Tone and Everyday Sexism · By Louise McIntyre
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, practising A&E doctor, front line worker, someone who holds a Master’s degree in public health and an MP just got told to watch her “tone” by a man. Essentially, she was given a reminder about knowing her place. That man was Matt Hancock MP, current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Someone whose qualifications are largely unrelated to his position, who didn’t follow the Government’s own advice and contracted Coronavirus himself. A person who presided over the response to the pandemic and was asked to reflect on testing statistics on the day when it was announced that the UK has the highest death rate from COVID-19 in Europe.
Objectively, there was no “tone” to speak of. The information Dr Allin-Khan delivered was considered and from personal experience. She asked a question respectfully and presented information that was perhaps hard to hear. She wasn’t accusatory, inflammatory or hysterical. Her implied criticism of the rate of testing can be supported with evidence. She is of course an opposition MP whose role, amongst others, is to hold the Government to account. Hancock’s response was immediately condemned on social media and #everydaysexism began trending. But for many womxn his response was not surprising. How many of us have experienced this type of kneejerk reaction from men in positions of power when they are challenged?
This was not an unfamiliar scenario to me and many of my friends who, from a quick straw poll have repeatedly been told to “calm down” when we dared to show emotion or passion about our careers. We’ve been told to “you were quite abrasive”, “consider a different style of management”, “stop being so negative” when pointing out problems and yes, “watch your tone”.
I’ve been told to be “warmer” towards my team and it was suggested that I could “smile more” at work. When I didn’t simper in my emails and consciously removed some of the banalities of “if that’s ok”, “if you get a minute” and “sorry to bother you”, I was actually called into a meeting to discuss the “tone” of my emails by my female boss. I’ve sat on interview panels (and likely also been on the receiving end) where discussions have criticised female candidates for being both too quiet (“she’ll be a pushover”) and too feisty (“she’ll be trouble”).
Ultimately, everyday sexism in the workplace remains pervasive and it’s not just from men. The idea that womxn should be mild mannered, passive, nurturing and accommodating in their personal and professional lives remains and is reinforced by many womxn too. It’s hardwired into us all to some degree. I’m a feminist but I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve called a female colleague a “bitch” for being forceful and refusing to back down on an issue, when I would never describe a man in the same way. Is there even a derogatory male equivalent for wielding power in a way you disagree with or being aggressive in pursuit of promotion?
At the time of writing, there have been calls for Mr Hancock to apologise to Dr Allin-Khan, but his apology has been forthcoming. Dr Allin-Khan’s tweet of the footage of the exchange has 105k likes and 25k retweets and a quick scroll of the comments reveal largely condemnation for the “tone” comment. In her book “Everyday Sexism” Laura Bates explains “It’s partly sheer normalisation that leads to such widespread acceptance of gendered prejudice. We’re so immersed in sexism that we find it impossible to see it, even when it stares us in the face.” This instance has brought an example of the everyday sexism that womxn face to the fore. As Ms Bates points out, “It’s not easy to take something invisible and make people start to talk about it” and here we perhaps have an opportunity to raise the profile of the problem, within society and within ourselves.
Ultimately, no one’s views, but particularly highly qualified womxn’s views, supported by evidence and experience should ever be belittled or attributed to emotion or “tone” in the workplace or anywhere else. I find that there is a simple test to help call out everyday sexism. I’ve used it to check my own internalised everyday sexism when I feel aggrieved by other womxn’s actions:
“Would you say that to a man?”