14 Apr 2016

Sexism and the sisterhood in the corridors of power

So much for the sisterhood.

When the political journalist Isabel Hardman complained to the whips about an MP calling her “totty”, I thought she’d done exactly the right thing.

She didn’t name the man who’d offended her, but passed his name to a whip, who gave him a well-deserved dressing-down, leaving the MP, in Hardman’s words, “contrite”.  Job done.

Why then after her parliamentary lobby colleague took such a principled stand against the sexism that sadly still permeates Parliament did the Daily Mail’s political editor at large Isabel Oakeshott feel the need to give her a piece of her mind?

In a frankly poisonous article, Ms Oakeshott accused her of “running to teacher to tell tales”, a “humourless” response, and “attention-seeking”. Ouch.

And she informed Ms Hardman: “she certainly does not speak for me.”

Well I regret to inform Ms Oakeshott, that Ms Hardman does speak for me, and I suspect a great many other female journalists.

So many of us have been forced to put up with sexism in Westminster – the lascivious texts from a well-known peer; the “noble Lord” whose hand found its way to my bottom in a crowded bar; and the select committee chairman who assumed I was a secretary because I was the only woman in the room.

I never complained about any of it when I was working in the lobby five years ago. But I wish I had. It reflects badly on me that I didn’t.

Yes this was a relatively “trivial incident”, as Ms Oakeshott puts it.

But if this kind of low-level harassment is tolerated, the culture will never change. Women will be belittled, undermined and shown no respect. They won’t be equal citizens in male-dominated workplaces like the lobby, let alone securing the top jobs and equal pay.

Ms Oakeshott suggested Ms Hardman should have taken the errant MP to task in person. But why should she become embroiled in a spat face-to-face? Far better to make a formal complaint, and keep it professional.

She even opined that her colleague “should have been pleased” the MP took a fancy to her. As if female political journalists are part of a beauty pageant, rated for their looks rather than their professional skill. “If a handful of male MPs are a little more forthcoming because we wear skirts, who are we to complain?” she wrote.

I for one would be the first to complain if it was judged I’d built my career on my wardrobe rather than my ability. And I’m sure my male colleagues would have something to say about that too.

This might seem like a storm in a Westminster tea-cup, but it’s symptomatic of what women are subjected to up and down the land.

Campaigns like the “everyday sexism” hashtag have done wonders for naming and shaming inappropriate behaviour and more. So it’s a shame that one senior journalist tries to turn back the clock.

I’m with Isabel on this…Isabel Hardman.

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18 reader comments

  1. Toby Sargent says:

    Very well said. Don’t beat yourself up about not speaking out when you were the victim though. It’s all about context and prevailing culture – IH was brave to speak out, yes, but she was moving with the grain of popular opinion. Back in the day when you were in that place it was much harder, and 20 years before that a complainant would have been ostracised out of the job. IO is a fine journalist and a powerful player but her position here is wrong, and all the more so for making the point publicly, rather than in private.

  2. Steve says:

    Well said. Hardman is one of the best journos in Britain at the moment. Oakshott knows the right (wrong) people.

  3. Vicky Seddon says:

    Well said Cathy!

  4. Ronnie Duxon says:

    She should have kicked him in his balks and bugger the Whip

  5. Jo Neale says:

    I cannot agree more with you Cathy, having just watched Isabel O on ch4 news essentially say that she would do whatever it takes to get what she needs out of MPs, I’m literally gobsmacked. How can she expect to be treated with respect or creditability if her morals are so completely absent? Isabel H did the right thing, there should be zero tolerance of casual sexism, if you tolerate a bit of bum pinching here and there then where is the line? Isabel O should be ashamed of herself for sending out the message that it’s ok to treat women in this way. Maybe she’s happy to debase herself but I’m hoping the majority of the female population is not.

    1. Jack says:

      Perhaps this lady should have had a gran like I did?
      Long before women`s Lib and the “Equality” push, she was not to be messed with, but did not seek sympathy or “engage” with like minded folk! If you messed with her…beware..she would let you know…and how…she did not turn to a “womens Group” but the street where she lived called her for help!
      Of course, that was when women were thought to be “under respected” which is why the Liberation Movement was begun!
      As I remember her as a small boy,I recall she never needed help from anyone to deal with anything let alone discrimination…no-one dared speak rashly to or around her!!
      I watched with fascination during my visits with Mum, who was a chip off the old block….which is where I get my impatience for women needing “groups”to run to so THEY can stand her corner for her!!
      I am glad the repoerter spoke out in her most public reply on this topic.
      Keep up the coverage!!

  6. Debi says:

    Exactly right. How tragic that articles likes Oakeshott’s still get published still laden with all the patriarchal stereotypes. We are aware of the damage and untruth of these stereotypes but what else can we expect from the Daily Fail…

  7. smilingvulture says:

    Calling someone humourless because they felt uneasy,awkward,offended while carrying out professional job?

  8. H Statton says:

    A selection of quotations from the man that wants to ‘rule’ America:

    “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?”

    “A person who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.”

    “You know it doesn’t really matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

    “If Hilary can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

    “A man with a very small package has a hard time being a 10.”

    “All of the men on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

    “It’s certainly not ground breaking news that the early victories by the men on ‘The Apprentice’ were, to a very large extent, dependent on their sex appeal.”

    I think Isabel Oakeshott has got it wrong on this one. Compliments are a great thing, but I’m pretty sure that most people would prefer to be valued and respected for who they are and the work they do as opposed to what they look like.

    Nice pair of threepenny bits, or a fine journalist of the utmost integrity; a consummate professional?

    1. jack says:

      At least none of these alleged comments are political platitudes!
      In the USA, he is a Man, and over there it is fair game to blame him for even the rotation of the Earth!! The LEFT and Wimmins groups have spoken…It is called political Correctness.

      I see the same media skipped swiftly over the critical comments ref Hillary vis a vis the FBI and the American media!

      Seems like Obama is desperate to get another Democrat in the WH, after his partisan speech on Sunday . I thought that the Head of State was supposed to keep ABOVE the political fray to show that positions complete neutrality, and to indicate constitutional fairness.
      Obama may as well write yet another Exec Order and take another term, which would GUARANTEE a Democrat in the WH, but maybe be a mite Partial after his 8 years in office??!!

  9. Virginia says:

    Well said Cathy! It’s a sad state of affairs that Oakshott made both Channel 4 News and Newsnight on Thursday in personal appearances. Probably Hardman herself had no desire to ‘make too much of it’ as Oakshott accused her of doing. Oakshott got more attention than Hardman, which, she seemed to have eagerly courted. Did that irony escape her, I wonder?

  10. L. V. Hauser says:

    Thanks for the post, Cathy! The words we use reflect our underlying attitudes so have weight and consequence. It’s encouraging to me that IH believes it’s not ok to put up with bad behaviour and find it mind-boggling that IO believes this behaviour should be tolerated within a professional environment. Might she be suffering from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome? Or just got so used to the prevailing status quo that things like having your bottom pinched is ‘just another day at the office’? It says a lot about how far we still have to go before gender is simply not an item in the professional equation. And it seems to me that it is only by people taking IH’s approach that progress will be made.

  11. anon says:

    would the MP concerned be ok about someone saying this to a member of his family?

  12. Lesley McLeod says:

    When I met Cathy first I was a government press officer and low grade sexism went way beyond the Division Bell into most departments. But it wasn’t just from men. I’ll never forget being told by a senior female civil servant that clever women didn’t wear lipstick it was only for, ‘admin grades’.

    1. Jack says:

      How is a comment of opinion from one WOMAN to another “demeaning”

      Forced marriage and FMG is demeaning but few women ever raise heads above feminists parapet for THEM!! Why not.
      Time these women stodd up for rEAL values as women USED TO!!

  13. Ruth Watkins says:

    Well said Cathy. Im with you.
    IO deliberately chasing controversy for her own gain.
    Expose ‘isms’ every time

  14. Andrew Dundas says:

    Of course all sexism is wrong. All unreasonable discrimination is wrong. People should be judged on ability not their gender or race. Or any other criteria.
    But what about the discrimination against older workers? What about the ganging up against the employment of men?
    Is that wrong too?

  15. Alexis says:

    Cathy Newman… Nail.on.head.

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