wouldn’t discuss business with me when Brian pointed out I was the boss. “Ah, but you still wear the trousers” was his defeated and forlorn response to Brian as he drove away.
I have encountered the occasional dismissive attitude from individuals and I suppose it was because they thought I was a “mere woman”. In hindsight, I didn’t deal with them as I should have done. As I didn’t have to stay in the person’s company, I usually just thought “you silly insecure little man” to myself and walked away. I saw it as not being my problem but their problem if they were that obnoxious.
Then, last November, something happened to make me realise that there are still a ridiculously large number of sexist people out there, people who act like it is still the 1950s, even people who are younger than me, people who are educated and should know better, people who need to be taught a lesson.
I refer to this incident in my third book under the section “How to deal with sexism” and yes, I’m presuming that the ideal farm husband is not sexist and is willing to act to change attitudes.
When Brian and I were considering transferring our farm to a company, it involved lots of looking at numbers and gnashing of teeth. It was going to cost a lot of money and involve tons of paperwork, it couldn’t be reversed so it wasn’t a decision to take lightly. Our accountant is brilliant: efficient, sensible, speaks English, communicates well and has always given good advice. He suggested that the three of us visit a chartered accountant who was more experienced in these matters and get his /her advice. So we did.
Within 30 seconds of greeting Mr ASS, I knew something was up. I was sitting directly opposite him, Brian to my left and our accountant to my right. Yet, Mr ASS, after the initial shaking of hands, wasn’t including me in the conversation nor making eye contact.
Me (thinking): Maybe he doesn’t realise I own most of the land, does he think I’m a housewife or something, FFS.
Me (saying): Have you read what N sent you? I own most of the land we are planning on transferring.
Him (glancing at me): Yes, I know
And so it went on for a while. He only glanced at me if I asked him a direct question. At one point, Brian leaned over towards me and I leaned to the left so our heads were almost touching. It was a test to see if Mr ASS would include me in his eye contact when our heads were that close and he still didn’t do so.
My thought processes were going like this:
Should I say something? I don’t want to embarrass N.
Oh, he did glance at me there, maybe I’m imagining it. Am paying this guy, I’d better concentrate on what he’s saying.
No, I’m definitely not imagining it. I wonder if he has something against women. Maybe he has ADHD or Asberger’s or something. Maybe a woman tortured him when he was 5. Maybe it’s the Oedipal complex, what did Oedipus want to do to his mother – did he want to kill her? Or did he want to have sex with her? Oh, flip, not going there. Concentrate, Lorna, concentrate. Oh, will I say something, ask him does he realise he’s being rude?
I wonder if there is a candid camera here recording my reaction. This can’t be really happening. Are there really professionals who deal with both sexes still acting like this? For goodness sake, he’s younger than me. I hope he isn’t married. He must have a problem with women. Should I be feeling sorry for him? Or maybe I have dirt on my face? Maybe I remind him of someone. Oh, this is ridiculous. Concentrate Lorna, this information is important. It’s what we’re paying this ass for.
We left, it was on the tip of my tongue to say something, I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t saying anything. As we walked out, I turned to the two others and asked if I imagined it. Both shook their heads. Our accountant was mortified, he didn’t know what to say. Brian had been sitting there wondering the same thing and waiting for me to explode.
What really made me cross was that while I’m fairly confident, and I walked out of there with the attitude that Mr ASS was the one with the problem, I felt that a less confident woman would feel, justifiably, that she had just been treated like she was a little woman, there to agree with everyone and everything.
I shared it on my Facebook page later and understandably, many people were surprised that I hadn’t said anything in the meeting. I’m usually fairly outspoken and fiery after all. Lots of people shared their experiences and it’s quite common that women are ignored when a couple go to car dealerships, talking to builders or yes, other accountants, even the IFA.
I decided to wait until I got the bill before I sent a letter of complaint, Christmas was coming, we were going on holidays and I really wasn’t in the mood. In mid January, a letter plopped on the mat addressed to Mr Brian James with Private and Confidential written across it. Now, anyone who lives in a farming household (or who has read my second book How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife) will know that farm wives are so efficient with paperwork they can (allegedly) forge husbands’ signatures and most deal with all the post. I opened it to find that Mr ASS’s secretary had sent the invoice to both of us (as was correct) but Mr ASS had addressed his letter to Brian only. More evidence of his sexism. By the way, Mr ASS wasn’t in his 70s, I’d say he was in his early to mid 40s so age definitely wasn’t an excuse. He wasn’t born in the 1950s.
I sent a letter detailing all the examples of his sexism and received a passive aggressive one in return. Basically he denied it in such a way as to suggest it was all in my imagination. I wasn’t going to get anywhere (beyond telling everyone I know in the area never to use the services of his company) so I copied all the letters to the senior director of the company and told him that with 5 male directors and no female directors in the company, they clearly had a problem.
So, what can we do about people like this? Well, a friend who encountered a sexist accountant with her husband said that she put him down with sly comments. While I commend her for doing so (and it was much more than I did), it still doesn’t drive home that he was sexist. (I don’t want to give accountants a bad name but there’s at least two sexist ones in the same town!) I think we have to deal with the situation in the here and now, right there when it is happening. I don’t want to go down the route of political correctness going mad but if a man was to treat my daughter like I was treated that day, I’d probably have kneecapped him with something, yet I let it happen to myself.
A woman is perfectly capable of complaining and standing up for herself but as I discovered, she tends to be treated like she’s hysterical and over-reacting. Brian and I agreed afterwards, in hindsight, that we should have stood up and left that meeting, explaining clearly why we weren’t going to sit there when one of us was being insulted like that. I do think all couples should have a five minute conversation about what they will do if they encounter someone who is sexist, and hopefully they will make it clear that the person is losing their business because of their attitude. Once businesses wake up to the fact that staff with sexist attitudes are costing them money through lost sales, things should change.
I was at a historical agricultural conference in the RDS a few weeks ago which had a focus on “Reassessing the History of Agriculture in Ireland” so one would expect it to be somewhat revisionist. Given that women were largely hidden in Irish agricultural history by many historians (although I want to give a shoutout to Mervyn Watson and Jonathan Bell here who included sections of women and farming in many of their books), I was curious to see if there was going to be much focus on women. There was one female chair and three female speakers before lunch if I remember correctly. I was just about to ask a question stemming from one speaker commenting on the fact that agricultural advisors often mentioned that if they got ten minutes chat with the farmer’s wife, they knew they would persuade the farmer to change his farming methods for the better when a gentleman in his 70s raised his hand. He asked why, when we were over half way through the conference, having heard six talks, had we only heard four references to women? He went on to argue his point and one person on the panel commented that there was research into women in agriculture by Joanne Bourke but they couldn’t think of the name of the book. I was able to inform them of that. However, I know that if I had made the same comment as this gentleman, that there were people there who would have tossed their heads and thought “would you listen to yer one off on one again” but the fact it was a man, I’d say he was a retired academic, who asked the question – well, it seemed to carry more weight.
When I spoke to him briefly at lunch, he told me that he has four daughters and he’s doing it for them.
We don’t often do these things for ourselves. For some reason, we let others do not-so-nice things to us sometimes but if someone does it to someone we love and want to protect, well, the tiger comes out.
If not for ourselves, we all have to act when we see anyone being treated in a sexist, racist or homophobic way. How else will things change?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you were treated in a sexist way and how you reacted.