“We Are Not Sirs”: 20th century assumptions and the modern world

We’ve come across the scene in workplace dramas for decades. Man walks into office, sees a woman hunched over the desk, and out comes some variant of the sleazy line “Donaldson sure is lucky to have a fox like you for a secretary”. The woman turns, informing the scumbag that she IS in fact Donaldson, and this is her office that he’s violating with his presence. Or maybe she laughs and they get married.

Scenarios like this were (if not funny) relatable in the 1980s, when white, western women were beginning to gain a footing in the workforce at the highest levels, and evidently their presence in roles other than secretary or cleaner was still a shock. It’s hard to stomach given the level of privilege we’re now accustomed to.

It is surprising and outrageous to witness such a scene now, in a time when the majority of professions are open to all genders, if not equally practiced by each.

It is misogynistic and ignorant to assume that people in positions of authority will be male, or to ignore or misrepresent a person’s gender in, say, repeated correspondence. There is simply no place for this prejudice in the twenty-first century, not only because it is wrong, but because of its basic inaccuracy. Women and non-binary people have the right to be angered and to respond to the way they are being represented.

But it also goes beyond them, the outdated prejudices of the twentieth century still influence much of what we do, and leave us thinking of entire groups of the population as inferior and incapable.

Sexism is still normal. Racism exists. They are not going to drop dead and disappear with the passage of time. It is as significant that high profile instances of false, prejudice-based assumptions happen in the modern world as it is that they have caused outrage. Outrage isn’t enough.

The belief that black women aren’t actually doctors, even when they say they are and offer help in an emergency; Versace employees monitoring black patrons in shops, as if they are bound to steal; telling people of colour to leave first class train carriages because they can’t possibly afford the fare: these are all subjects of viral news headlines and startlingly recent cases of people being ‘assumed’ into outdated roles they no longer fill. Fundamentally, they are fueled by the belief that everyone should ‘stay in their place’, with no regard for where that ‘place’ is today.

God knows women aren’t editors, or rather, that may have been a fair assumption forty or fifty years ago. Simple observation is evidence enough that, today, it isn’t true.

Last September, major London legal firm Freshfields implemented new default addresses in all of its correspondence in a simple but groundbreaking step toward eliminating a bias toward male employees.

Addressing emails ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ rather than ‘Dear Sir’ is a growing trend in professional circles, yet simply defaulting to ‘Dear Sir’ remains persistent. The simple change makes an enormous difference toward opening up the workplace for women professionals.

In The Lawyer magazine, Freshfields associate Megan Castellano, who spearheaded the change in company policy, argued for the need to address the small ways we tend to exclude minorities from spaces of privilege, saying, “We need to take steps to eradicate the practices and behaviors that can lead to an unintended male-oriented workplace culture.”

Though unintended for many, we should not be reluctant to call-out prejudice where it is clear, but should work to make it firmly part of the past.

In an age when ‘the new normal’ has become a by-word for the revolutionary social change this century has already seen, we should do more to realize this normalcy in the everyday, and eradicate unacceptable assumptions based on prejudices that simply no longer have a place.

 

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