So I’m a woman, trying to survive on “the left”- that strange world populated by institutions with mission statements, equality policies and progressive solutions. Don’t get me wrong: there are still great individuals, groups, movements and even institutions that continually give me hope and inspire me, but I rarely experience men – and women – on the left practice what we preach in terms of gender equality.
Everyday sexism both conscious and unconscious is against everything that we stand for, but it is still much too common. It crushes our freedom, self-fulfilment and undermines people and our potential. But still I find myself on a daily basis reminding people who think of themselves as progressive – or “on the left” – of some basic aspect of gender equality, from expecting women to do the washing up, to holding all-male panels on issues where there are an abundance of female experts.
Here are my top 10 tips for survival on the left as a woman.
1. Don’t take it personally
It’s not you, it’s them. Every time I am in a meeting or at an event and a man interrupts me or worse when I suggest something and then a man re-phrases what I just said and it’s all of a sudden “Mike’s great idea”- I remind myself of two main things. Firstly, that it’s not me that’s done something wrong, it’s them. Secondly, that what just happened was probably unintentional and a result of the society we live in. When I am in meetings run by men, full of men or in events with only men on panels and only men asking questions from the floor I remind myself it’s definitely not because women aren’t as good as men. It’s because of the institution of the left and that many people may believe in democracy and equality but often don’t know or accept that they are pushing the opposite agenda. The left is full of good men and women, but that doesn’t mean that sexism and patriarchy don’t exist.
2. Call it out
Talking about sexism on the left is great but I usually leave conversations feeling deflated. Calling out sexism by men and women who I admire and who are my peers isn’t easy and it’s definitely not fun but how on earth is the culture going to change on if we don’t at least call it out? Yes, it’s awkward the first few times. At first I felt so nervous, but with time and practice I’ve found it very empowering and very often those at fault apologise and learn from it. A few months ago I called out a senior female peer for not helping me out when men in the room were clearly flexing their muscles of patriarchy at me. I asked her why she ignored it and she said she was tired of the anger and fighting back and things not changing. But my calling it out united our anger and frustration into a supportive and empowering friendship that helps both of us survive in our leftie circles.
3. Don’t rely on gender quotas
If I let the anger show on my face every time I heard someone reduce the problem of gender equality to the answer of forced quotas I would have a very different face. Quotas haven’t yet stopped my experiences of everyday sexism on the left. So when someone suggests quotas, go a bit deeper. Ask how enforcing quotas will change the culture of sexism, or stop forcing women to choose between our families and our careers. Don’t hate on quotas too much – after all they have their place, but they definitely are not the miracle cure to the age old question of what are we going to do about the lack of women in power. So when faced with the inevitable problem, think about long-term cultural tactics of change, not just outward-facing quick wins. If we are going to survive as women on the left, we need to be thinking of long term solutions to be heard, seen and listened to as equals.
4. Find support
It’s tough out there, so find some support. And not just online support, real life people support. I am lucky (and resourceful enough) to have lots. Some feminist friends, sympathetic peers, women on my work’s trustee board all help make an amazing support network for me to talk to, make mistakes with and take action with. I actually think without my support networks I could just crumble under the weight of everyday sexism and patriarchy on the left. One simple thing I’ve done is organise a group for women in progressive organisations which don’t have progressive practices in terms of gender equalities (ie a group of women who are sick of the same things as me). Once a month we meet up and have structured discussions about sexism at work that we have experienced and how we could have dealt with the situation (if only we had a time machine). We chat about what our dream gender policies would be (flexible working, 360-degree appraisals including issues around sexism) and whether wearing makeup is good or bad for the cause among many other things. This group has kept me sane since entering the world of party conferences, left-wing think tanks and compulsive politics magazine reading.
5. No (wo)man is an island
As the saying goes, “Human beings do not thrive when isolated from others”. I think most lefties agree that the key to making change is doing it together and that we can’t win battles on our own. So same rules apply. To really make long term, sustainable changes we need to work together. Holding grudges, shaming people into corners won’t help create allies and will only alienate people (although sometimes I do find naming and shaming to be the only way to kick start change). Make sure to build allies and remember this fight is too big on your own.
6. Find some stats
Everyone loves stats. In meetings, note down the number of times women speak, are interrupted, are even present. Are they given air time to pontificate about politics and economics or are they squashed into a single issue box of childcare or abortion. How many women are published, retweeted, presenting, advising those in power- you name it, write it down and reveal it. The look on people’s faces when I announce at the end of a meeting the amount of times women have been asked or allowed to speak in a meetings is one to see for yourself. No amount of training or excuses can argue against the cold truth that sexism exists in the left and it just happened, within the last hour. I personally am looking forward to doing this at the party conferences if anyone wants to join me.
7. Think before you speak – but speak!
I dread to think how many times I have wanted to say to peers, to people in power, in meetings “why aren’t any women authors on this publication” or “did no one notice everyone assumed I would wash up the coffee cups and not my male peer?” and many, many more examples. I haven’t, because I’m scared of offending my peers and those who I look up to. Because I don’t want to look stupid or be ostracised. Because I think I’m being over sensitive or wrong. So before you say that thing- just replay it in your mind, practise it to see what it feels and sounds like. Think about if what you are going to say will get through to people or alienate them. Some people turn immediately defensive if you say the “s” word (sexism) so maybe use equality instead. We have to be tactical about this. But remember, whatever you do – say something! Whether it’s in the moment, in an email or to sympathetic ears – say something or the culture will never change.
8. Cherish the small victories
The small victories are what keep me going. Like when a man notices he has interrupted me, stops and lets me carry on. When my boss says no to a panel and suggests a fantastic woman instead. When I look at the New Statesman or the Guardian and see female authors writing in the politics or economics sections and not just on women’s issues. When a female MP steps down and the main story isn’t that she is stepping down to raise a family. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I ask the chair of an event to make sure to take questions from the floor equally – a woman, then a man, and so on. Even an act as small as making sure there are spaces for women to speak at events is a victory and I cherish each one.
9. Learn from your mistakes
I make them every single day. I have interrupted men and women, enabled sexism passively and actively – everything in this article I am guilty of doing in the past. No one is perfect but the key is to be aware that “equality mistakes” happen. Learn from them, try not to do it again and reflect on why they happen. A few weeks ago in a meeting I said “man power” to which a colleague gave me a watch your language look. I was mortified for my struggling sisters and to myself, but guilt is not a useful emotion. Admitting mistakes and learning from them is definitely useful. As long as you are aware and trying to “be the change you want to see in the world” then there is no reason to beat yourself up about making mistakes. Where I work at Compass, we definitely have a long way to go in terms of gender equality but we are taking active steps to help us on our journey within our staff, Management Committee and members. Survival out there in the big bad leftie world is hard enough, but if you clutter your mind with guilt, no one benefits.
10. Don’t worry about the haters
If you stand up to sexism on the left, some people won’t like you for it because you are challenging their fundamental beliefs that they are the “good guys” (and girls) because they are on the left and therefore could not possibly be enabling gender inequality or sexism. So be prepared for a bit of back lash, for being labelled things, for being an outsider on this issue from both men and women (I wonder how many pro-equality lefties will hate this article) Last week I called up a very “progressive” and prominent left-wing think tank to ask why they hadn’t had any women on their panel for two events. The conversation was quickly turned around to a man telling me it was my fault. He definitely hated me for calling out the fact that this beacon of progressiveness had no women on their panel. I’m over it now but I was pretty upset. So with a sigh I moved on to the next well-known think tank who “didn’t have a gender equality policy” or any women on their panel. But for everyone who shows some hate, there is a man or woman who tells me on the sly, while washing up mugs or in an email: “Thank you, I feel the exact same way”.