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11 July 2022

From the NS archive: Sexist scenes from office life

30 May 1986: It’s incredible what women have to contend with from some of their male associates.

By Nina Hibbin

This is an amusing, though depressing, piece by the film critic Nina Hibbin. In it Hibbin compiles anecdotes of her experiences of sexism in the workplace during the 1970s. She is routinely assumed to be a secretary or ignorant junior employee because of her gender, has her bottom pinched by a male colleague, and fights back at articles and marketing materials that use male pronouns as the default. In her telling Hibbin is a defiant challenger of such misogynist views, and her many encounters with men (one of whom even sardonically calls himself “a male chauvinist pig”) end in her successfully changing how they do business. But while Hibbin is resilient, these incidents sound immensely tiring.

It’s incredible what women have to contend with from some of their male associates at work. In the 1970s, when I was first an “officer” in a regional arts association and then went on to run a large and rapidly expanding film organisation, I came slap up against it. Win some, lose some, as the following examples (with altered names) demonstrate:

Phone call from the manager of a consultancy firm.
He: Is there anybody there?
Me: Yes, I’m here. I’m the director – remember? I asked you to ring.
He: But is there anybody there I can speak to?
Me: You can speak to me.
He: I mean on technical matters.
Me: You can speak to me.
He: When I spoke to the other young lady she didn’t seem to know anything about it…
The “other young lady” is a temp who has started that day. “I’m not young and I’m no lady,” I tell the manager – and I prove it with a few choice words.

From the Regional Secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union
To the Director of TSC
For the attention of Miss Hibbin
Dear Sir …

From the Director of TSC
To the Regional Secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union.
For the attention of Master Knowles
Dear Madam …

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I’m invited to be the chair of a small arts group I’ve helped to set up. I receive a copy of the draft Articles of Association for amendment.
Letter from me to the group’s solicitor
… Apart from my own position, women contending for office or trusteeship in the future may well be inhibited by the exclusive “he” and “him” language used throughout the draft. Please delete all reference to “Chairman” and substitute “Chairperson” and use the he/she and his/her form…
Reply to me from group’s solicitor
… We do not think that “Chairperson” is an appropriate term for this document. We are, however, prepared to add a rider stating that “he” or “him” may be read as “she” or “her”…
Letter from me to solicitor
… I must insist on “Chairperson”. I am prepared, however, to accept a rider, provided that female pronouns (she/her) are used in the Articles. The rider will then state that “she” or “her” may be read as “he” or “him”…
A few weeks later I receive an amended copy, with “Chairperson”, “he/she” and “him/her”, as originally requested throughout.

President of the Local Businessmen’s Club.
He: We have a monthly luncheon with a speaker. I know you ladies don’t go in much for public speaking, but would you like to give it a try?
Me: Why me?
He: We’re having our Ladies Invitation Luncheon next month – you know, the wives come along, too; we feel they deserve a treat once a year. We thought it would be a novelty to have a lady speaker.
Me: Don’t you ever have women speakers at your men-only dos?
He: It wouldn’t be quite proper, would it?

City Hall. Meeting with the Director of Arts and Leisure. He comes behind me and pinches my bottom.
Me: Mr Williams – do you do that to my male colleagues when they visit you?
He: Good heavens – no! I’m not one of those!

I receive an unsolicited “Dear Sir” letter and brochure about office equipment. As usual, it’s all about the “businessmen”, and “his” interests. I send the letter back with I DON’T DO BUSINESS WITH FIRMS THAT ASSUME ALL POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS ARE MEN scrawled across it.
Managing director of the office equipment on the phone (long-distance).
He: When I received your comment I thought it was some kind of joke. I showed it to my wife for a laugh. But she said you were quite right. In fact she’s made me promise to revise all my publicity and letter styles to appeal to both sexes.
Me: Good for her – and for you. I’m delighted.
He: Fine. Now we’ve got that out of the way, when may I expect your order?

Coffee-making rota on the general office noticeboard. Everyone, as agreed at staff meeting, to take a turn.
Me: Where’s the coffee, Gary? It’s your turn today.
He: Can’t one of the girls do it?
A fortnight later. Gary’s turn again.
He: I’ve decided not to have coffee any more. Bad for digestion. So you can cross me off the rota.
A few days later. Joanna’s turn.
Gary: Joanna love, seeing that you’ve got some coffee over – do you think I might have a drop?

Extract from internal job description for proposed post of administrator sent to me for approval by Jim, secretary of a film theatre struggling along with voluntary labour:
… He or she (but in this case it would be better to have a “he”) will be expected to…
Letter to Jim
… As the administrator who has worked her guts out to get you the funding for a full-timer, I take your expressed preference for a man as a personal insult. Unless you delete this notion from the job description – and from your mind – I will withdraw from the project and will advise the sponsors to do so, too…
Reply from Jim
Well well, well! Fancy anyone accusing me, of all people, of being a male chauvinist pig. It so happens that in this particular instance I really did think that a man would be more suitable. However, in deference to your strong opinions…
Betty: (helping me with correspondence): Men! They’re all the same. They’ll never change. I wonder you bother to try.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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