Updated: Aug 28
This article was a submission for the OX magazine, March issue
Copyright Peter Sissons © 2023
Does it still require the madness and abnormal requirements of war to be in place or the continuing struggle against gender prejudice in the workplace for man's mindset to be reformed and relinquish control of male-dominated jobs and positions of responsibility?
During World War Two, large swathes of the male populations of Britain and America left their civilian jobs to be in the army, navy and air forces, seconded to fight in foreign lands. This departure of males from every walk of working life left a workforce vacuum that any remaining men could not fill. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Roosevelt's governments decided to call up all single young women to fill the 'manpower' shortage void and to help increase the war effort. The new labour force worked at various levels of responsibility in every factory type, as non-combatants in all the armed forces and replacing men as lorry and ambulance drivers.
In Britain, by the mid-forties, there had been a significant increase in single-working women constructing everything from aircraft, ships, and munitions to tanks, army support vehicles and electronics. They excelled in dangerous professions as air-raid wardens and risked their lives driving fire engines after heavy bombing raids.
However, were the pay and personal injury payments for their new roles identical to their male counterparts? Shockingly, they were not - their pay was half, and if they were injured, compensation was two-thirds of men's.
Underlying all this wartime female employment was the wish of the male-led employers and trade unions to ensure that when peace returned, the demobbed soldiers’ jobs were still there. Added to this closed shop of male-only employment was no reduction in the men's mindset of prejudices against recognising women's ability to work in skilled and responsible jobs – even though they had proved their grit during war service.
One of the many blatant examples of gender discrimination occurred during World War Two. In 1944, an Air Transport Auxiliary, Mary Ellis, was the pilot delivering a fresh from the factory twin-engine Wellington bomber to an East Anglian RAF airfield (Winston Churchill forbade women to be fighter pilots or be part of a bomber crew).
The Wellington was a large aircraft that usually had six crew. In combat, those needed for flying the aircraft to its target and back were the pilot, radio operator and essential navigator, who doubled up as the bomb aimer.
As an ATA pilot, Mary Ellis navigated and flew the bomber to the RAF airfield alone.
Her welcoming committee included the base commander, who saluted Mary and asked, 'Where's the pilot?'. She explained that she was the delivery pilot and no one else was on board. The squadron leader instantly dismissed her preposterous claim and strode off to search the aircraft from top-to-bottom. He emerged speechless that a twenty-one-year-old girl had flown a Wellington unaccompanied and delivered his aircraft intact.
If the base commander had seen Mary's flying logbook, it would have astonished him; day after day, the ATA women delivered freshly constructed aircraft from wartime factories to active airfields around Britain and the frontline. In four years, Mary delivered over four hundred Spitfires and Seafires (Royal Navy Spitfires), together with seventy-six different aircraft types, including Wellington bombers and Hurricanes. During World War Two, she flew more than a thousand new aircraft to RAF airfields.
Another glaring example of men not being able to admit and accept a women's intelligence and abilities was inter-meshed with the 1960s far-right discriminatory views of the 'white' population in the southern American states.
Katherine Johnson and her two friends, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were African Americans. In their early twenties, most people described them by derogatory and repulsive names, with segregation prevalent for 'Coloreds' in most daily life.
After applying for jobs at NASA, they were all surprised to be given positions at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, in southern Virginia. The girls' selection was for their amazing mathematical skills, a clear-and-deep understanding of engineering and exceptional management abilities.
When Katherine and her friends entered their allotted offices, their office colleagues' ingrained female and extreme racial prejudices reared their ugly heads.
The girls had to endure months of gender and racial abuse. Thankfully, their stories eventually developed a positive side as the girls' bosses and co-workers realised, and most importantly, accepted that their female colleagues were mathematical, engineering and managerial geniuses.
Katherine was indispensable to NASA. The agency used her amazing mathematical abilities to compute the trajectory of the first US manned spaceflight rocket, Friendship 7, and where the fragile Mercury capsule, with America's first astronaut on board, would land. These complicated computations ensured the astronaut stayed alive – the sums were achieved using Katherine's mind and a slide rule without any computer’s help. Later, her tasks included calculating the trajectories of Apollo 11 and the space shuttle missions.
Mary was employed across several NASA divisions, influencing research into complex aerodynamic forces affecting aircraft and spacecraft on lift-off and while in flight. In 1979 she was awarded the highest senior title within the NASA engineering department.
Dorothy learnt the complex Fortran computer language in her spare time, determined to understand how to program NASA's new IBM 7090 computer. The expensive equipment had been idle since its installation, with no one understanding its operation. Her incredible talents were recognised when a far-reaching promotion elevated her to supervising the programming department – but only when NASA agreed to her condition that thirty racial-segregated girl co-workers joined her.
Katherine, Mary and Dorothy were a remarkable trio of brilliant people.
"Hidden Figures" is a revealing film of their struggles against being dynamic and talented women within a male-dominated company colossus such as NASA. The story will leave you shocked at the degree of gender and racial prejudice in the workplace, present throughout American life during the Swinging Sixties.
Okay! That's enough of the past! What's happening now? Have attitudes towards women in the workplace changed dramatically, or are they still interwoven with the values of gentlemen in Victorian Britain?
Why do derogatory views of the opposite sex persist? Are they merely natural – for both men and women – a venting of anger caused by a partner thinking how stupid their other half is? Could they be a sign of insecurity (that a partner is better at doing something?), or are they harmless jokes poking fun at the opposite sex? Will these derogatory descriptions always be present in private conversations, or will they be tempered and finally removed as mindsets change?
Throughout the aeons of time leading up to the twenty-first century, male descriptions and prejudices of females have been affected, continued and reinforced, not only by men but also by women's acceptance of them. Stereotype prejudice was nurtured over centuries of historically-ingrained-mind brainwashing, caused by social, political and financial 'rules' solely controlled by men.
How is your blood pressure after reading that?
One of the most satisfying up-to-date facts is that after all the countless centuries of gender prejudices, man/womenkind in the Western world is experiencing sweeping changes in the perception and treatment of genders. Take sexual harassment in the workplace. The last decades have seen the fruits of public and private pressure on employers and employees grow into a real awareness of professional behaviour to be shown towards anyone in a working environment.
It would be a very foolish man, hell-bent on losing his job or wishing to experience a courtroom, to pinch a woman's bottom in an office and call it an innocent sign of friendliness.
Imagine telling builders fifty years ago that if they made lewd comments and wolf-whistled at girls walking past their site in 2023, they would probably lose their jobs and their employer's building company fined. Undoubtedly, they would fall about laughing at you and, with the most colourful of language, tell you exactly where to put your prediction. Today, in addition to the threat of job losses and a company fine, the press and social media would lambast a business for allowing such gender abuse.
Unfortunately, there is still a flip side to this positive reversing of sexism and gender bias in the workplace – open a car magazine, and you'll encounter girls' bodies seemingly required to sell parts, services or cleaning products.
Come on, company bosses and editors – it's not the 1960s!
Let's have a look at where you work. Does your company employ both sexes? If you are a woman, let's examine some types of prejudice aimed at your sex that you might find at work. How many others do you experience yourself, see, or hear your female colleagues having to bear from men?
The first big one is unequal pay. Why on earth does this happen? If both sexes perform identical jobs, using the equivalent amount of skill and performance levels, they should get equal pay – how can your gender qualify for this?
The next gender bender can happen when you're in a position to climb your company's responsibility ladder. Does your company have a bias towards men candidates gaining a push up the rungs? Do you see appointments given to men with fewer qualifications and less experienced than yourself or other women? Why does this opportunity imbalance happen? Again, are the male values of Victorian Britain to blame for this decision-making?
Another gender prejudice can brazenly manifest itself at an interview or after filling in your details on a company's website job application form – a form's content that will be sieved and evaluated by an unfeeling computer algorithm. This aspect of unequal opportunity is a double whammy of prejudice about your age and being a woman. According to industry experts, this age and gender bias happen when employers, especially men, choose between a young candidate with hardly any work experience and a much older woman with the qualifications and a wealth of life knowledge.
What about your clothes at work? Do you have a free choice to wear whatever is appropriate for your workplace, especially if your wardrobe is corporate-chosen?
On a personal note, I have never understood the wearing of ties. What is their purpose in life? Why do men have to wear them to look 'smart'? In my experience, the majority of men haven't a clue how to knot or wear them.
What creates the mindset of people in each country of the world? What makes a British person 'tick' different from a Saudi, Nigerian or Argentinian? Each one is unique due to their country's population exposure to the kaleidoscope of personal character building blocks they encounter and experience within their lifetime. During childhood and teenage years, male and female views and values form; they are manipulated and influenced by their social 'class' and other everyday cultural 'rules'. For example, their parents and others show, by their example, how to treat children, their parents, genders, other nationalities and themselves.
The past is the past and is blamed for many things. New generations must ensure no repetition of past mistakes.
Historically, propaganda was and still is, delivered through newspapers, magazines, TV, and now worst of all, the internet. When the British independent ITV channel began in 1955, advertisements blatantly targeted women – unless you were a man wanting to smoke a cigarette or pipe.
All the different media promoted new and wonderful things to help change people's lives by purchasing company products. All adverts were designed with calculated-persuasion language - featuring gender-biased pictures and descriptions to convince the public to buy the new merchandise.
Until recently, adverts have been blatantly sexist – kitchen, bathroom and home furnishing products specifically aimed at women – cars, tools, beer and tobacco at men. How many men have appeared in commercials promoting washing powder, kitchen cleaning products, washing machines, or sprawled across shapely sportscars in their trunks to sell them?
It is unbelievable that in 2017, a German car company advertised a new model in China and suggested that buying it was the same as obtaining a wife.
Back in the sixties, an American coffee company featured a man sitting on a chair spanking a woman draped over his knees; the ad had a snappy coffee-related statement: 'If your husband finds out, you're not 'store testing' for fresher coffee'.
In 2012, a vodka company aired an advert lasting only one hour. Why the short duration in front of prospective customers? It featured a terrified woman manhandled – literally – by a happy-looking male, clutching her from behind, provocatively headlined 'Unlike some people, ********* always goes down smoothly'.
Have you recovered from those beyond-belief-actually-passed-by-male-company-executive advertisements?
Over decades, we change how we live, exist, and perceive each other. TV programmes aired in the sixties and seventies, such as Till Death Us Do Pass, raised eyebrows then about gender prejudices and how women were perceived and treated. The derogatory views were spat out, hand in hand with layer upon layer of racial discrimination. Today, a significantly higher percentage of Britain's population would be appalled and 'feel' uncomfortable hearing Alf Garnett's frank and un-politically correct descriptions of races and women.
So, where does this leave us?
Thankfully, we live in a time awash with easy and immediate ways to communicate and protest with each other around the world. Any company crossing the boundaries of what is acceptable in the working environment – which applies to any gender – is liable to be put in the pillory and have no end of abuse and criticism.
Gentlemen, to bring this article to a helpful conclusion, here is some simple advice: when greeting or talking with your colleagues, engage your brain before saying one single syllable (or writing an email) - it may save your friendships, colleague relationships and job!
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