#EverydaySexism in Local Government

I’ve been meaning to write my first blog for ages. Inspired by the recent events, I’ve decided I had to write it now, and about the sexism I faced while working in local government. Coincidentally (or perhaps not entirely?) my female friends and I have all since left our jobs in this local authority, which will remain nameless, although you can probably work it out based on my tweeting patterns. I’m @lizzyswoodfield. 


I believe that sexism is rife in local government.  In my relatively short time working in one local authority it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that sexism was a daily problem for me. It came from many different angles and ranged from the kind of inadvertent cringey career limiting sexism that was the constant assumption that this nice young girl is here to take your minutes, to being sexually harassed by fellow employees on my way in to work,  to the more sinister and outrageous being-felt-up-by-the-drunk-councillor-old-enough-to-be-my-granddad-at-a-work-event-in-front-of-the-HR director-who-did-nothing thing. You know, the kind of thing that makes you vom in your mouth a bit.The kind of thing that shocks you so much you have no idea how to react to it and you don’t complain or move their hand (who do you complain to btw? I’ve still not worked that one out) and then later regret that you didn’t. That kind of thing.

A bad start

I began working in local government when I was recruited onto a graduate programme.  I had high hopes about my career in local government, but was disappointed that my first posting was as a (male middle-manager’s) personal assistant. I don’t mean to suggest there is anything inherently wrong with being someone’s personal assistant, of course not, but it wasn’t what I expected, and it wasn’t what I thought I had signed up to. I asked what in particular they saw in me at interview that made them think I was suited to being a personal assistant. I was told by a female HR officer (ironically?)  ‘he wouldn’t have had one of the boys [on the graduate programme] as his assistant, it had to be a girl’. Oh dear.  I should have known then that this was a sign of things to come.

I would spend the remainder of my three years at the council unsuccessfully attempting to fend off making tea and taking minutes for others, and on the rare and welcome occasion that I was leading on a project, awkwardly having to explain that no, I’m not here to set up the meeting room, I am here to give the presentation. These awkward misunderstandings didn’t happen to my male colleagues. They weren’t ever asked to take minutes, manage somebody else’s diary, collect the post. No-one assumed they were here to bring them tea.

Ah-ha. This is old fashioned #everydaysexism, I realised. And it’s everywhere.

Oh dear it gets worse

The sexism became more pronounced, and more scary, when I was posted to a recycling and waste depot on the outskirts of the city centre. Every day I walked past huddles of male operatives. Head down. Don’t make eye contact. Wolf whistles. Beeping Horns. Laughter. ‘Smile love, it might never happen’.

As a woman who dares to leave the house and walk places, being harassed in the street by strangers is unfortunately something I am quite used to, but it happening to me at work, it being done to me by fellow council employees, that was something else.

New lows…

The most blatant case of sexism, and I think the experience that shook me the most was when the office walls were plastered with posters for the ‘unofficial Christmas party:

  ‘Meet at the pub at 8, then off to a strip club and then maybe a brothel or two’. It read.

I ripped up their posters and threw them away (well actually I recycled them, even in my rage) apart from one, which I carefully scanned, and saved on my computer. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with it, or who else would care that I was deeply offended and a bit scared by it, but I thought I should keep it just in case. Maybe just so I could look at it. Remind myself that yes, that did actually happen. I didn’t imagine it, and yep, I was right to think it was utterly unacceptable.

When is a ‘compliment’ not a compliment?

This last bit is harder for me to write about. So I’m going to put some hashtags in and keep it short…

#Isitok for a councillor to routinely comment on your figure? For him to say he’s glad it’s summer now because he likes seeing me in dresses, and he didn’t realise how  ‘svelte’ I was?

#Isitok for a drunk councillor to stroke your shoulder and arm up and down in front of the Assistant Director of HR at a council awards ceremony?

#Isitok that the Assistant Director of HR saw how uncomfortable I was and didn’t do anything about it?

#isitok that I blamed myself for wearing a one shouldered dress?

Epi(b)logue

I’ve left local government, and I don’t think I will ever go back. I work in higher education now and I am much happier. I think I am better equipped to deal with sexism in the work place, and, should it happen again, I am less likely to accept it or to blame myself.

I’ll keep you posted…

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8 thoughts on “#EverydaySexism in Local Government

  1. Wow. Goodness. Don’t quite know what to say. I think it’s true to say that a lot of men are probably blinkered when it comes to quite understand what women have to put up with. What frustrates me most here is the constant question of “What can you do!?” Even now, I want to name and shame and go to the press and get all this out there for you (I won’t, don’t worry) but what can one do?!
    As it happens, I watched “9 to 5” on Film4 the other night (If you haven’t seen it, watch it) – with Dolly Parton and a somewhat dated but still relevent look at feminism in the office and their desperate attempts to combat it.
    Anyway, I have read the above, and am shocked to say the least – not least because it’s just something that I don’t recognise in my own office. I wonder if industries where men form the majority of workforce (and occupy the top positions), sexism is more prevalent…I’d imagine so, moreso than, say, arts and media companies perhaps. This being the case, a lot needs to happen to make local government more accessible to women.
    I wish I had worked there because there is no way I would have let that go on, particuarly with regards to the strip club/brothel posters.

    Yours disgusted,

    Ant.

  2. #Isitok for two male councillors to walk into an office where two young women are working and suggest that they (the women) shouldn’t be working there on their own because the councillors could quote “do anything” to them and nobody would know?

    Excellent blog Lizzy, thanks for drawing attention to this enduring problem.

      • Excellent blog Lizzie, hope it starts to trend. Sad that such things are still happening. Many years ago I worked in a bank and expereinced similar treatment. It included being told by training officer that the bank selected female staff on looks not brains, By manager to forget doing banking quals. as female staff role was to man (sic) the tills not think they were management material. As part of a campaign us girls were asked to wear sashes that said YES… I will name the bank TSB now part of Lloyds. Keep up the good work Lizzie and hope your new career goes well. Denise x

  3. As a male working at a local authority I’m appalled by your experiences of sexism. I’m going to look out for it, ask my female colleagues about it and challenge it wherever I can.

    • Good to see a male working in public sector taking this seriously, and willing to talk to his female co-workers. As a manager in the 3rd sector (voluntary) I would hope this is not such a problem but maybe it is & I need to look further than my own organisation who take harassment of any sort extremely seriously.

    • Thanks for your comment David. Based on all the tweets and messages I’ve received from other women working in Local Government I can safely say my experiences aren’t unique – so I’m glad you’ll be looking out for it and challenging it. Please also talk to your male colleagues about it 🙂

  4. Pingback: Are all women shortlists sexist? Debatable. Are Cllr Richard Davies and Karl McCartney MP sexist? Undoubtedly. | Sexism and the Second City

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