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.
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?
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…