Have you ever been in a situation where there's an injustice and every fibre of your being wants to challenge it but instead you stutter, wait too long or worse (and my particular go to) apologise? I've been wanting to write about this issue for a while now, to speak out about what is still happening, but feeling trapped by my own people pleasing, the pre-programmed setting to not rock the boat or fear of negative backlash. But after walking home from work hearing a child cry "last one to the park is a homo" and "last one to the park is a little bitch", I reckon it's time to throw my hat into the ring and do my bit to stop the cycle. It's time to talk about sexism.
According to the Musicians Union survey in 2019, almost half (48%) of musicians experienced sexual harassment at work. Almost two-thirds (61%) felt they were at risk because they work on a freelance basis and over four in five (85%) victims of harassment did not report it, primarily due to the culture of the industry - so it stands to reason that I'm not alone in my experiences.
"It will be [a good concert], if you keep your legs together". Tadaaa my first sexist comment in the workplace. The response one conductor gave to the comment; "Good luck tonight, I think it's going to be a great concert". I can't tell if this was a reference to the unflattering (yet powerful) cello posture or just an opportunity for a little bit of casual sexism but it's a comment that's really stayed with me. I was more shocked than insulted: the idea that this man thought that was an appropriate response to an 20-year-old woman's good luck.
Up until that point I had lived a pretty sheltered life from these issues. My Mum had told me that it existed, that it was something to be challenged and not accepted but to me, it was something I'd only read or heard about. Later I would realise, in reality, my Mum had been battling sexism on a daily basis and I was living in a world of sexist, archaic language, pay gaps and a huge host of brilliant women and men battling to change it. After that isolated incident, I ashamedly went back to my blissful ignorance, surrounded by forward thinking people of all genders in the world of university. At the Royal College of Music, I had a wealth of strong inspiring women to look up to (Natasha Loges and Diana Roberts who were particular role models). Women and gendered minorities seemed to be celebrated, eagerly researched and performed. I was happily rose tinted behind these women's hard work to get it into the syllabus in the first place.
Since entering the world of work, it's been an eye opener and a wake up call! I've been patronised, dismissed, had comments made on my appearance, my lifestyle and my dating life. It's not just my utter dismay at people's brazenness but I've also been struck by my reactions to it and my own past behaviour. How do you even start to tackle sexism in every day situations?
One example in particular still has me flummoxed. It was my first day on a job teaching violin. As I arrived, the person showing me around (someone with no prior musical training) began taking me step by step through how to open a violin case. Pointing out that rosin was in the top pocket, the strap around neck must be done up and even how to loosen and tighten your bow. At first I was confused, he did know I was there as the violin teacher right? This was my first encounter with the man so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and moved on with my day. But as the weeks progressed the comments kept coming; "do you know how to pack it away", "how do you know it's in tune?", "you need to be teaching all the fingers at once or they're going to get bored". My students were happy and they were learning, I knew what I was doing and I was the one in the room with the expertise in this particular area. One day he asks, "have you heard of Beethoven?" Genuine question of interest or another patronising leading question? I didn't give either of us time to find out. I snapped "yes I have, I am a classically trained musician." It wasn't quite the furnished rebuttal I'd hoped for but it didn't seem to phase him, he continued and I told him I'd forgotten something and left.
The point of this article isn't about naming and shaming, but addressing what we can do when faced with it on an every day scale. Put me in a march or demonstration surrounded by people with a common goal - I'm all there. Put me in a room on my own, feeling discriminated against - I want to be there, I need to be there but words often fail me.
I am in awe of women who stand up and say enough is enough. My Mum was one; Natasha, Diana, Rosie Biss, Jennifer Birch (my history and form teacher), the list is endless. Even in my circle, women like Ellie Consta and Her Ensemble, and Bassists with Boobs have this contagious empowerment. Yet, when I'm in a situation, my trained politeness and inner people pleaser combined with my crippling self-doubt take over and let this behaviour happen to me, unstopped and unchallenged.
"I am intelligent, I am worth listening to. My views are just as valid as anyone else and I refuse to be dismissed as if I don't matter"
You don't have to be rude, insulting or confrontational to challenge these behaviours. Worryingly in some cases the people who display sexist language or behaviours may not know they're being offensive in the first place. I myself have been guilty of sexism in my own language. It wasn't until I was sat in a meeting with Diana Roberts talking about contracts that she pulled me up on my use of "Gentleman's Agreement", quite rightly pointing out that women have been making deals of their own for quite some time. Like Diana, we need to just nip it in the bud. With the teacher, that first encounter should have been address with a polite yet firm "yes I am aware", and steps taken from there if continued. With the conductor - short of tripping him down the stairs and losing the tiny career I'd made for myself - it could have been a witty retort to let him know he'd crossed a line, but to reaffirm I was rising above.
Recently, I found my voice in an empowering, out of nowhere argument/heated discussion. "I am intelligent, I am worth listening to. My views are just as valid as anyone else and I refuse to be dismissed as if I don't matter". I think what hit me the most was that although, yes, it was said to someone, I was actually screaming at myself. Reminding myself that when I am dismissed or patronised for whatever reason, be it gender, age or just someone simply not liking me - I don't have to sit there and take it. More importantly that's the worst thing I can do, it just continues the cycle and then the problem never gets fixed. My mum worked hard to fight against that type of behaviour, the least I can do is show her I was listening.
This is my relationship with sexism. The examples are personal, the reactions were personal but the problem is public. The change starts with us. It's difficult, it's embarrassing, uncomfortable and awkward. It may go wrong the first few times we nip it in the bud but we have to try again. If someone's speaking to you as if you're somehow less than they are, address it. If someone's questioning your ability when they have no expertise or grounds to do so, trust your gut and show you're good at what you do. See another woman doing the same job as you in the same field? Support her, CELEBRATE HER, don't tear her to shreds! Be the change you wish to see.
All my love,