Updated: Aug 8
[Content warning: discussion of sexual violence]
Hello and welcome to the highlights of our Perceptions panel event, held on 22nd April 2022 and which continues to explore gender-based approaches to safety. This month our panel broke down cultural perceptions of gender, highlighting the need for change in order to reduce and prevent sexual harassment and violence towards all genders but in particular, women and romantic/sexual minority groups.
Our panel included:
Lew-C, a non-binary Glasgow-based musician
Maddie Reid, freelance writer / researcher and fundraiser for Thriving Survivors
Dawn Fyfe, Strategic Development Worker at Wise Women Glasgow
Lee Maginess, owner of ELEETE plumbing
Our host Heather Offord, CEO of One4Growth
From historical perceptions to current day ideas of gender, our panel was concerned not only about how to achieve gender equality in the face of unconscious biases against women, but how to make the world safer and inclusive for the ever-growing proportion of binary trans and non-binary people. The panel also chatted about how to work with men to erode the perception that male-dominated spaces are unsafe and exclusive for other genders.
Historical perceptions of gender
Dawn led the conversation by noting that the historical perception of women staying at home and raising families has a very middle-class bias to it: ‘Women have never really been only in the household. Depending on their status, income, circumstances, many working-class women and women and other places in life, or women who were taken into slavery were always outside the home. Their opportunities to be with children, to be at home, were always limited. When we look back in history, the information we get is very much about a middle-class experience and of working-class people potentially striving for that but also being told that’s how they should live and that’s why they couldn’t actually achieve that, because the structures weren’t in place to allow them to achieve what was expected of women at that time’ (8:05-9:00). The normative nature of these gender expectations meant – and still to an extent mean – that working-class women have been demonised for failing to fulfil their expected role.
Dawn noted the need therefore for adequate welfare systems to support women in the face of these unreasonable pressures. ‘When we see the introduction of things like welfare rights, then that’s helped women to be able to function by themselves, with their children, and allows them to escape violence where it exists’ (9:21-36). Support for women therefore must not just come from dismantling gender roles, but providing material support for women most vulnerable to violence and exploitation. She went on to say that the historical perception of women as property has left them vulnerable, especially the way women were treated by institutions (she provided the caveat that there are stories of women being supported by fathers and husbands to pursue their ambitions). She later explained that misogyny is still not considered a hate crime, and protections for working-class women are even less considered by the law in those terms.
Furthermore, she observed how conflict can cause us to ‘slip back into stereotypes of women being vulnerable and owned by men’ (~10:32), such as is the case in Ukraine where concerns about rape and sexual assault as a military tactic are being deployed against women and children. She then went on to explain how this can become more individualised and microcosmic, such as ‘where [women] have few options, little support, where we still have a criminal justice system in this country that does not support women and children who experience sexual assault and rape’ (10:52-11:04). Although she admits institutional awareness of domestic abuse is slightly better, she notes that they are now overrun past capacity due to funding cuts. With little recourse for funding and financial support, women coming through immigration are left with the same limited protections.
Dawn stressed the need for more services to accommodate the capacity of women who are at risk of being unable to leave violent and dangerous situations, and noted that cultural attitudes have impeded progress. ‘We’re still having to have conversations in 2022 about why it’s not a woman’s fault if she’s raped or sexually assaulted’ (13:07-13). The focus tends to be on women too: ‘There’s a lot of attempts to explain why particular women are particularly vulnerable, and very, very little discussion about where is this violence and abuse coming from’ (13:16-29). In particular, Dawn noted how the legal system has not changed in regards to how it treats and blames vulnerable women for the situations they are in. Similarly, Dawn noted that the attempt to contain women and their sexuality is understandable, as the intention is often to protect them. In reality, this has the reverse effect of inhibiting women’s freedoms and framing them as responsible for sexual attacks against them. The need for both structural and cultural changes go hand-in-hand, so that women can escape both the stigma as well as the literal situation of abuse.
Maddie added to this discussion having studied cultural gendered attitudes towards sex in the 1950s in the UK at university: ‘People reported very commonly that they had, [although] they didn’t call it this, but they had a sexual double standard which meant that they very strongly believed that women should be virgins before marriage […] but they felt that men will be men. You can’t control their sexuality, they’re just going to do what they want to do, which is an extremely pessimistic view of men, but I think that has definitely stayed in our cultural consciousness. It also puts women in a kind of trap where they need to set sexual boundaries, they need to establish sexual morality, but they’re not educated about sexuality or consent at all. It puts them in an extremely vulnerable situation, it takes away culpability from men when they commit acts of abuse’ (17:25-18:27).
They continued: ‘Although there’s been a lot to try to change the way we think about that, it’s still pervasive in the language that we use: we talk about teenage pregnancy as something that girls let happen […] we don’t talk about who’s getting them pregnant’ (18:27-47). They highlighted how the same applies to sexual and physical violence: the tendency is to centre on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Dawn later added that institutional decisions to use certain language, such as ‘male violence against women’ (rather than the generic ‘violence against women’ or ‘gender-based violence’), matter as a result.
This is not to say progress has not been made, but rather historical perceptions can remain salient today: even unconsciously. This leads us to the next topic the panel discussed.
Unconscious biases and gender inequality
Maddie led the discussion here, talking about their readings of a book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, a neuroscientist looking to dismantle neurosexism. The book argues through numerous studies that: ‘Even people who have conscious beliefs in gender equality, who report that they believe in gender equality, that they don’t think that sexual difference determines things like behaviour, cognition, ability […], they still treat men and women differently, in ways they’re not even conscious of’ (19:07-30). Whether it’s job flexibility meaning that, whatever the occupation a woman has, people are more likely to insist that hers is more flexible and that she should therefore stay home to look after the children; believing that women are more empathetic and men more violent; or the pervasive cultural attitudes concerning sexuality detailed above. They made the point that although our subconscious is great at picking up patterns – a mechanism that is useful for survival – it tends to pick up patterns of sexist imagery and beliefs from culture and the media, which inhibits our conscious efforts to establish gender equality.
Maddie’s emphatic point was that historical cultural attitudes can be salient in ways people aren’t even conscious of, and so unlearning gender stereotypes ‘takes time’ (~20:28). They summated: ‘It’s something we need to recognise in ourselves. It’s not enough to say: “I believe in gender equality.” You have to try and be aware of your own behaviours and beliefs and catch yourself thinking different things. And that’s really hard because no one wants to confront that in themselves. […] No one wants to be a bigot’ (21:09-35).
In terms of safety, then, Maddie made the pertinent point that these unconscious biases can still be felt today, particularly in schools and the sexist implications in the way school uniform is regulated and enforced. Young girls are often reprimanded for wearing clothes that are too revealing: ‘I understand that it’s going to take effort to desexualise these bodies because female bodies are presented in sexualised ways all the time. And it might be uncomfortable […] to see a thirteen-year-old in very short shorts […] but bodies are just bodies. A teenager’s legs walk and do loads of things [that aren’t sexual]. […] Because we gender bodies in that way, and sexualise bodies in that way, we tell teenage girls that their bodies are not their own, they’re always subject to the male gaze, and that they need to act accordingly’ (22:11-23:05). They highlighted how nudity is much more culturally casual in other parts of the world, and would like to see conscious efforts to desexualise bodies rather than insisting young girls and women cover up.
Following the point about school uniforms, Maddie continued how coming out as non-binary has helped them escape the constant sexualisation of their body. And certainly, efforts to dismantle the gender binary through a re-examination of how bodies are emphatically gendered beyond the point of usefulness are vital in helping culturally reconstruct our perceptions of gender.
Again talking about Delusions of Gender, Maddie noted how increasingly in science and in particular, biology, academics are beginning to emphasis more and more a dynamic and fluid body. Using the example of male rats who generally are unconcerned with paternity, Maddie noted how in the absence of a mother rat, male rats will not only step in to raise the rats, but will produce the hormone prolactin (the hormone female bodies produce, both in rats and humans, during lactation). Biology is therefore not deterministic, and although using the language of ‘men’ and ‘women’ is useful to talk about the societal manifestations of violence by men against women, language does not encompass these terms in their entirety. ‘Language doesn’t always describe reality in its entirety. We can talk about the fact most violence is perpetrated by men – not all, but most – against women, and that’s useful to talk about in a political way. Because there’s mechanisms going on there of masculine power and power that is given to a certain group, not because of their biology, but because the way we perceive their biology, the way we think their biology somehow creates an essential person that is like a certain way or has to be that way’ (29:07-48).
They continued: ‘Men aren’t inherently violent or aggressive, and we tend to think of that because of popular misunderstandings of testosterone, for example’ (31:48-59), but went on to note how studies that treat female foetuses with testosterone in the womb does not correlate with an increase in violent or aggressive behaviour after these children are born. Related to Dawn’s point, it is structures, institutions, and cultures that redeem masculine power and enable abuse rather than an inherent biology. Maddie then argued that this leaves room for education, redemption, and rehabilitation of men who commit or might commit violence.
Lew agreed: ‘The feeling that […] abuse is inevitable ties into that wider belief that men are just inherently more violent or aggressive or more likely to inflict abuse. But that’s not biological, it’s learned behaviour and culturally learned and the impetus should be on: “how do we educate people around abuse?” and how to identify an abusive tendency within yourself’ (33:03-49). Certainly the emphasis on abuse education – although relatively new – has been to empower potential victims to recognise red flags, though Lew’s suggestion goes a step further to ask how potential abusers can recognise abusive tendencies in themselves.
The freedom for non-binary people to live and exist without harassment is fundamental not just for their safety, but happiness too. As Lew noted: ‘Realising [gender] isn’t inherent to you [meant] I felt like I had to give it up, and I feel much healthier and happier for doing so’ (36:37-47). Lew went on to talk about how for them to feel safe as a non-binary person, a punitive justice system is inadequate. ‘My long-term answer to gender safety isn’t trying to deter people from inflicting abuse with the possibility of repercussions. It’s rather getting people to understand there’s no valid reason to inflict abuse on someone else’ (38:26-50).
They later spoke about legal recognition of non-binary people, which would help validate it as a gender identity. However, the panel agreed with Lew that institutions often do not need access to information about someone’s gender or biological sex, excepting medical contexts or situations where gender is salient in the abuse they are experiencing. Maddie went on to explain that attempts to recognise non-binary legally, such as the Birmingham Employment Tribunal, have been flawed, erroneously describing non-binariness as a “third or transitioning gender/sex”: ‘My body is, outwardly at least, quite typically female. I wouldn’t describe my sex as “in-between”, [though] I don’t know what my chromosomes are, I don’t know what my hormones are, that’s another story, and to be honest, it’s not really any governing bodies’ business anyhow. Non-binary gender is social and political statement about how biological sex is constructed in a gendered way, and often a needlessly gendered way. So in terms having a third sex passport or a third gender passport, I would like to know why it’s pertinent to why I need to travel and why I need to give this information in the first place’ (40:37-41:22). Dawn agreed: ‘A hundred years, we’ve been trying to get “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and “male” and “female” off applications for jobs! This is the same argument that women and feminists have been having for years, which is good because we’re going into this new place, and how we work together with that is really important’ (43:06-25).
Later, Dawn clarified that while hate crime legislation covers harassment on the grounds of being transgender, it does not include misogyny as a hate crime, meaning the situation is such that non-binary people actually have better access to institutional support than women in cases of harassment. Similarly, Dawn highlighted that class is not a protected status either, meaning the abuse and oppression working-class men suffer is often lost in the conversation. ‘That intersectional experience of oppression is so important to us as individuals. So, yes we need to change culture, yes we need to have these conversations, but until such times as it’s safe to do so, […] there has to be other areas where [gender] is protected so that we can see individual experience as societal issues’ (44:20-47).
Making male-dominated spaces accessible
Construction is definitely an industry that has a reputation for harassment and wolf-whistling, though Lee is worried that perception is contributing to its status as male-dominated: ‘I do feel as if my industry is very male-dominated and I think this perception and exercise has to change. Also, since the birth of my daughter two years ago, Bella-Rose, I would also like to see things change for her going forward, to not get pushed into industries she feels she has to be in but might not want to be in because at this moment in time, her two favourite things to do are to play on a digger and play on a tractor’ (4:55-5:33).
In terms of feminist conversations, Lee explained that men shy away due to fear of being criticised: ‘They’re probably terrified of too much criticism, or they’re terrified of taking things the wrong way, as opposed to looking at things with an open mind, and not be defensive as soon as they hear male culture’s being criticised’ (47:10-29). He also noted that there is culture of silence around these issues because men are worried about other men’s reactions if they are brought up.
He advised that for men who do want to join in on the conversation, particularly if they are – as in Lee’s case – worried for their daughters’ safety, radio and social media campaigns such as Strutsafe and the Sabina Project are great places to understand the intersection of gender and safety.
Lee noted that in his industry in particular, domestic home improvements, he has not seen harassment or violence, and is a ‘welcoming environment for anybody who wanted to join’ (~48,45), but admits that teams tend to be all-male. Dawn provided the caveat that her 17-yaer-old daughter is in STEM and has experienced ‘appalling’ treatment due to her gender, having been told to renounce her dreams of going into design and tech to instead become a social worker. Dawn reiterated that women will continue to be excluded unless there is widespread education around these issues.
Lee emphasised that companies do generally want to change, but agrees that more could be done to make the environment more inclusive. ‘I think it’s going to take a lot more people to stand strong, speak up, and make it more inclusive to just males who predominantly populate it at this moment in time’ (54:00-17). Heather added that the perception of the construction industry as necessarily exclusive and harassing of other genders may be a barrier in itself.
Education was the key point of focus for this panel, as well as the need for both cultural and institutional changes to prevent harassment and violence; support victims of abuse; and to empower communities to be more inclusive. Thanks again to our panel for their time and thoughts, and make sure to tune in for our May panel on Consent.