International Women’s Day: Inspiring women, and what’s funny about Everyday Sexism?
By Melissa Bradshaw, on 16 March 2016
“If we didn’t have a pretty awesome sense of humour there’d be a f*** load more murders.”
Just one of many memorable quotes from two of UCL’s many International Women’s Day events.
“I don’t think you should apply for that job. They don’t take women, or people from red brick universities”, Nicola Brewer was told. She is now Dame Nicola Brewer, and UCL’s Vice-Provost (International), having held roles such as the first Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and British High Commissioner to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Dame Brewer was listing a series of pieces of advice she’d been given. “I’d like you to guess if I followed them.” The answer was always obviously “no you didn’t!”
Defiance or doing things in spite of obstacles was a refrain at the afternoon of ‘Inspiring Women’, where several prominent women in academia took to the stage for a session of career reflection and inspiration
Those obstacles ranged from having to give a lecture holding a baby, to homelessness: and the achievements were great.
Dr Celia Caulcott UCL Vice-Provost (Enterprise) claimed that she is 10 years behind her male peers. “That’s the 10 years I took out for my family. I’m so glad I did.” She also wrote the paper for doubling the funding for the human genome project, and as the Executive Director, Innovation and Skills at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, she changed part of the system of innovation and discovery in the UK.
“I’m telling you this in a light-hearted way,” said Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, telling us how she made her way up from homelessness, divorce, and trying to do a PhD as a single mum with three children.
“But I did spend a lot of time quietly weeping while the children were in bed.” When rejected for housing benefit, she consulted the law statute books, found out the council were wrong, and kept a roof over her head. She is now UCL Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa and the Middle East).
There was chocolate all over the slide projector when a babysitter-less Professor Susan Rigby, now Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, gave a lecture holding her son in her arms. She’d bought him an enormous white bar of chocolate to distract him. Someone put up their hand. And asked her a question about geology. The chocolate didn’t matter, she said, “because at that point my identity was defined.”
Dr Caulcott graciously told the man who had just walked in to the office and mistaken her for a secretary to leave the room and come back in so they could start again. It was probably worse for Professor Rigby’s interviewee, who at a dinner the night before his interview had leant over and said, “it must be busy being a PA”. But “if we don’t tell everyone who were are, we can’t expect to be treated as we deserve.”
That was just a part of the useful advice the panel offered, while they embodied Dame Brewer’s: “don’t make it look too hard, or it will scare younger women off.”
Asked what single most effective change UCL could make to inspire women, the Provost discussed UCL’s efforts to recruit and promote more women in the university. He noted a need to encourage women to come forward at an earlier stage of their career, and to take more chances.
He also chose Dame Judi Dench to play him in his biopic, because in her performance as M in James Bond she has the power to change the world for the better. This exercise was prompted by the MC, Sarah McCarthy (Exeter University), who between acts full demonstrated her pretty awesome sense of humour.
What’s funny about Everyday Sexism?
But – you guessed it – that first line was one of the comedians at ‘What’s funny about Everyday Sexism’, an evening of comedy and discussion with Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates and comedians Cally Beaton and Luisa Omielan, to consider “how comedy reproduces and masks sexism as well as its power to expose and transcend discrimination and negative attitudes”.
Covering the same event at which she’d had a fifteen minute standing ovation, that comedian Luisa Omielan told us, she got given a three star review, in which she was described as a “quirky” and “bubbly” “female comedian.” She checked and the editorial of the paper were all white middle class men.
You definitely do need a sense of humour to deal with this stuff, agreed Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism. Like the friend of hers who’d tried to reason with a man harassing her from a roof, who refused to apologise for offending her. So she took his ladder.
Much (most) of the content of the two brilliant performances by comedians Cally Beaton and Luisa Omielan is unrepeatable on a platform as austere as the UCL events blog. I wouldn’t want to ruin their jokes for you anyway. For a flavour, check out more of their work here and here. (NSFW).
Both performances joyfully smashed the repression of female sexuality. Both in their own searingly funny ways reclaimed their bodies from negative body image. (Omielan’s ‘thigh gap’ video has had over 2 million YouTube views). And a loudly applauding audience shared their comic triumphs.
After the performances Laura Bates explained how she’d founded Everyday Sexism after a particularly bad week. She realised she would have thought all the things that had happened were normal if they hadn’t happened all at once.
Bates was armed with an astounding array of statistics proving that women are most definitely not equal now, and argued that isolated instances of sexism are all part of the same system that sees approximately 85 thousand women raped in the UK every year.
Cally Beaton told us about the time she’d found out that a man doing the same job as her was getting paid more, and her employers had been more concerned about how she found out. And the time she’d been excited to be chosen to feature in a corporate publication, only to be told by the photographer that they’d chosen her because they needed a woman. She told us it all with humour and gusto.
One thing at the night raised an important question about encouraging men to think about sexism. If you agree with Omielan’s view that “we’re not the problem, men are!”, and so it’s men that need to change, it was a shame that one man who tried to join in the conversation was ridiculed by some other members of the mostly female audience. His question definitely could have been shorter, but if women want men to change, don’t we need to encourage them to participate in discussion, and to be able think through all the issues raised?
The event was an overwhelming success though, as was verified by the throng of people at drinks afterwards, and further by three first year UCL students overheard on the way back home, who told me they loved it and want more events like it, and would like to see more male students there.
Both events were very different in tone, and ‘What’s funny about Everyday Sexism?’ dealt more with body image and sexuality, ‘Inspiring Women’ with practical advice about how to be a boss. The qualities they shared were refusal to be held back, enormous resilience, and an extremely awesome sense of humour.