Women who inflate small incidents can hinder progress
Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30
When I was a young woman, many doors were closed to the female sex, professionally and socially. In London, a woman couldn't visit a hotel bar on her own, the supposition being that a lone female was a prostitute plying for trade. In the newspaper industry, female reporters couldn't do a night shift: it was assumed that women were more "vulnerable", even though some of the toughest characters I encountered were seasoned women reporters.
Women were not acceptable at any senior level in male sports, finance or the unions and were rare in the law, though you always had a sprinkling of clever "Portias". And women were barred from all-male clubs, both at the posh end of the social spectrum and in working men's clubs, where jokes were so often about the malignity of mothers-in-law, in the style of Bernard Manning.
When I first asked why the female sex was disbarred from so many areas, I was told: "Women mean trouble." This seemed to cover a range of vague accusations: women would ask for special treatment, women would need more lavatories, women would "get themselves" pregnant, women would "take offence" too easily, women would accuse men of rape or sexual molestation and you couldn't make a dirty joke in front of the ladies. Such views were advanced even though evidence showed that women as professionals were often more conscientious than men.
Paradoxically, male trade unionists then claimed that women were trouble precisely because they were "more compliant" and "biddable" - they didn't give the bosses enough grief.
Yet I can imagine a few crusty old misogynists reaching for the "dames mean trouble" reflex over the Charlotte Proudman case, which has provoked a frenzy of reaction across social media - and elsewhere.
Ms Proudman, a 27-year-old lawyer considered to be "very brilliant", put a photo of herself on the professional networking site LinkedIn. A 57-year-old male lawyer, Alexander Carter-Silk, responded to this image saying that "that is a stunning picture!! You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen". She reprimanded Carter-Silk with the words: "Alex, I find your message offensive. I am on LinkedIn for business purposes, not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men."
The exchange went viral, and there were condemnations all round. Ms Proudman was described as a "Feminazi" and Mr Carter-Silk was revealed to be something of a maladroit blabbermouth who had tweeted slightly creepy messages about his own daughter - "Yeee gods, she's hot!" Apart from having "no verbal filter", he seems to be regarded as a respectable citizen and harmless family man.
Charlotte Proudman stands by her statement, claiming that these casual remarks about women's looks lead to sexist attitudes, hindering women's careers and operating as a "silencing mechanism" to women's ambitions.
A secondary theme to the "women mean trouble" allegation of old (no longer voiced aloud but still harboured in thought by some) is that "women have no sense of humour". "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" goes the 'My Fair Lady' song. Women can't take a joke: they go into high dudgeon over a trifle. Men don't fuss, men don't get their knickers in a twist, men don't get "offended" by the small change of everyday life.
Actually, the female response to Charlotte Proudman's stance was mainly that she should lighten up and develop a better sense of perspective. She could have rebuffed Carter-Silk's remark without going the full nine yards. Perhaps she's a spoilt young lady who has seen too little of genuine suffering and real victimhood?
Yet the ruthless power of social media means that both Carter-Silk and Proudman will be marked for life by this episode. He will be regarded as someone who could have displayed more discretion and judgment - aren't lawyers supposed to specialise in these virtues? She may be met with a wariness - "she means trouble " - in the future course of her legal career.
Oh, the two-edged sword of the internet: it enables instant communication - and instant judgment. Both lives have been mercilessly exposed - including Proudman's reported treatment of her dying grandmother.
Most women aren't trouble, but those who inflate small incidents can sometimes put progress into reverse.
Jeremy Corbyn, the new British Labour leader, has proposed separate train carriages for women at night to protect them from being "groped" or offended. The Victorians provided such a facility - some lasted until the 1960s. But they weren't there just to protect women: they were also to protect men from being falsely accused, by women, of molestation.
Because men were warned that "women mean trouble".