Casual sexism undermines the drive for gender balance

“Bright, intelligent and brave” those are the words that Willie Rennie used to describe me in his speech to Conference. My direct messages on twitter were somewhat different. I had to disable the function to receive messages from anyone but my followers – but that didn’t stop those who already followed me. One man even suggested I’d made up the story for the attention. Because that’s all women’s experiences are to some men. Nothing but a ploy to get attention from men in any form of power.

The same people cry out “We need more women in politics but in a fair way and we need a meritocracy” and “We don’t need positive action, we need to encourage more women to put themselves forward”.

The fact that I am against things like all-women shortlists are not a surprise to anyone; I’ve written two pieces on the LDV on this topic before (here and here). That has not changed. All-anything shortlists are not something I agree with, I’m concerned about where they’ll end. We need more BAME candidates, we need more LGBT candidates, and yes, we need more female candidates. However, we need some BAME, LGBT female candidates also. Do we choose which part of their identity we hone in on to place them on a shortlist? Because I feel as though choosing parts of people’s identities to positively discriminate against isn’t our place to do so.

That being said, we need more women in politics.

To the gentleman at conference who said to me “Willie must have a soft spot for you. Does he not realise that men suffer from mental health issues too?” I have this to say to you. I write. I’m pretty good at it too. I wrote about a horrendous experience I had with A&E the night I severely self-harmed and felt suicidal and Willie read it. I write because I can use my voice on these issues. I use my voice for those who cannot speak above a whisper because they’re scared, because they feel nobody cares, because they fear the rejection of the people they know and love if they shout. I use my voice for those who cannot talk anymore because they’re not here, because society failed them. Do not boil it down to Willie Rennie having a “soft spot” for me. As a woman my experiences are valid and my ability to use my voice is not one you will take away from me.

To the gentleman who sat near me during the debates who said something along the lines of “When will women wake up and recognise their ‘biological duty’ and stop crying out for equality?” I don’t even know what that means. I don’t even understand how you can call yourself a ‘liberal’ with that attitude and I don’t know how you can disrespect the women in your life by having that attitude.

And finally, I’d like to address the gentleman who interrupted a conversation between me and another young female member just after the debate when we were discussing gender balance. He said “It’s a shame you girls feel like you need to work. There were more women in politics back when I joined the party when they didn’t feel the need to bother themselves with work and had time on their hands.” Not only did you rudely interrupt a conversation but in one comment you diminished the work of the likes of Alison McInnes and Jo Swinson to nothing more than “How adorable that the womenfolk want to fill their time with something”.

LDV readers, we need more women in politics. But we need to start viewing women as people. We need to stop saying things like “Positive action isn’t fair on men” when society hasn’t been fair on women for centuries. Gender balance does not create a ‘second-class citizen’ of men, it shows that we believe women are first-class citizens. Are all-women shortlists the way to achieve that? My heart would cry out no. My head on the other hand isn’t so sure anymore.

* Rebecca Plenderleith is a member in Dumbarton and blogs at Some Ramblings.

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  • Well said Becca. It is too easy for those of us who aren’t on the receiving end of such prejudice to forget that it exists.

  • John Nicholson 29th Feb '16 - 11:30am

    These sort of remarks make me ashamed to be a man. What is wrong with these people?

  • Tristan Gray 29th Feb '16 - 11:49am

    Sorry to hear about your experiences at conference. Many of us never have to experience this kind of thing, so without those like you speaking out may never notice it’s so prevalent. Thank you for writing about it

  • as an old boy of 76, I had hoped this sexist viewpoint was dying but to find it in our party is disgraceful

  • Hannah Bettsworth 29th Feb '16 - 11:59am

    I don’t know what to say – I’ve run through every colourful Spanish exclamation of anger I know in the last 5 minutes since I read this.

    Who do these men think they are? I’m just absolutely stunned.

    You’re awesome, Becca, and I’m glad to have you in our party <3

  • Elaine Bagshaw 29th Feb '16 - 12:02pm

    Brilliant article Becca and such a shame that these attitudes still exist and so often go unchallenged in this party. Well done for speaking up.

  • Thank you Rebecca for being open about your experience. It Highlighs the often invisible impact of partially reformed/ unreformed quasi-allies. Those taking the name of liberalism in vain whether inadvertently or deliberately. Who through unreasonably behaviour subject people in our party to so called ‘friendly fire’, keep fighting. I certainly hope you go far in Politics overcoming small mindedness whereever you encounter it. It would be to both our parties and the Countries detriment, if you don’t.

  • Hopefully, though, the people with those outdated (by about 40 years) attitudes will feel that they have to leave the party.

    Personally, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for the debate (it’s a bit far from where I live now!) but if I had been, I’d have been more than happy to go on to the podium and call these people out, if not by name then certainly by repeating their comments publicly.

  • Well said! I am absolutely aghast at the comments you have received (also read them out in the office and everyone else is too). I agree with the points you have raised also.

  • Shaun Roberts 29th Feb '16 - 12:21pm

    Can we just show people like this the door now? Well done for speaking up – hope it encourages more to do the same.

  • Emma Brindley 29th Feb '16 - 12:22pm

    Well said Becca, it’s shocking both that these attitudes still exist and that those sharing them don’t seem to be aware of what they are saying. Well done for speaking up, it’s something I think we all need to do until it’s realised how often it’s being done

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Feb '16 - 12:25pm

    When I shared Becca’s post on my Facebook, someone who knows these things says that she has had similar reports from a whole bunch of different party conferences. It maybe explains why there are so many bonds between women across the political spectrum.

  • Stephen Howse 29th Feb '16 - 12:33pm

    “we need to start viewing women as people”

    Indeedy – as individuals with their own experiences, not as members of a monolithic bloc. (The same goes for men, LGBT people, disabled people and, well, everyone, really!)

  • Paul Reynolds 29th Feb '16 - 12:33pm

    If members of the party, whatever their gender, express such extreme sexist views, it means that they almost certainly do not hold to some of the most fundamental tenets of the party… with all that implies.

  • George Potter 29th Feb '16 - 12:48pm

    A good friend of mine was encouraged, before the last European elections, to stand on the list by the Lib Dem MEP for the region – as a way of gaining experience so she could potentially become an MEP one day. She was all set to go for it until she mentioned her intentions to someone at her regional conference and the response she got made her decide not to apply to be a candidate at all since the man she spoke to made a derogatory comment complaining about how, because of her ethnicity and gender, she was apparently bound to end up at the top of the list.

    That’s the kind of sexism and prejudice that’s endemic in this party and it discourages so many brilliant potential MPs, councillors, AMs, MEPs and MSPs from becoming candidates. Well done to Rebecca for highlighting this issue.

    And while I’m undecided on AWS, it certainly won’t fix the cultural problem this party has where the attitudes of some men manages to discourage so many talented people from ever becoming candidates in the first place.

  • Ryan Lailvaux 29th Feb '16 - 12:53pm

    Great article, Becca. We need to eradicate sexism from our party and country by more than just changing structures but changing attitudes as well. We are fortunate to have you as a member.

  • Oh good grief! I’m shocked that any Lib Dems would *think* what those individuals said to you, let alone feel it appropriate to say something so disparaging to a stranger.

    Keep at it Becca. You’re very firmly in the right, and these individuals show why positive action to support women and other historically underrepresented groups is still sadly necessary in our party. I hope you’re supported to achieve everything you want and more in the party.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Feb '16 - 12:56pm

    The sexist remarks and attitudes need to be challenged, but many people have reasonable concerns about mandatory all women shortlists and people should still be able to voice those concerns without getting bashed as dinosaurs.

    I am aware you have also brought up concerns about them in this article, but I’m talking in general about the debate.

    Best of luck

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Feb '16 - 1:06pm

    When Caron posted the details of your NHS experience, those of us who commented expressed solidarity with you and outrage at how totally appalling it is that you should have such an outrageous treatment .

    Now , we are of course, expressing solidarity with you, but , I have to confess, I feel incredulity, bafflement,complete and utter perplexity, that anyone in 2016 would be told the things you were at a Liberal Democrat conference! I would despair were it not for your excellent response and those of my fellow commentators here.

    Is it worse in Scotland ?Am I naive to be so surprised ? Is idealism a waste of time and feeling ?

    AWS?Like you, I have always been put off them , not least by the eloquence of the women arguing the case against.Now , who knows ?Reading this? Who knows indeed ?!

  • Peter Watson 29th Feb '16 - 1:09pm

    I would suggest that the comments quoted in the article are worse than “casual” sexism: they seem to reflect a deep-grained and deliberate sexism. That they were uttered at a gathering of Lib Dems is even more depressing.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Feb '16 - 1:17pm

    Eddie, I don’t think that Jo Swinson was ever bashed as a dinosaur – and won so much respect for, after making the decisive speech in the 2001 debate, putting her heart and soul into trying to make her view work.

    She has only recently changed her mind.

    If people express opposition in ways that show that they are a sexist dinosaur, they deserve to be called out. However, most opponents of AWS are equally driven by a desire to see a more diverse party and the argument is about the how rather than the actual aim.

  • Peter Watson 29th Feb '16 - 1:22pm

    @Caron Lindsay “most opponents of AWS are equally driven by a desire to see a more diverse party and the argument is about the how rather than the actual aim”
    That is a very important point that often seems to be lost in the debate.

  • People with attitudes like that shouldn’t be allowed in the party. Just expel them. But please don’t allow these experiences to undermine your principled objection to AWS. You were right in your previous blog post that you are not your gender. Neither is anybody else. We are all individuals. That’s what the Lib Dems are supposed to stand for.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Feb '16 - 1:31pm

    Hi Caron, I don’t mind some “dinosaur” bashing, some of it is quite funny, even though it is a dark topic. I agree, keep bashing the ones that deserve it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Feb '16 - 1:44pm


    You are to be commended for your recognition of the sincerity of the opponents of AWS, the way you put it in the above comment is unifying.I have to admit Jo Swinson and others who have travelled a way down the road to the , actually measured and seemingly , temporary mechanism being proposed,are convincing me !The above article by the admirable Rebecca does too !

  • David Cooper 29th Feb '16 - 2:21pm

    @George Potter
    “the man she spoke to made a derogatory comment complaining about how, because of her ethnicity and gender, she was apparently bound to end up at the top of the list.”

    Today this man’s statement is unjustified. Once AWS is introduced, he will have every justification. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Sue Doughty 29th Feb '16 - 2:34pm

    On an all women shortlist the best woman gets to the top. Simples.

  • Gary Fuller 29th Feb '16 - 3:37pm

    Positive Discrimination in any form is about recognising that two individuals of equal ability may have vastly different probabilities of being selected for a particular role based upon specific characteristics. It saddens me that so many people cling to the false assumption that tackling discrimination involves selecting people of lesser ability, or cheapening the ability of those who are selected as a result.

    The only people that want to cheapen the ability of those who are assisted by positive discrimination are those who fail to see their own privileged positions, which is sadly all too common. That said, it’s great that a full and frank discussion about the best methods to use in addressing discrimination is taking place. I found the point about potential risks in choosing between characteristics in this piece particularly interesting.

    I am amazed at the examples of “casual” sexism, mind you. Language is a powerful reflection of, and has a powerful influence on, the mindset of society. I kick myself for slip ups like using the phrase “Man up” (as if being an unfeeling automaton more dedicated to carrying on than looking after oneself were something to aspire to), but it appears I’m not as far behind the curve in tackling my learned behaviours as I thought.

  • David Allen 29th Feb '16 - 5:20pm

    Those are just unbelievably bad comments by sexist men. Now, I think Prof. Tim Hunt’s remarks last year were what could be called “casual” sexism, and I take the view that someone who makes a mis-directed joke displaying “casual” sexism should not suffer a wrecked career as a result. The “soft spot” comment, perhaps, also belongs in this “casual” category. It’s annoying and it’s stupid, but, we probably all say things from time to time which in different ways are also pretty annoying.

    However, if quoted verbatim, the “biological duty” and “shame girls need to work” remarks reported in this piece go beyond “casual” to (as Peter Watson points out) deliberately offensive sexism. At the very least, a formal apology is surely called for.

  • Erlend Watson 29th Feb '16 - 7:29pm

    While I am sadly not surprised that there are LD (and Lab and Con) members with the attitudes quoted I am actually surprised they felt they could voice them at a Lib Dem conference. The first stage to getting rid of such attitudes is to make them unsayable. It helps them wither.

  • Alice Caswell 29th Feb '16 - 7:57pm

    I find sexism is everywhere in society and it is awful but I’m not sure why that would make awsl right. In last election it looks like 90% plus voters rejected liberal democrat policy put together by your Mps which were to be honest both posh middle class boys and girls. So what is the reasoning to believe that increasing the upper class girl allowance but keeping already rejected liberal democrat policies will improve things? For me this awsl looks just like desperation. Trying to sell rejected policies but with a female voice and hoping for a different outcome seems quite dumb if I’m honest. How is it going to be that as a woman your awsl privileged golden ticket is going to save you from the kind of savage questions from people like Andrew Neil. Politics is a bear pit and learning to deal with it as it is must be the first test of how you can cope. To me your policies look wrong headed and opposite voter wishes so I suppose the sex of your MPs are neither here or there if I’m honest.

  • Rebecca Taylor 29th Feb '16 - 9:00pm

    I agree with Gary!

    Well done Becca; keep it up : )

  • ‘Sexism is everywhere in society’ an interesting and true observation. So what is wrong with fighting it and changing the way society is? Labour and the Tories recognised that positive discrimination was needed to change the way things were in their own parties. They still have a way to go, but at least they did something. The time has come for us to do the sonething too. Nothing to do with privilege, everything to do with Liberal philosophy. ‘We reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon …sex and oppose all forms of entrenched inequality.’ The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together to achieve these aims.

  • There does seem to be a decrease in female activism. In the 80s we in (then) Northavon and Yate Town had a majority of women Councillors but the proportion has steadily declined. Someone said to me that it could be as more women work there has bee fewer who have the time to also be Councillors.

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 29th Feb '16 - 9:48pm

    Casual sexism, as with as casual racism is completely unacceptable. Sadly Rebecca’s eloquent piece is not unusual. What is deplorable is that these people can call themselves liberal in any sense, and seek to preserve the status quo by keeping women ‘in their place’ Many may not like AWS, but sadly we have reached a point when we’ve tried everything else (training, more training) & those who are opposed to any form of positve action, are not offering any alternatives. It’s time to be radical and make a difference – it worked for Labour, who’ve changed the face of the Commons, with record numbers of women.

  • Rebecca Plenderleith 29th Feb '16 - 9:54pm

    Mike – why would that be true of only women? Why would men have time to do both and not women?

  • I feel that not enough has been done to find out why so few women put themselves forward for careers in politics, even in a tolerant party like the Liberal Democrats.

    A fruitful line of inquiry might be this. There is a high incidence of people with narcissistic personalities in politics. Most people with narcissistic personalities are men. Does that fact help to explain the dominance of men in politics, and in entertainment and popular music, three walks of life that afford ample opportunities for narcissistic behaviour? I am thinking aloud.

    Are there other aspects of politics at a high level that are more attractive to men than to women?

    Are we barking up the wrong tree by simply blaming everything on sexism, though sexist attitudes undoubtedly do exist, even occasionally in the Liberal Democrats (as Rebecca’s experience, though anecdotal, seems to suggest)?

  • Thanks for speaking out, Rebecca. A friendly acquaintance recently posted a similarly eloquent account of sexism like this (and worse) on social media, and that and the ensuing discussion with her simply floored me. I have to say, I’ve noticed that most or all of the shock and incredulity about these attitudes comes from men. I’m increasingly sure that most men simply aren’t aware of the degree to which women are subjected to sexism like this, casual or otherwise, on a regular basis.

    And the more I think about that, the more I’m certain I want to help do something about it. God only knows what, but I’m open to ideas.

    Thanks again for speaking out. Keep it up. 🙂

  • Mike – I think that is a bit of a generalisation from just one instance. I could equally point you towards Kingston Council where the majority of Lib Dem councillors are female, as are both the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Group. Indeed a couple of years ago the Lib Dem Leader of the Council, Head of Office, Chair of local party and campaigns organiser were all female. I won’t extrapolate anything from that except to say that it is possible.

  • David Allen 1st Mar '16 - 12:08am

    I think Mike’s point is objectively true. When I started in politics in the 1980s, much of our local (SDP) group’s backbone came from women who had dropped out of employment to bring up their young children. Then the children reached school age, the women went back to work, and we “lost” our best activists.

    Nowadays, forced by tougher economics, women in similar positions are more likely to carry on working, pay someone else for childcare, and find less time for politics. Whether that is good or bad is a moot point. In that it is driven by the economics of growing inequality, more than it is driven by female emancipation, I am inclined to think of it as more bad than good.

  • Dean Crofts 1st Mar '16 - 6:24am

    Well done Becca I too am against AWL however head and heart are too different things when considering other opinions and decisions on voting. What needs to be raised is the parties disciplinary measures and policies for dealing with members that you came across so that those views are not part of a Liberal party

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 1st Mar '16 - 7:45am

    Dear sisters, brothers, fellow liberals and critics,

    I wish to commend Rebbeca for speaking out against such casual intolerance which generally goes unchallenged by many people and supports the creation of both unconscious and conscious biases.

    It is useful that this unnecessary, antiquated and debilitating rhetoric is highlighted now, for it demonstrates to the critics of the current Diversity motion going before Conference at York that we have a genuine problem within our Party that needs to be robustly addressed.

    We are the Party of equality, fairness and justice for all, so let us unite and dismantle the unnecessary barriers that currently exist for far too many members within society and in our own Party.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Chair – EMLD

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Mar '16 - 2:07pm


    You give examples that are very strong,but show me that AWS, may be supported in some instances, and I am open to them, but diversity in general is needed.I somehow doubt you can single out a council group of our party where a significant majority even in a multi ethnic area, are from BAME communities !

    And I bet nearly all the Kingston councillors were white and able bodied and middle class !

    Like you, Mary, I do not want to read too much into that , because I am sure most of the councillors endeavoured to represent their communities well.Having seen and worked with a lot of women in good and important roles, I do not see it in of itself as radical or amazing ,unless the woman is.Sarah Palin or Barack Obama ?People first, prejudice, stamped out, equality of opportunity the norm.

    That is the Liberal and Democrat cause.

  • Thank you for your article Rebecca, especially as so many of the shocked comments come from the men in the party. I do believe that has changed considerably over the years but it is upsetting that prejudice within the party still exists. I can remember elderly men, about twenty or thirty years ago expressing similar opinions to the ones you cite feeling justified in expressing them by saying they weren’t prejudiced, they were Liberals. I haven’t seen or heard that recently but I have heard the argument that AWS is illiberal because it denies men the opportunity of standing. I sincerely believe that this is because of a misinterpretation of Liberalism. Liberalism has always been about balancing rights rather than allowing everyone to do as they wish and for me AWS is about redistributing rights, hopefully for a limited period, in order to rebalance the privilege that men have exercised for many generations. This should also extend to minority groups in the party as we should seek fair representation for all.
    The other thing that has upset me when this issue is debated is the number of women who are defeated by such prejudice and who decide to leave the party or not pursue a career in politics. This is a terrible loss of talent and what seems to be needed here is a group of experienced members who are willing to provide encouragement, resolution and, indeed anger at these outrageous remarks to help these women carry on the fight. Otherwise another twenty or thirty years will pass and the next generation of women will have to fight the battles I fought and which you are now fighting.

  • I have just read Dr Mark Pack who brings us the launch of the Reform Bill in Liberal History, reminding us of the courage of our Liberal forbears in righting the wrongs of the lack of representation in Parliament.

  • James Murray 1st Mar '16 - 7:26pm

    May I suggest that where we find male domination in eg target seat PPCs, in Councillor short-lists etc that we accept that women may need just a little assistance to get to equality.

    We should recognise that it is unfortunate that those in charge of appointments can come from a previous generation and have some of that generation’s less modern thinking, prejudice or attitudes.

    But this does not make them bad, it just makes them just human.

    Right-on purists can easily overreact.

    Where there is certain prejudice, perhaps the best reaction is to note it, and then deal with it.

    The best way is by declaring a temporary bout of positive discrimination – say, for a period of five years of female (or whatever) short-lists.

    The idea is to create an arguably fair mechanism in a particular district to give women, or any other minority, temporary assistance over a hurdle but not enough to cause resentment.

    And certainly not long enough to have anybody able to point to the policy as the only reason someone was chosen.

    After that short period of positive discrimination, everyone will know that it is back to normal m.

    The win is that the woman benefitting has had the chance of showing there was no difference in her abilities or qualifications to do the job.

    The worst thing we can do is to demean women, or any other sector, by continuing with fixed positive discrimination.

  • @ James Murray “We should recognise that it is unfortunate that those in charge of appointments can come from a previous generation and have some of that generation’s less modern thinking, prejudice or attitudes”.

    That’s more than a tad ageist young man. Try riding on a train on a Saturday evening when the four pack football brigade are expressing themselves so clearly and you might discover otherwise.

  • @Sesenco
    “A fruitful line of inquiry might be this. There is a high incidence of people with narcissistic personalities in politics. Most people with narcissistic personalities are men.”

    I think there is some truth in that. There is certainly a strong bias in favour of certain types of personalities in politics, which, though not often acknowledged, is itself a barrier to diversity just as much as discriminating on the grounds of gender/race/whatever.

    According to the Lib Dem website, before you can even be considered as a candidate you have to prove you have several “qualities” such as communication skills, leadership, strategic thinking and judgement, and resilience. Sounds like the job spec for any kind of executive-type role, so needless to say that’s the kind of people who will be likely to succeed. There may well be quiet, thoughtful, reflective types with qualities that might make them a superb constituency MP – but they’ll look at the spec and decide they have no chance. What about people who have experienced mental illness, e.g. anxiety-related disorders – how are they going to satisfy the “resilience” criteria?

    In fact, reading the Lib Dem website, it’s clear that one of the main criticisms levelled at AWS – that it would remove the “right” of men to apply in their own constituencies – isn’t really valid, since there is a pretty arbitrary selection process that has to be gone through before you’re allowed to apply to any constituency; nobody has the “right” to apply anywhere.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Mar '16 - 8:40pm

    @James ‘those in charge of appointments’.

    I don’t understand James. In the Liberal Democrats candidates are selected by every member in the Ward/Constituency having one secret ballot vote -they are not appointed.

  • Mick Taylor 3rd Mar '16 - 11:47am

    Well done Rebecca.
    The comments you were subjected to are sadly not isolated and go to the heart of the problems of discrimination in our party. The final selection of candidates in individual constituencies is indeed a secret ballot of all members. Quite a number of those members don’t vote for women candidates (or BAME) because they (wrongly) believe that this will result in a lower LD vote. It’s also a problem of image. In our party the image many people see in their minds of ‘the ideal candidate’ is a youngish white man. This is no different from the image that company boards have of senior managers and directors. It has taken very clear direction from the former Secretary of State and his Lib Dem ministers of state to change the number of female senior managers and directors. Why should a political party be any different?

  • Mick Taylor 3rd Mar '16 - 11:59am

    @stewart. The academic research (see totally demolishes the myths that are being propagated by those who oppose the further measures proposed in the conference motion like AWS.
    If you are still wavering as the whether to vote for or against the conference motion then you should read this paper.
    To those who oppose AWS, can we please have the evidence you constantly refer to?

  • Ruth Bright 3rd Mar '16 - 5:41pm

    Well done Rebecca. Twelve years ago I was a PPC struggling to shift the post-natal weight and regain my morale after having my first baby. Our local ward treasurer told me: “it looks like you’ve got another one in there”. A few weeks ago I reminded him of the comment and he actually apologised! I hope it doesn’t take over a decade for you to get some apologies.

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