That's what she said: the experiences of women in "lad culture"

We have all been complicit in this everyday sexism, and now it's time we all changed.

 

When I was a student at University of Strathclyde, I studied politics. I was actually told by one man that “women don't do politics”. In a separate instance it was expressed to me that women students who dress in a low cut T-shirt are “just asking to be raped”, and should take responsibility for that.  My eyes were firmly opened to the worrying level of sexism that women in education have to deal with.  I think it probably spurred me on to where I am today. Last year I was elected the Women’s Officer for National Union of Students.

Today NUS is releasing new research -  That’s what she said: Women students’ experiences of lad culture in higher education . I’d like to use this blog to allow some of the women who were brave enough to take part in the research to speak. By this I mean I would like to impart to you some of the examples used to illustrate the stories shared and the genuinely upsetting experiences of women respondents who took part from all over England and Scotland.

Interviewee 10:

I think that’s the misconception, that they’re these rough lads from rough backgrounds who have no respect for women, well they’re not, they’re everywhere, they’re in all parts of the country.

Participant I:

In lots of tutorials I’ve had lots of banter… I do Politics and History and within that there tends to be a slight focus on feminist theory at some point. It’s always the time when the lad comes out. It’s just like shit jokes and stuff like that. For example, if you try to make an announcement in [a lecture], everyone will immediately start shouting stuff… Something along the lines of being a ‘shit feminist’ or something. That kind of ‘another one of those man haters’.

Participant G:

We got them all to line up on the floor on their hands and knees and they just got pelted with eggs, flour, oil, water, washing up liquid, silly string, squirty cream by all the older girls, the girls who were second and third year. We made them do bobbing for apples in a thing of baked beans, cat food, Worcester sauce, chilli powder. It was revolting, it was really, really, disgusting and I felt so uncomfortable but there’s is nothing I could really do about it because they had done things last year that I voiced opposition to and it didn’t make a difference.

Participant P:

In first year there were definitely club nights which were advertising this image of slutty girls… trying to have this image of girls who are going to put out whatever, using them as bait for the guys to come.

Participant I:

I was on a bus once… there’s a lot of buses in [my city] with a lot of lads… they started making quite horrific rape jokes and [there were] quite a lot of individual women on the bus and you could see that everyone on the bus was really uncomfortable with this as you would hope most people would be. They could kind of sense it, but they were like ‘wahaay blah blah!’ like firing them off. And someone made a particularly horrible one… and there was kind of like a mood change and one of the guys was like, ‘Don’t worry ladies none of us have been convicted yet!’ and… [it was] like ‘you guys just can’t take the banter.’ And it’s not banter, it’s people’s real lives.

Interviewee 8:

[Laddish behaviour] generally makes me not want to go certain places, [or] talk to lads I’m friends with on their own.

Do any of these stories sound familiar? I think that they resonate with most students, men and women. In 2010 NUS published the “Hidden Marks ” report which produced the staggering statistic that 68 per cent of respondents had been the victim of one or more kinds of sexual harassment on campus during their time as a student.  That’s What She Said builds on this revelation with an exploration of the depth of feeling surrounding the phenomenon of “lad culture” and how this can facilitate negative student experiences.

It was really hard to read the research if I’m honest. It’s difficult to comprehend that in a society where women have fought so hard, and advanced so far that we are still subject to ridicule in areas that are deemed progressive such as university life. But what’s particularly stomach churning for me is that most of this ridicule is filed under ‘banter’ and if you’re questioning it you are somehow devoid of a sense of humour.

Now it’s time to stand up and take responsibility, collectively across the higher education sector, across the women’s movement and accept that nobody will change this but us. To this end I am proud to have yesterday sent a letter to Jo Swinson urging her to convene a summit of relevant organisations to tackle the problems which have been identified.

The Everyday Sexism Project, Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), Universities UK (UUK), support our call for a summit to address the problems identified by the report. British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) have also committed to participation and it is our intention to enlist as much support as possible throughout the women’s movement and organisations which are relevant to the higher education experience until action is taken.

It’s time to realise that we have all been complicit, all played a part in acceptance, and we must now all play a part in change.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.