Why Sexism Is No Joke

Raggedy Ann Girl's

Thoughts on the Gray and Keys Affair

Thanks to the unveiling of Sky Sports' Andy Gray and Richard Keys as two of the nation's most famous sexists [the unitiated should see the notes at the foot of the page], it seems that you can hardly switch on the television or radio, or pick up a newspaper or turn on the internet in Britain without finding a discussion on the subject. Everyone from feminist writers and equality tsars to shock jocks and old fogeys seem ready to pitch in their own personal thoughts. Rather comfortingly, and as far as I can see, apart from the odd dissenter, the nationwide opinion seems to be that the pair 'got what they deserved' and that there is no longer a place in Britain for the expression of such outdated and prejudiced thinking.

Outdated and despised it may be but, of course, on a practical level, sexism is alive and kicking and certainly not confined to two television pundits of a 'certain age'. There can hardly be a woman alive who has never experienced sexism in one of its ugly forms. And, of course, sexism comes in many guises from the simply patronising right through to the downright misogynistic. And, to my mind at least, Gray and Keys were revealed as the latter. Subsequent video evidence (and Sky Sports regulars will know what great proponents of that the pair were - how ironic!) has provided proof that, as if we couldn't already tell, their rantings over the appointment of a female assistant referee to a Premiership game, were more than mere 'banter'. Banter, of course, is so often code for 'it doesn't upset us blokes, so why should it upset you girlies?'. And there have since been countless alarming accounts in newspapers, albeit from anonymous 'insiders', who report just how intrinsic the Gray and Keys style sexist bullying had spread through the Sky Sports empire. In the channel's defence, and greatly to their credit, they wasted little time in getting rid of the pair (even if Keys did make the jump himself), although it's difficult to see how Sky Sports could have continued to represent the interests, and entertain, the millions of the nation's football fans had it continued to employ two men who thought so little of the brain power of a sizable chunk of their own audience, and, let's face it, half the population of the planet. And it's hard to take entirely seriously the diversity credentials of a channel that seems to actively encourage its more youthful and attractive female presenters to go on-air in outfits and makeup that would not look out of place on a night out clubbing.

Of course sexism is about discrimination against one gender by the other, not specifically against women. And there must be many men who have reason to complain about their treatment in some female-dominated offices. Programmes like ITV1's Loose Women don't help the female cause. While undoubtedly often both witty and entertaining, the show can sometimes stray into sexist territory. Isn't it hard to imagine that 'Loose Men' would be long tolerated on national television? Retaliation is scarcely excuse enough not to remember that equality is a two-way street and encourage the demeaning of men. Of course, there is some argument that there would be no market for such programmes if women didn't feel that they were fighting uphill through a thicket much of the time.

Of course, over the years, there have been initiatives to rectify the imbalance, although how successful these have been remains to be seen. And I'm a little uncertain on the whole positive discrimination thing. For years now, employers, particularly those in the public sector, have been encouraged to employ more people of different 'types', those from ethnic minority backgrounds, those with disabilities and, of course, women. In principle this is a good thing, but I don't believe that someone from those groups should be employed ahead of a white, able-bodied man based solely on the fact they are from those groups. But, given that those groups undoubtedly meet negative discrimination on a regular basis, would it be okay to appoint them ahead of an equally-qualified man? I can see the logic that it would, but isn't it potentially more harmful to the very people it supposes to 'help'? Because, surely, they now run the risk of being labelled as only having been appointed because the employer had to make up a quota?

I've been on the receiving end of this, and let me tell you it feels wrong. When I was at school my A-Level class were offered a geography trip at a local education 'holiday home'. But there was one problem. Six of us in the class and only five places. Someone was going to miss out. Our attempt at democratically working out who, by drawing lots as it happened, was kiboshed by the teacher. Yes, there were six of us, but only one of us was female. And so it was 'agreed' that my five male classmates would draw lots, while my name would go straight on the list. We were a co-educational school and we were sending a co-educational contingent.  I objected quite strongly to this. I knew it was unfair and, while I wanted to go on the trip, I didn't want to do so at the expense of someone else just because I was the only girl. I also knew that, if I just accepted it, my classmates, quite rightly might be angry that I had felt myself deserving of special treatment on the grounds of gender. I begged the teacher to change his mind - after all I had a 5 in 6 chance of being selected anyway. I went to another (female) teacher and asked her to plead my case. But while she sympathised, she advised me to accept it. There would be plenty of times, she told me, when being female would stand in my way and I'd be able to do nothing about it. Better to take advantage of it while I had the chance. I felt I'd been put in an impossible position and it must be the case that these positive discrimination policies can actually make matters worse and create resentment against the very people they are supposed to 'help'. Of course, while there are people who discriminate, there is always going to be the temptation to artificially redress the balance.

There are areas where no policy really help eradicate sexism, even though there may be legislation supposed to outlaw it. As women we often have to rely on the good sense of individuals, and perhaps the careful awareness and intervention of employers, to keep bigotry out of the workplace and out of our daily lives.

I've worked in offices where women were confined to certain duties, where the 'glass ceiling' was actually opaque. And I've worked with a couple of men who thought nothing of making inappropriate comments to their female co-workers. But, speaking to many of my female friends, that's nothing unusual. And that's the terrible thing. While most men are perfectly egalitarian, it only takes one to make an unpleasantly sexist environment. Get two or more such men together and you get the kind of mens' club mentality that Gray and Keys revelled in at Sky Sports. And even well-meaning men can be guilty of sexism. My mum has often voiced her frustration at one particular workman's refusal to simply accept any instructions she gives without first getting assurance from my dad that 'what she says goes'.

The fact is that sexism - even in modern Britain - is quite widespread. In fact, it's probably the most widespread of all the bigoted mindsets. After all it targets half of humanity. And it's always struck me as pretty unintelligent. The idea of disregarding the thoughts, abilities and value of any section of the population (particularly one as big as 50 per cent) based solely on an accident of birth, seems probably the stupidest mistake anyone could make. Admittedly I'm biased, but how can anyone, with any degree of intelligence, decide to group together 3 billion people worldwide, or even just 30 million in Britain, and disparage them solely on the grounds of biological makeup? Of course the answer is that sexists, or any kind of 'ists' for that matter, are primarily arrogant. They believe that they are better, cleverer, stronger, more important etc, than the women (or men) they seek to disparage. For many it is about control and about power, which is why so often the worst sexism takes the form of bullying and humiliation.

It would be a shame if we can no longer make so much as a comment about the opposite sex. We all get frustrated, or bewildered by the other gender. But there's huge difference between the odd joke about women's inability to park or men's difficulties in multi-tasking and the sort of misogynistic antics of which Gray and Keys were guilty. Anyone who has heard the Gray-Keys tape will know there was little hint of humour but plenty of vitriol.

When it comes down to it, the odd bit of jokey stereotyping is just fine - after all it can be ironic and humorous. So long as it doesn't become a weapon with which to put someone down, or to hold them back. And the harshly patronising comments, the sexist huddles making the just-overheard insults, the vile and disgusting yawps and the heavy double-entendres that border on sexual harassment are never acceptable and none of us should have to suffer them any more. Perhaps the Gray-Keys affair, and the debate that it generated, will be a catalyst for change, even if only a little bit. Might the 'outing' of the Sky Sports duo lead some men to reconsider their attitudes, or at the very least to keep it to themselves and to understand that Britain is not, in fact, a big old boys' club and that most of their gender happen to value their female acquaintances just as highly as they do the males?

The hardened misogynists - like Gray and Keys - will probably learn nothing. Except, perhaps, that the rest of the male population don't share their bigotry. But largely they will continue to demean the women they work with, assuming any women are willing to work alongside them, and to consider that they are the victims in this 'controversy'. In all likelihood it will be a very long time before either of them re-surface on our screens. Will they feel victimised? Probably. Will we miss them? Probably not.

The Gray and Keys Affair

For anyone outside the UK, or who has spent the last week under a duvet, the Sky Sports presenters were recorded discussing the appointment of a female assistant referee to the Premiership game they were covering. The gist of this was that appointing women was ridiculous and that women were incapable of understanding the off-side rule. Believe me, it's a simple enough rule and is hardly what you'd call rocket-science. Later videos were uncovered showing Gray suggesting that a female colleague help place a microphone pack in his trousers, and Keys referring to the ex-girlfriend of a guest as 'it' and using other derogatory language about their relationship. Both were initially suspended, before Gray was sacked following the release of the second video and Keys resigned after going on a sports radio channel to plead his case and suggest 'dark forces' were at work against the pair. One can only imagine what further evidence might have been uncovered had the two stayed in Sky Sports' employment.