Ho, ho, ho. Not all men want beer-related gifts, you know. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
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Secret santa sexism: why are we so keen to reinforce gender roles for adults at Christmas?

Some progress has been made in getting rid of toys marketed specifically at girls or boys, yet we’re still confronted with “For Him” and “For Her” in every Christmas catalogue that plops through the door.

Gender! (huh, yeah)

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing… (sing to tune of “War” by Edwin Starr, repeat until patriarchy crumbles)

Do you like my new feminist anthem? I was rather proud of it, until I realised it’s not strictly true. Gender is good for several things, such as: putting people off learning German; maintaining the oppression of the subjugated sex class; workplace Secret Santa. Obviously, as a linguist and a feminist, I’m not exactly down with the first two. However, as far as I’m concerned, Secret Santa is where gender comes into its own.

The philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards notes that “while feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the source of a great deal of pleasure to many people”. Basically, I think what she’s talking about is buying presents for colleagues you don’t know. Without gender, this would be an utter nightmare. Right now, even if you pick out the name of someone who sits miles (ie two desks) away, with whom you’ve never exchanged more than four words (“is this photocopier working?”), there’s no need to panic. Just note down whether this person is a he or a she and buy accordingly: Bayliss & Harding toiletries for the girls, something beer-related that isn’t actually beer for the boys (NB this also works for friends and relatives you don’t like).

Christmas is a time when adults have obvious reasons to treat each other as pronouns, nothing more: For Her (blank-faced woman who likes bubble bath and chocolate), For Him (blank-faced man who likes booze and crap jokes). We may, of course, reach a point when more pronouns are added to the list. Nonetheless, the idea of buying things for individuals because we know them and like them – or of just using our own goddam imaginations – seems terribly distant. In an increasingly individualistic society, labels are useful. Relationships take effort; sexism, meanwhile, can be outsourced to drop-down menus on websites. You can skip the whole laborious “what do women want?” rigmarole. The internet will tell you (Freud would have had a field day, although I suspect even he’d balk at “a silver glitter Cava shoe and a singing duck watering can”).

The campaign group Let Toys Be Toys recently launched a #shopoutsidethebox campaign, asking toy marketers to reject “pink for girls and blue for boys” advertising this Christmas. 6 December – a key Christmas shopping date – has been earmarked as a day on which to spread the word (you can sign up to “donate” a tweet or Facebook post here). There is, however, no equivalent campaign on behalf of adults. It seems we’re either beyond help or just not ready to let go of the reassurance that comes from buying an elderly uncle a t-shirt from Old Guys Rule (although I’m glad we finally have a shop that is, quite literally, the definition of patriarchy).

Of course, I’m curious as to how this might reinforce other gender roles at Christmas. Does receiving something pink and sparkly make you more resigned to peeling the potatoes and tending to the kids? Does getting a L’Oréal Men Expert The Action Hero gift set provide you with the extra manly strength required to SHOW THAT TURKEY WHO’S BOSS? Certainly, on a day when those closest to you have given you gifts which suggest you’re a walking stereotype, it seems rude not to play along (although receiving a Lynx gift set does not, I think, justify coming down to Christmas dinner in one of these). But at least we’re all in the same boat and besides, if the worst effect of gender was “it means you get crap Christmas presents”, we’d be laughing.

This year I am at least trying to do things differently, not just for my sons but for the adults around me. For instance, I’m trying to cross-stitch a map of Cheshire for a grown-up male relative. I don’t know if he wants a cross-stitched map of Cheshire. I just want to give him something that shows I’ve put in time and effort (and believe me, embroidering Jodrell Bank after a glass or two of mulled wine is no mean feat). I don’t want him to think I’ve just thought “male” and chucked any old thing his way. And so he’s getting Cheshire on a piece of cloth (I might throw in some beer mats, just in case).

Alas, my office Secret Santa isn’t being awarded the same degree of care and attention. As soon as I read the name I knew gender was the only option. I’m not proud but hey, it proves I’ve noticed at least one superficial thing about this person. I never thought I’d say it but sometimes, even sexism has its uses.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.