Thursday, 27 January 2011

Sexism in football – Neanderthal man is alive and kicking in the workplace.

I have been trying to avoid talking about the agony of the NHS this week, as there is only so much pain that my readers should have to suffer. So the very public sacking of Andy Gray, the football pundit for sexist and offensive remarks, has been a welcome, but troubling distraction.

For those of you living outside the UK, Andy Gray is a well known football commentator working on Sky Sports TV channel. At the weekend he was overheard, thinking he was ‘off mike’, suggesting that a female lineswoman officiating in a Premier League match would probably not understand the offside rule. These comments were embellished with a rant about women in football and Gray’s position became even more untenable as some old footage of him making lewd remarks to a female presenter was released on You Tube.

Enter pages of newsprint, hours of commentary and headline TV news discussing sexism in football. Interviews with fans, officials, and equal rights campaigners followed, all focussing on the national sport.

This isn’t just about football. Of course sexism, along with racism and general bigotry, is alive and kicking in many workplaces. In fact it was Gray’s undermining of a very capable woman’s ability to do her job which, in my opinion, was his major faux pas.

As a woman who has spent many years working in male dominated environments, I have always been grateful for the fact that I love football, and like to think that I can talk with reasonable knowledge about this favourite subject. (Although I’m sure Andy Gray and his fellow cave-dwellers would disagree). Back in those heady days of corporate hospitality, when I was the director of a team of consultants at a major broking firm, I noticed that although many of my male colleagues were taken to major sporting events, I didn’t seem to be getting any such invitations. I then realised that our clients and business partners simply assumed that because I was female I wouldn’t be interested in going to Paris for the Rugby world cup or Wembley for a football international.

Evenings out with my fellow (male) directors were not for the faint hearted and however much I may want to be treated like one of the boys, the conversations often went, in my opinion, well beyond the boundaries of good taste.

On a more serious, day to day level, sexism exists in the workplace and in life in general. And of curse, any sexual harassment, or implication that a person’s gender can have a negative impact on their ability to do a job for which they are trained, is unacceptable. But it isn’t always a one way street. A friend of mine runs a high street branch of a recruitment agency. If a handsome man comes into reception, the girl at the reception desk immediately sends an email to the rest of her team in the back office, subject matter – ‘Hotty alert’. It’s amazing how, one by one, each team member finds a pressing need to go to reception and surreptitiously check out the talent. Boys will be boys and girls will be girls.

I support Sky’s decision to sack Gray, who has behaved like an ignorant bigot. The fact that he and his colleagues felt comfortable in following this very non politically correct line of banter suggest that the sexist attitudes could be endemic in the Sky Sports Studios. But let’s not pretend this is about football. It’s about corporate emotional intelligence and the need for cultural change in many organisations.
The whole affair is rather sad– because despite his bad behaviour, Gray was a good football pundit. But even more importantly, the lineswoman, Sian Massey, performed at a very high standard at the match and proved, without a shadow of doubt that yes, women DO understand the offside rule.


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