Last Sunday was World Women’s Day. As usually happens to me with days allocated to national and global themes, I only realised it was happening too late to organise anything: how else could I have also missed National Pie Week?
It’s often said that the glass ceiling is still in place. It was clearly engineered by men, and skilfully done, or it would have shattered long ago. But there’s no doubt much smarter women engineers are gradually dismantling it.
After all, all middle-aged males like me know women are already largely in control. It’s certainly true at home and, increasingly, they are appearing on company boards and even in CEO jobs. So is there any need for a day focusing on women (and, by implication on women’s rights and equality of opportunity)?
Sadly, yes. The glass ceiling may be cracking and on the point of disintegration, but male prejudice, sexism and sheer oafishness nonetheless prevail.
They certainly survive in sport. One evening last week I happened to catch the 15-minute sports slot on the BBC News Channel. We may take pride in the strength of UK women’s football, rugby and cricket, previously male preserves: but the sexism witnessed within men’s football (from fans, not players) is more than merely disgusting.
The news report showed film of a Manchester United game, among others. Female assistant referees and medics alike were subjected to chants and catcalls that were graphic, sexual and anatomical, and so predictable I don’t need to reproduce them.
Fans were interviewed. Female supporters felt it was time it was stopped. Most blokes questioned shrugged off the comments as “banter”: you’ll never stop it, they said, and it’s harmless.
Hardly harmless. I was depressed to read new evidence that such abuse starts early. Most readers will have seen the Sport England campaign to get more girls playing sport. Posters and TV adverts on the theme This Girl Can portray many different women, real women, getting sweaty in the name of health and fitness.
It’s powerful stuff, and arguably long overdue. But Nadine Pittam, a researcher assessing the impact of the campaign, found that well over 1,600 responses to the YouTube video were “thumbs down”: all the negative posts she read were written by people using male usernames.
A Girl Guiding survey (Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2013) reported 41% of girls confessing that embarrassment about wearing school sports kit put them off playing sport. And that was because 87% of girls think women are judged more on appearance than on ability.
There’s a long way still to go. Such behaviour is too often excused on the grounds that boys will be boys. It’s time those boys grew up: as it happens, it’s clear that grown men are frequently still worse.
Don’t push the problem and its solution onto schools! While rap artists glorify the objectification and abuse of women: while pop videos project a smart guy as looking cool surrounded by bikini-clad, shapely girls; when a girl who makes herself look good is labelled a slag while one that objects to being insulted is dubbed gobby as a result, our society still has a real sexism problem.
Let’s not forget, though: that glass ceiling really is coming apart at the seams. Girls and women are more powerful than they know. I hope increasing numbers of confident women will decline to be treated in negative or demeaning terms. I wish still more that, when they speak up, those of us who are too often bystanders (yes, blokes too) would find the courage to speak, to declare: “That is unacceptable”.
Most bullies, louts and oafs back down when confronted. It’s the silence of everyone else that too often allows them to get away with it.
Power to the women (and girls): their Day has come! As Harry Potter actress Emma Watson demanded recently, let’s line up, men and women together, and support them.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.