ON JUNE 27, with the press present in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with our newly appointed Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. The exchange was somewhat awkward before Trump’s seemingly short attention span shifted to RTÉ’s Washington correspondent, Caitriona Perry. He called her forward, referred to “this beautiful Irish press” and said she had a lovely smile, from which he deduced that she must treat Varadkar well.
Perry smiled and laughed and tried to wrest some control back by addressing Varadkar directly saying, “It’s Caitriona Perry here, Taoiseach” before backing away from Trump’s desk, smiling all the while.
Much has been written since, mainly calling Trump out on his sexist treatment of a female journalist. However, last weekend in particular, quite a few articles appeared that took the view that feminists have lost the plot if they can no longer take a compliment — some writers even suggested that Perry should be grateful to have been catapulted into the world spotlight which has apparently increased her social media following no end.
So, was this merely a clumsy compliment from an elderly man that should be laughed off, or was what we witnessed a clear example of how women are still reduced to their physical appearance regardless of the job they are doing?
Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, a website that catalogues sexism women experience in their daily lives. She has written two books on the subject and works with schools and colleges in the UK on issues such as sexual harassment, consent and gender stereotyping, along with helping businesses and police forces tackle gender equality.
What did she make of what happened in the Oval Office? “It was incredibly disappointing to see someone with the clout and influence of the President of the United States essentially harassing a woman in the workplace for all the world to see,” says Bates.
She goes on to acknowledge that many people may not think this is a serious incident but emphasises that “to single out a female reporter in the course of doing her job for her looks, to praise her for smiling is insidious and has the potential to impact as to how other women are seen in the workplace”.
She is unambiguous in her reaction to the idea that Perry should be grateful to be put in the limelight by Trump. “It is similar to when women are harassed in the street and are told they should be grateful for the attention. It’s a familiar cry but a sexist one. It is incredibly insulting because it presupposes that women want some kind of notoriety for the sake of notoriety, when I am quite sure when someone in a professional situation would like to be recognised and to be admired for her job and not because someone has snapped his fingers saying ‘come here and let me look at your smile’.
“It’s hugely patronising to suggest that this is something she should be grateful for.”
We have had plenty of examples of everyday sexism towards women politicians here. Most infamous was probably the so-called lapgate in July 2013, when Fine Gael TD Tom Barry hauled fellow TD, Áine Collins onto his lap during a late-night sitting of the Dáil.
In November 2010, the then taoiseach Brian Cowen told Labour leader Eamon Gilmore to “rein her in now again” referring to Joan Burton who was spokesperson on finance. And in May 2014 Ruairí Quinn referred to Mary Lou McDonald’s “motherly concern” for the future of the Labour Party. Probably the worst recent example of the sexism women are subjected to, was the British Daily Mail front-page photo of Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and prime minister Theresa May captioned “forget about Brexit, who won Legs-it?”
Although Bates is keen to point out that sexism occurs in all workplaces, it does seem that politics is particularly rife with this behaviour. “There is an enormous imbalance in the make-up of our parliament and I think there is a real resistance to keep women from making headway in those arenas… and one way of putting them back in their place, of trying to control them is to use sexism to silence them. We also see it when female journalists are in involved in those spheres as well.”
As to what happened in the Oval Office, Bates says “a comment that marks someone out because of their gender and suggests that they are ornamental rather than functional in that situation is totally inappropriate in a workplace… it gives the impression that women’s appearance is more important than their ability to do their job.”
And that damages all women and can impact negatively how we are seen and treated in work.
- The onus is on employers to stop sexism from happening and not on the women to deal with it when it does.
- Employers should have a transparent procedure in place for reporting sexist behaviour.
- Keep a careful record of the incident; date, time, exactly what was said and also any witnesses who you may call on to verify it.
- If possible find other women who have experienced similar or witnessed the incidents and together challenge the issue.
- Know your rights. Check citizensinformation.ie