How should the Liberal Democrats deal with everyday sexism?

Today’s Daily Mail has an article making various allegations of sexist attitudes towards women within the Liberal Democrats. They’ve been running similar stories all week following the Rock the Boat fringe meeting earlier. One particular woman candidate says that she was told by someone in her local party not to get pregnant because “we don’t want a baby hanging of your t**s.”

The Daily Mail is an unlikely feminist champion, but that shouldn’t detract from the need to tackle such behaviour, which includes inappropriate questions to female candidates during the selection process about their relationships or their plans to have children.

Such allegations, sadly, ring true with me. In one particular selection I know of, two of the candidates, one a man, one a woman, had children born within a few months of each other. Take a wild guess as to which of them were asked about their childcare arrangements.  Even women whose children had left home were not immune from such questioning.

The response by the Party was not entirely helpful. A party spokesperson said:

Questions of this sort should be ruled out by the returning officer.

That’s all very well, but these questions aren’t asked in hustings meetings. Our selection process involves candidates going round members’ houses to visit them and it’s during these one on one  meetings where they find themselves under scrutiny that men just don’t get. Layla Moran, our PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon told me:

It is shocking to me and deeply offensive that I have to divulge aspects of my personal life to get a job I have applied for. I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t think I could manage it all.

So how do we tackle that? The Party Spokesman was a bit more helpful here:

We are implementing reforms to tackle unconscious bias and discrimination at every level of the party.

That’s all well and good, and will certainly help. I do wonder, though, whether members be warned in the notification about the selection process that such questions are against the law and should not be asked. How do we change the underlying culture, though?

The Daily Mail report goes on to quote Baroness Lindsay Northover’s shock at a colleague’s comments criticising Jo Swinson for becoming pregnant while a minister. In the Commons, David Ward was suspended for a time for comments, albeit made in public, about Israeli/Palestinian issues. I know the Lords is a much more genteel place, but our peers need to know that expressing such views, even in private, is highly inappropriate. If they don’t understand why, they need to be taken by the hand and led very gently into the 21st century. And if that doesn’t work, we need to think about whether they should be allowed to be representatives of the party in Parliament at all. After all, they do have a vote on laws that we’re all expected to obey.

This party, like any other, is not immune from the sort of sexism you find in the rest of society. If we believe in equality, though,  we should take practical action to tackle it wherever we find it within our ranks.  Our leaders across the UK set a very good example in terms of their outlook on life. Nick Clegg championing shared parental leave is a huge asset and will do much to change expectations for the next generation but we can’t afford to wait that long.

I don’t think women should be put off from taking an active part in the Liberal Democrats nor from seeking nomination as a candidate. By and large, the experience is a positive one. We need to make sure, though,  that we are the best that we can possibly be. For that reason, the candidates’ office, returning officers and those responsible for selections need to look at today’s stories and work out, calmly and reasonably, what changes need to be made. We may not have anybody in our ranks who suggests that wearing trousers is a hostile act, but, there is much we can do to improve our attitudes and procedures.

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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46 Comments

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Sep '13 - 11:29am

    Not tackling “everyday sexism” is as bad as not robustly tackling other forms of intolerance such as homophobia, racism and not making the Party more accessible to those with other access issues.

    Until the Party as a whole truly starts to tackle “everyday sexism” in an adult and educated manner then all of the other forms of bigotry will remain sidelined for ‘others’ to deal with, and hence remain alive and well.

    For sexism to be overcome it will require the majority of the Party (that happen to be men) to reflect on their own words and deeds, and start to take action. In twenty plus years of being actively involved in equality issues, I am still amazed that championing and advocating for equality issues it is generally left to the potential and/or the actual victims of abuse to bring about change, when they generally not possess the true power and influence to make change.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '13 - 11:36am

    We should work together to reduce sexism and the best way to do that would be to open up the everyday sexism campaign to attitudes against men as well as attitudes against women. I find the everyday sexism campaign offensive because it makes out that men’s concerns are inferior and it also paints a negative and false stereotype of us.

    Men and women should work together to reduce all prejudices, not segregate, divide and attack each other.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 12:11pm

    I would say that there’s something wrong with your selection process if it “involves candidates going round members’ houses to visit them “. That sounds like an activity that is far too personal for what is effectively just a job interview, and far too un-monitored, with virtually no checks on possible of unfair pressure and even corruption.

    With Rennard and no heads rolled and the kinds of remarks reported in the Daily Maul, it’s frankly no wonder at all that the party is unattractive to huge sections of society, such as many women, it seems.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/10117845/Lord-Rennard-sex-scandal-why-have-no-heads-rolled.html

  • lloyd harris 19th Sep '13 - 12:50pm

    I am on a selection committee and in non-target seats I think only two of the committee need to be trained, in target seats I think it is everybody.
    However the returning officer has to be present at every candidate interview to make sure the process is fair and complies with all the rules.
    Once someone gets the job – controlling the stupid comments a member or helper might say is a lot harder, especially as the new rules following the morrisy report seemed to concentrate on Westminster and not local parties and council groups.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Sep '13 - 1:29pm

    Lloyd, the new constitutional amendment passed on Sunday might help with that – members will need to be aware of their duties in that regard.

    It says: As a Member of the Liberal Democrats, you must treat others with respect and must not bully,
    harass or intimidate any Party member, member of Party staff, member of Parliamentary staff,
    Party volunteer or member of the public. Such behaviour will be considered to be bringing the
    Party into disrepute.

    It should be made clear that sexist, homophobic, racist comments could be dealt with under this clause. In practice, I prefer to give people a chance, a quiet word rather than a nuclear option, to learn why their comment was bad, but if people persist, then we need stronger action.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Sep '13 - 1:31pm

    Eddie, the Everyday Sexism campaign provides in mine and many other women’s view a fairly accurate view of what women have to put up with. And the thing is, these attitudes hamper women’s professional and social lives. I don’t see men being affected in that way.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Sep '13 - 1:34pm

    Ruwan, of course you are right – we need to tackle prejudice in whatever form we find it. I often find, though, that people who make sexist comments and the like aren’t bad people – and often they don’t realise what they’re doing. There used to be a man way back who felt it was his job, every time I opened my mouth, to interrupt me. When I spoke to him, very gently, about it, he was shocked because he hadn’t realised it. And after that we got on fine.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '13 - 2:32pm

    Caron, I can assure you that men have to put up with sexism too, in our social and professional lives, in every area of our life, just like women. Campaigns to reduce sexism cannot start with the assumption that men are sexist and women aren’t. It hurts me to see men being painted in a negative light, so I know how it must feel for women too. This makes me want to engage, but only if men’s concerns are addressed too.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Sep '13 - 3:43pm

    Simon Shaw – so you think the current allegations are far-fetched. I really did NOT want to raise this again (I already have in LDV and Liberator) but in 2006 as a PPC I sat in a Lib Dem council group meeting where a councillor said that a Tory councillor was “a cow and should be milked” he went on to discuss whether or not she wore a thong. On another occasion the breast size (deemed inadequately small) of two Lib Dem councillors was discussed at a branch meeting.

    I had let so much of this stuff go over the years but at a campaign meeting in 2006 I complained bitterly to the Chair of the local party. Simon Shaw I will happily show you (I have been too stupidly loyal to the party to publish it) the text of the e-mail from my local party Chair criticizing me for my “outburst” about the matter.

  • Ruth Bright 19th Sep '13 - 4:56pm

    Simon, I have read the report and it rings true. Expecting the public to understand the difference between a senior figure in a local party and “the” party is ridiculous.

    I had two babies during my five years as a PPC. I was in my late 30s having devoted most of my late teens, twenties and earlier thirties to the party. A councillor I had not seen for a while (unbelievably a man with grandchildren) when he saw my second bump said: “Oh no not another one”, as if I did nothing but produce babies! Variations on this reaction were common.

    At six weeks I took my son to Conference in Brighton it was a positive experience but when I breastfed in the dressing area of a bathroom in The Grand a senior woman said to me: “every time I see you Ruth you are feeding that baby”. I am sure she did not mean to be unkind but it was sad to contrast her embarrassment with the warmth I got from my community and the electorate for being a young(ish) Mum in politics.

    People go to the Mail or Channel 4 as no-one within the party listens. I have only ever written about this to Tim Farron, Helena Morrissey, LDV and Liberator and my concerns have never been addressed.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Sep '13 - 4:59pm

    Simon, I take your point and have amended the wording to read “someone in her local party.” However, I was a little surprised that that was the focus of your comments and not the outrageous thing that was said to this woman. I can’t imagine you would condone such a thing, surely?

  • Candy Piercy 19th Sep '13 - 5:41pm

    It turns out that the peer referred to by Lindsey Northover was not a Lib Dem. We all have to be so careful about talking to the press. (The one who complained about Jo Swinson becoming pregnant whilst a Minister).
    However there is some truth in what the Mail said.
    These questions are being asked of women candidates in selection camapigns.
    And we cannot train every member in every seat in the principles of unconscious bias before we let them join! So we need to change the culture in politics and in the population at large!

  • David Allworthy 19th Sep '13 - 8:23pm

    A strong reminder has been sent to all Returning Officers to remove any selection committee members making such unacceptable comments today. Local parties will be written to about the Constitutional amendment and members responsibilities under the members code of conduct next week when I am back in the office.

  • “However, I was a little surprised that that was the focus of your comments and not the outrageous thing that was said to this woman”

    Isn’t that an absolutely standard feature of our tribal politics, though? When people in the same party are criticised, the party loyalist seeks to divert attention from the criticism by attacking the critic …

  • Eddie the everyday sexism campaign, as you would know if you paid close attention to it, regularly features contributions from men, just not as regularly as from women because it doesn’t happen to men as often.

    Also the vast vast majority of the sexist things that hurt men are as a result of the same sexism that hurts women. The one I see bandied around most often is women getting disproportionate access to children in divorce cases – this is because women are seen as the “natural” child rearers because of sexism against women.

    I agree with Ruwan in the first comment. We need to sort out ALL forms of institutionalised prejudice.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 9:57am

    Jennie I don’t have an opinion on the childcare and divorce thing. How can anyone defend the Guardian saying things such as “The Notting Hill carnival would be fine if it wasn’t for the drunken white men”. There are plenty of media outlets among the left who are trying to turn people’s anger against white men.

    Another example from the Guardian in the same article spoke about “uncles with backwards attitudes”.
    Another example from the Guardian: “it is the duty of mother’s to protect their daughters from their father’s” – with regards to FGM.

    New Statesman tries to make out we are rapist and bangs on about a rape culture among men. During the Question Time based in London with Russell Brand on and the whole audience started saying the financial crisis was because men are reckless and dishonest.

    I don’t mind the odd comment, but the Guardian and the New Statesman have got it in for white men and I see their attitudes being copied by others. I have written to both of them to complain, but they didn’t reply.

    The headline of this article made out it was about sexism, but then it spoke only about sexism against women and didn’t mention sexism against men, as if it does not exist and now talking about sexism only refers to sexism against women.

    It’s disgusting.

  • One of the biggest elements of institutional anti-male sexism is that women get up to a year’s maternity leave and men get 2 weeks.

  • David Pollard 20th Sep '13 - 10:19am

    It should be a rule of LibDem voice that no Post should be based on an article in the Daily Mail without 3rd party verification.

  • @R Uduwerage-Perera – “For sexism to be overcome it will require the majority of the Party (that happen to be men) to reflect on their own words and deeds”

    One of the problems with “everyday xyz” is that we are typically unaware of how others interpret what we say and do. I’ve found that polite, but direct and specific comments; like you have at times said about some of my comments on LDV, do greatly assist in encouraging people to be more aware of their own words and deeds and more effective than much of what passes for ‘diversity’ training.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Sep '13 - 12:19pm

    Nobody expects Daily Mail articles to be anything other than slanted against the Liberal Democrats, but we have a right to expect our party not to tolerate sexism, racism, homophobia and the like. We do have a case to answer and I’d say that many women could give similar examples of poor and sexist treatment as Ruth has done.

    Maybe the focus should be on that?

  • Tabman: This would be why the party has made transferable parental leave law.

    Eddie: you misunderstand the concept of rape culture. It’s not blaming men, it’s systemic in the whole of society.

  • If I get asked these questions when running for a selection, what would members in this thread advise I reply?

  • David Allworthy 20th Sep '13 - 1:21pm

    Louise: Report it to the Returning Officer as a breach of the rules and Report it to the Local Party Chair as a breach of the members code of conduct.

  • Julian Tisi 20th Sep '13 - 1:46pm

    From the revelations above (particularly from Candy Piercy) it appears that the Mail story on which this article is based is completely wrong and nothing more than a Lib Dem slur. We should point this out – it isn’t fair to slur the Lib Dems unfairly or allow a blatant error to go unanswered in this way.

    However, the key point of the article above is of course absolutely right. Everyday sexism is a real problem in society at large and needs to be tackled. But I agree with Eddie Sammon that it isn’t just a problem with men being sexist against women. The whole point of everyday sexism surely is that this is socially acceptable sexism, the sexism that people don’t always think of as sexism. For example, I’ve come across a number of men who are bullied or otherwise denigrated for being “pathetic”. Just turn on the TV and see how common the stereotype pathetic man is – in sitcoms or adverts. I find it hard to believe there isn’t some level of cause and effect here.

  • daft ha'p'orth 20th Sep '13 - 2:09pm

    @Eddie Sammon
    You have a point . Everyday sexism goes both ways. However, in order to avoid vulnerability to accusations of whataboutery it would probably also be useful to acknowledge that within the context defined by the article text – attitudes to women within the organisational structures of political parties – the examples given by Caron are apropos.

    The headline should reflect the content of the article, as this article is clearly not about the Liberal Democrat approach to tackling everyday sexism in the broader sense. And maybe there should be a broader discussion about handling everyday prejudice and sexism in all its manifestations, including points you have brought up…

  • daft ha'p'orth 20th Sep '13 - 2:34pm

    @Jennie
    “Eddie: you misunderstand the concept of rape culture. It’s not blaming men, it’s systemic in the whole of society.”
    True that (then again, that might be a sign that the language used by the publications Eddie identifies is not very accessibly presented, which is something they might want to work on…) Outside of that , though, the examples he gives (‘uncles with backwards attitudes’ etc) are lazy, incomplete, stereotype-laden analyses. Which is not exactly rare in journalism and it is never good…

  • @Lousie
    I think it depends upon the circumstances of the interview. For example, if a candidate turned up to an interview with a child or raises questions about working around a family, then I think it would be in order to question about their intentions for childcare, thus giving the candidate an opportunity to display their planning and organisational skills. But to ask without cause would be inappropriate.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 5:52pm

    Louise, to answer your question: “If I get asked these questions when running for a selection, what would members in this thread advise I reply?”

    I think the best approach is to be honest and not answer anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Report someone if you feel they have overstepped the mark, but I would say that reporting people alone isn’t going to change attitudes. In order to change attitudes I think it needs to be explained that the positives of voting for women, such as having a diverse and representative parliament, cancel out the negatives (risk of maternity leave). Politely pointing this out is the only way to change attitudes (and win votes!). A positive and understanding approach to changing attitudes is going to be far more effective than a hostile and defensive one.

    daft ha’p’orth, thanks for your support over my concerns. Yes I would normally take something in the context it is written in, but this is not the first time where Liberal Democrats have spoken about sexism and failed to mention sexism against men too.

    Jenny and daft ha’p’orth, yes I am sure the term isn’t meant to be offensive (rape culture) and I agree I think this is a problem of a use of language, which puts people off reading about it further. Plus most people don’t have time to read exactly what rape culture means.

    My bigger problem with the Guardian and the New Statesman is not one of language, but of selective reporting. Regularly reporting negative statistics or articles about men, whilst failing to balance this with positive statistics or articles about men, or even negative statistics or articles about women, set’s a theme that plays on negative prejudices and makes them larger. Many people do this to make money, such as The Daily Mail, and I think we should tackle it wherever it occurs.

  • Helen Dudden 22nd Sep '13 - 9:22am

    You do have a highly pregnant Minister now.

    I find it sad that restrictions are being placed on women. I have had two children and not had problems with getting on with my life. I was even widowed at the age of 30 years, not something that you can control

  • Ruth Bright 22nd Sep '13 - 1:24pm

    Eddie – why is maternity leave a negative? I am sure Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave helped enrich her knowledge of the real responsibilities of families and parents far more than the drivel talked in Westminster by all the parties about “hard-working families”.

  • Helen Dudden 22nd Sep '13 - 4:43pm

    Motherhood certainly teaches you something, I agree with the above post. You are caring for another human being that you carried inside you for 9 months, in it self, a very special thing to do.

    Yes, I totally agree with the above post.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '13 - 5:31pm

    Ruth, good point. Maternity leave is a positive, but there are negative aspects to it and these concerns need addressing, such as you did with me then. :)

    Above all we need to address gender issues in a positive manner and not attack people for having genuine concerns.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 22nd Sep '13 - 10:28pm

    To all those colleagues who are disputing sources etc, please just accept that sexism is alive and well in our Party as are other intolerant opinions. As a former police officer I am a trained sceptic, but I have over the years had to accept in the field of equality and diversity that the lack of evidence does not mean that something untoward has not and is not happening.

    Compared with the other major political parties, and certainly compared with the public sector we are years behind regarding our awareness and sadly our acceptance of equality and diversity issues. The difference is that the core LibDem values will assist the Party to more easily change! but for this to happen we would benefit from moving beyond espousing fine rhetoric and into action and accepting that perceptions and reality are interchangeable at times, but they are equally damaging.

    I commend everyone in our Party to become a little more intolerant towards intolerance.

    Along with others in the Party I am more than happy to assist individuals and groups to realise just how simple it really is to be more inclusive. The benefits of change will I promise be immensely positive for our Party.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera

    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '13 - 11:01pm

    Ruwan, one of my problems with being overly intolerant towards intolerance is that I think it drives people into the hands of “the right”. If we attack people who have genuine concerns or prejudices, whilst other party’s are being sympathetic, then they might spurn us, fall into their hands and then become even more intolerant.

    I’m not a fan of extremism or absolutism, so I think attacking people (not literally!) spreading intolerance is fine, but I think this needs to be mixed with positive dialogue in order to attract people into our camp and create a happier society.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Sep '13 - 11:11pm

    @R Uduwerage-Perera

    I guess most of us are guilty of some of these terrible things sometimes – – sexism, racism, ageism, etc . Is there any information online about what they are, how to recognize them in oneself and others, on how to avoid them personally and in party interactions, while not constraining rational and realistic debate?

    Maybe someone could provide some information on the LibDem website? Or via articles on LDV?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 23rd Sep '13 - 8:25pm

    Hi Richard,

    Feel free to contact me via [email protected] if you have any specific requests as I am more than happy to assist. A number of us are actually revamping the Diversity Training in line with the need for meaningful outcomes , so your thoughts as well as those of others will be taken into account.

    I would appreciate the thoughts of any members as to what they wish included in future equality and diversity training, so please send your thoughts to me.

    Yours

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • Richard Dean 23rd Sep '13 - 9:00pm

    @R Uduwerage-Perera

    Many thanks. My first specific request would be for you to put your diversity training on the internet – do you use things like Moodle? (https://moodle.org/ , http://moodle.com/ ).

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 26th Sep '13 - 3:42pm

    Richard,

    The internet is a wonderful resource and I spend a huge amount of time involved in using it for research so I am pretty convinced of its benefits, but what it does not do is ‘get up and personal’ and ask probing questions.

    Any future training will take advantage of the internet I can assure you, but allowing the viewers possibility of accessing real people who have knowledge, understanding, and skills is also vitally important, for most people will have specific questions that need to be answered for the learning to mean something to them.

    As a trainer in this area amongst others, I am aware of the benefits gained by people sharing in an experience in a training session when they are physically together. This additional learning is often the most important aspect, and this is difficult to duplicate when training is offered only virtually.

    Please anyone feel free to contribute your thoughts as to the content of the training and the method of delivery, for if it is to be successful then then variations of both are necessary.

    Yours

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

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