Fighting sexism -- my way
Reading Lisa Steyn’s account of bottom swatting (”‘Just a pat’ smacks of chauvinism”, October 7) was an exercise in ambivalence - hers and mine. I can conjure only too well my own immediate response had I been on the receiving end of the public swat my fervent hope that no one had witnessed the incident, my fury and discomfort at knowing how best to respond.
But I also know that I would have been enraged had any male journalist, no matter how well intentioned, threatened to write about the incident unless I did so first, or had my editor insist that I call JSE head Russell Loubser (the swatter) out publicly.
I would have wanted the choice of signalling my discomfort without necessarily compromising my access to a contact of some value. It is a calculation many, I would guess even most, women make all the time in engagement with men whom they know professionally—how much awkwardness and unease to withstand in the name of continued civility, access or preference.
Many years ago, while I was working as an intern at what was then the Weekly Mail, I was sent by the news editor to try to interview Bafana Bafana ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations. I knew little about sport in general and nothing about soccer in particular. At the hotel, I found some of the players relaxing outside but, without being able to identify them properly or the positions they played, I was hapless in my attempts to secure interviews. In the end, I was able to get an interview and file a story only because one of the players was keen to take me for a drink.
The danger in that example is that it suggests that access is granted even in the face of incompetence, that women will exploit the sexual dynamic in their interactions with men to compensate for lack of preparation and application. That just isn’t true.
In a career that has included try-outs at journalism, time as an academic in both the United States and South Africa and a position now entailing proximity to both the legal profession and non-governmental organisations, in which I have generally diligently prepared and conscientiously applied myself, still I know that I have benefited from the access, and sometimes preference I, as a woman, have been given by men of influence.
That dynamic isn’t necessarily sexual—sometimes men simply find women less threatening, the element of competition is lessened and thus grant access in a way they wouldn’t to a man. But if the dynamic isn’t sexual, it still probably fits within the broad set of sexism and chauvinism.
But some men simply prefer other men, finding their company more comfortable. And men who have benefited from this would be outraged were they told that discussion of golf or rugby or engaging in the backslapping bonhomie learnt in boys’ schools, in armies or in the professional sphere was required to facilitate their access.
Of course, this type of access isn’t likely to turn threatening or unpleasant in the way the dynamic on which women’s access is often based can do. Women know this and watch for it, and, when lines are crossed, as they often are, they are left to determine—obviously not with such explicit calculation, necessarily—whether the lines can be re-established and access preserved and whether preservation is worth the cost.
It is interesting that many men perceive themselves entirely outside this dynamic and are outraged, on women’s behalf, at their constant need for negotiation and policing of the line. I recently spoke to a senior male colleague about another, whose contact is professionally valuable and which I would like to preserve, but who requires watchfulness. He became increasingly incensed, telling me that I was selling myself short if I believed I was required to tolerate such behaviour to maintain civility and contact.
In truth, women may sell themselves short in just this way all the time. What was most interesting to me, though, and what was apparently not obvious to my highly intelligent male colleague, was that his own relationships with women in the professional sphere are often based exactly on this dynamic. Sure, as he said, he would never be so overt. But as with China and the Dalai Lama’s visa, perhaps no explicit pressure is required. Women have been socialised to know what is wanted, how advantage is often secured.
I have no hesitation in calling myself a feminist. I know sexism and chauvinism to be a scourge to be battled. And yet I also know that, although sexism and chauvinism are to my gender’s detriment, sometimes they offer me specific advantages. That I sometimes accept that benefit may mean I’m not the best feminist. But I want the choice to pick the particular battles I fight.