Do you know that you’re toxic?
This spring, the UK elected its most diverse Parliament. If we ignore the rantings of the potential party bedfellows from across the Irish Sea, nationally, women have a greater representation in Westminster. It’s exhausting to continue to be thankful for this. Women should not be grateful. Instead, as half the population, we should say it’s about time.
So let us cast our eyes from the national landscape to the cobbled one closer to home in Liverpool. After the General Election, the regional mayoral election and local elections seem like a distant ripple on the pond. Yet they illustrate a gulf in gender politics that is only going to damage the swing of youthful enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn has ignited. What did you think when you say that Steve Rotheram had appointed a top cabinet full of men with one woman who doesn’t have a right to vote? Disappointed? Angry? Expecting nothing less?
There’s a culture of toxic masculinity within Liverpool’s political landscape that has spread across the whole city region. It’s patronising and arrogant and, like the persistent leak from the gutters you really need to fix, it’s starting to undermine our foundations. In Liverpool, it filters into every fibre of the city’s life, from how we work to what our pavements look like.
It might be easy to dismiss an all male cabinet at city region level but it’s symptomatic of what it’s like being a woman here — invisible, unrepresented and feeling as though you have to play like the boys to get ahead. And when the Women’s Leadership Group asked for male council leaders to #giveuptheirseat you won’t be surprised at the amount of commenters saying “it should be about ability, not gender” as though women’s aren’t council leaders because they’re not as good at the job as men.
Of course it was ever thus. Even Eleanor Rathbone’s firebrand feminist principles were met with ribbing because she was “masculine” looking. Search for Bessie Braddock (one of the finest politicians Liverpool ever birthed) and you’re as likely to see Winston Churchill’s sexist comments about her looks rather than her politics first.
What’s surprising is that 50 years later the white manspread continues across the city. It’s still required (mainly from women) to point out when a panel or an event is all male or all white.
There’s a suggestion because Merseyside is well served by female MPs and we have a female PCC that women are well represented. Let’s look at that, shall we? Our female MPs are a legacy of an active agenda to appoint more women to Westminster. That hasn’t happened at local government level where, while we have a fair spread of female councillors, few reach the upper echelons. The idea that women have to be grateful for the national representation at Parliament also asks us to ignore the misogynist and at times racist abuse each of these MPs has had to face.
On the eve of the General Election, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool, Andrew Makinson, criticised Luciana Berger for not taking part in evening debates. He blamed her, of course, when he discovered she was still breastfeeding her new baby. His (now deleted) tweets suggest there’s a simultaneous acknowledgement that calling someone out on it (he asked why she didn’t send a substitute and then said “didn’t realise we were in the 1950s when only a woman could look after a child”) is wrong and sexist, but at the same time it was his natural reaction. Attack the woman, have a go at the woman.
In this political climate of an all boys club it’s OK to come across like an aggressive bully. Political debate is where politicians are routinely bombast, regularly thrust their chest into an opponent’s face, point fingers, call names, belittle their opponent, judge their lifestyle, attack anyone who disagrees. This brand of toxic masculinity is so warped, so utterly endemic within political discourse it is how political conversations take place. And you wonder why so many women don’t want to enter into it.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
This culture is so rooted in local government that to be a successful woman you have a choice; just deal with it or step away from it. There is only one example of what success looks like and in the small pond there are few avenues you can go down before you reach the council shaped cul de sac. If you have a thick skin you’ll survive, only weeping once you get home. If you don’t you’ll either wither, move away or find another way to fulfil your ambition. Doors are closed, option muted. Your face doesn’t fit.
I have genuinely lost count of the times it’s been assumed I’m the secretary/ asked to make coffee/ had my business explained to me. I am pretty successful. I am still routinely the only woman in the room.
Men think it’s the norm to make decisions in rooms surrounded by people who look exactly like them. The local government culture and structure has fashioned a looking glass so that wherever they go they just see themselves looking back. It’s a silo and here’s the problem with silos; they act as a cushion. They support their own interests because they never hear any others.
Let me give you an example. Liverpool’s creative and digital community is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. There is a glut of co-working spaces filled with a lot of loud male voices. They spread themselves into spaces. With everything that society teaches women from when they’re very young it takes a lot of energy to push your chair back and force your way in.
However hard you push though, what’s visible is the male faces. The case studies sent to the media are all men and male owned businesses, very few women. When journalists include quotes they usually go to the men. When pictures are staged it’s usually representing the male case studies. A woman might be tucked onto the side so that everyone feels better about themselves, but the woman is an addendum, not a core part of the story and it’s how we’re telling the story that’s the problem. It’s PR agencies (staffed by a lot of women) who happily send out press releases filled with men, male voices, male stories, male quotes, male interviewees. You don’t have to be a man to be a misogynist and it’s about expectation. Because the tone is set from on high that this is a male conversation, a male community, a male endeavour, and because people want to fit in, the silo starts to spiral further and further downwards. Men are seen to be making decisions.
It might seem like a really small decision to not change legislation to appoint an all male cabinet made up of council leaders. But a generation of women just got reminded that they have no council leaders that are the same gender as them. There’s no one in that room who can vote who is the same gender as them, who has the same experience, the same fears, the same worries, the same lifetime of being overlooked because of their gender. A century ago, women were fighting for the right to vote. In the 21st century women in Liverpool City Region have to fight for the right to vote. Every man sitting in that room should be ashamed. To shrug their shoulders and say “well, it’s the legislation” makes it worse. These are the rules of the game, this is how we play. Sorry, your gender doesn’t fit.
Aren’t they embarrassed? The crushing realisation that it’s the same people who’ll be saying the same things moving their conversation from one conference room to another, not hearing fresh views, not highlighting any alternatives is not just shocking it’s sad. Aren’t men in power mortified when they explain to their daughters and wives and sisters and mothers that they make these decisions on behalf of women without them being in the room?
Do we seriously have a local economy robust enough to to support 50% of it to be as productive as it can be? The dangerous assumption that because something has always been done in a particular way, that it works for you and therefore doesn’t need to change is the groaning weight of privilege. And it destroys cultures and places. Liverpool City Region was once almost destroyed from without. Its ignorance and laziness to open up the conversation at the highest levels to half of its population risks it being eroded from within. And in a wave of youthful vigour, animation, hope and activism, it makes us look like dinosaurs waiting for a meteor to hasten our demise.