We must tackle entrenched sexist mindsets

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The objectification of women has been around for what seems like forever with deep roots in our culture

The #Metoo and #TimesUp campaigns are indicative of the upsurge in women’s voices being heard as a backlash to the revelations around the various scandals that began with Weinstein, the President’s Club and government, and have continued more recently with the third sector.

What sector will be next and who will be newly named and shamed? The answer appears to be potentially: anyone, anywhere. Or rather more likely: organisations where men have dominance and women have been silenced into acquiescence through the cultures in those establishments.

The objectification of women has been around for what seems forever, with deep roots in British culture. I grew up in the 1970s and '80s where stereotypes around gender roles and acceptable social norms built the foundations for what we are seeing today. This was the age of the Carry On films with their ‘ooh er matron’ mindsets laughed off as being British ‘seaside humour,' and TV programmes like Benny Hill with the men literally chasing after women.

Flicking channels the other night I came across Bruce Forsyth’s Play Your Cards Right, a much-loved show in its heyday, with ‘Brucie’ introducing his female assistants by saying "here they are, they are so appealing, dollies do your dealing".

Forsyth's comments reflected more on us as a society than the late celebrity. He was a showman from an age of entertainers and stand-up comics who routinely used sexism to invoke humour. Women were not the only targets, with racism also proliferating throughout their acts.

No wonder then that views held among certain generations are hard-wired into the fabric of society. In the workplace what passes for acceptable behaviour is still a mystery to some. There are those (men and women) that do not see the relevance of the issue and view this reaction by women as being disproportionate to what is simply in their view ‘banter', 'flirting' or 'a bit of fun’. Others are consciously cautious about their interactions, fearful of recriminations and allegations. Some I’m are sure are mindful of their own past behaviour, wary that they may be next in the media headlines.

In every organisation, creating a safe culture is critical and goes beyond policies. It rests with everyone, particularly senior leaders, but also requires HR to champion ‘doing the right thing’ as independent and impartial from senior management and offering more than a cup of tea and a listening ear to just ‘air’ issues.

We need less damage control and more proactive action supported by the whole organisation. Taking affirmative action to protect victims and prevent further abuse, irrespective of who allegations are levied at, is never easy as it means HR need to have the courage, resilience and commitment to be a voice to power.

When those in power are themselves the perpetrators, HR risks being removed from the decision-making circles and losing its own voice. But if the path ahead was easy everyone would be walking it.

There is clearly a change that began some time ago with some organisations leading the way, such as the Dove campaign showing ‘real’ women in their marketing campaigns, with numerous celebrities and high-profile individuals taking a stance and showing their support. There are more women being given lead roles both in TV and films, rather than just being reduced to supporting roles playing ‘eye candy’ or needing men to 'rescue' them.

There is still a long way to go before we can look our mothers, sisters, daughters and importantly ourselves in the eye, assured that we have done everything we can to empower, respect, protect and honour the women in our society.

We don’t just need to play our cards right. We need to do the right thing.

Shakil Butt is founder of HR consultancy HR Hero for Hire and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide

Further reading

Time's up on sexual harassment in the workplace

Tackling Westminster's bullying and harassment problem

Case study: Responding to sexual abuse allegations at The Old Vic

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