Sexist remnants still clouding the waters of gender equality
4 May 2021
By: Berta Čaikauskaitė
Female leaders, visionaries, directors, or simply strong women. Such descriptions of women are more and more frequent these days, we respect and talk about these individuals more and more openly. However, this trend fails to replace the decades-long and perhaps impossible to eradicate attitude of men who want to put women "in their place", regardless of their status, achievements and successes. Or to make them “sit”, as the recent example of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), showed when during the visit to Ankara she was not allowed to sit next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of the European Council Charles Michel.
Undermining instead of praise and appreciation
The mentioned incident is just a drop in the ocean of examples and a good illustration of the fact that even when working in diplomacy, women are subjected to tactless behaviour towards them which goes against the basic protocol. However, instances when seemingly well-educated men of respectable age allow themselves to either deliberately or inadvertently throw unreasonable epithets at women in everyday situation are abundant. It happens anywhere from work environment to supermarkets. Women have been ignoring this for many years, or, worse, quietly suffering inside. But nowadays it is not only possible but necessary to talk about it and fight against it. This is what U. Von der Leyen did during her recent statement at the European Parliament, speaking out on the hurt and the humiliation she’d felt during her visit to Turkey. On top of that, Von der Leyen publicly reminded us about the issue of sexism, identifying it as the very cause for this situation to occur in the first place: "I cannot find any justification for such behaviour in the European Treaties. So I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman. "
We don’t need to go far to see manifestations of sexism. According to the Lithuanian Human Rights Centre (LHRC), addressing women with words such as "girl", "pretty lady" and others, especially in work environment, can be considered sexist, i.e. when a subordinate person is assessed by their gender and not as a professional or a colleague. It should be emphasized that judging somebody through their gender is not neutral or innocent. Jūratė Juškaitė, Head of Communications at LHRC, believes that these kinds of terms "have a clear derogatory, power-creating function, in other words, they are designed to "put a woman in her place". As somebody who has experienced this first hand, I have nothing else to add.
From patronising sweet-talk to being called “ball breaker”
Historically, due to their gender women have been excluded from public life and the employment market. The arguments were surprisingly persuasive, claiming that the female brain is smaller and therefore inferior to that of men. This has been further justified by saying that women were naturally gifted at making their surrounding more beautiful and keeping the fire burning and that they should not be part of this cruel world they wouldn’t survive in.
According to J. Juškaitė, stereotypes and prejudices did not disappear once women started joining the employment market and public life. Sayings such as "little boss", "girlie", "make yourself useful and get us some coffee" are still very common. Furthermore, these descriptions diminish the professional status of a woman and emphasize the stereotypical understanding of female gender as delicate, less intelligent, viewed as an object of sexual desire, etc.
Even when a woman does manage to achieve more and break the "glass ceiling" to the point when her image suddenly no longer matches her perceived standard role, she is still likely to be on the receiving end of certain derogatory terms. Women are still frequently labelled with clichés such as “ball breaker” or “masculine” in our society and, unfortunately, very often amongst men, perpetuating sexist attitudes. A woman who is a good leader, who displays stand out competencies and abilities to make difficult decisions, deviates from her gender-acceptable traits and takes on masculine qualities. The LHRC spokeswoman notes that "such women are seen as good leaders, but in exchange their image as women suffers, especially if their appearance differs from what the society tends to imagine as true, appropriate femininity and its manifestations."
Effects of sexism on self-esteem and gender equality index
Reoccurring jokes about women under the guise of supposedly diminutive, innocent phrases encourage cases of strong cultural sexism which not only weakens women's self-esteem but also directly impacts their lives and creates further challenges. The Lithuanian statistics illustrate this perfectly.
For example, in 2020 there were 487,000 women and 314,000 men with higher or university-level education in Lithuania. However, when it comes to their earnings, the situation seems to be reversed. According to the Lithuanian Statistics website, the pay gap between women and men in 2018 was still around 13 per cent. In other words, women in Lithuania work without pay for about one month per year compared to men.
This gap is influenced by other social, economic, and legal factors, but it does not diminish the significance of remaining sexism. And although today this topic is being discussed much more extensively, perhaps it is time the rules on this issue are tightened and the tone on the consequences of sexist behaviour is made stricter? Especially since women are stepping up to the forefront of our politics, science, business, and other fields.