Opinion

On Philip Hammond's Train 'Joke': Casual Sexism Shouldn’t Be Treated Casually

Our Chancellor thinks sexist jokes are funny. Columnist Lucy Vine does not

When I was little, my grandpa would occasionally say dumb stuff about people who didn’t look like him, and I would look up at him feeling sad and wonder what to do. The other grown-ups around me would whisper that it was just an old person thing – that he didn’t know any better, and to just ignore it. So I did. And now I’m not little, but we’re still ignoring the same things. When it comes to old white men with grey hair, we quietly roll our eyes at the dumb stuff they say and we let them off the hook.

But that is bullsh-t.

This week, one of the most important men in the UK made a sexist joke – literally at work and literally to his female boss – and just about everyone smiled, rolled their eyes fondly, and let him off the hook. The comment came during a cabinet meeting about transport, where Chancellor Philip Hammond laughingly quipped that driving trains is now so easy that ‘even a woman’ could do it. You geddit? Because women are bad drivers! Right! You get it? Because women are the worst at everything because of their brainless brains with no brain cells! LOL!

The report went on to say Prime Minister, Theresa May responded to the ‘joke’ by telling Hammond, ‘Chancellor I am going to take your shovel away from you.’ Which is an un-funny reference to that expression, ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging.’ This was widely reported in the news as a ‘rebuke.’ But that isn’t really a rebuke, is it? That’s laughing it off. That is – and I’ll say it one more time – letting an old, white man off the hook. And the rest of the MPs backed that up, piling in to insist to journalists that the cabinet exchange was ‘good natured.’

It annoys me, but the thing is, I do understand May’s reaction. Laughing things like this off is always easier than challenging them. Especially when you’re in a room full of men who are ready and waiting for you to reveal a tiny hint of your latent feminist tendencies, so they can accuse you of being humourless and oversensitive. I’ve been accused of that enough to be well aware that sometimes it’s easier to uncomfortably laugh things off than going to battle.

But personally, I am really done with everyone doing that. For one thing, Hammond isn’t even that old. He’s only 61. He’s younger than both my parents and neither of them say sexist crap like that. He’s 30 years younger than my grandfather would’ve been. Hammond shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind those ‘he’s too old to know better’ or ‘this used to be acceptable’ type excuses because we do know better and it isn’t acceptable. And secondly, he’s our CHANCELLOR. He’s one of the leaders of this country. And he was at work! You don’t get to say your nonsense in the office! Save it for your sad, sexist diary, dude.

And it’s not like Hammond is a first time offender when it comes to this type of thing. After the report leaked, Labour MP Mary Creagh tweeted that the, ‘Chancellor called me hysterical a couple of months ago. Now it’s the turn of train drivers.’ It’s hard to imagine this man calling a male peer ‘hysterical’, isn’t it? Because words like that are exclusively reserved for people with wombs.

Never mind that this man is in charge of the country, implicitly telling everyone that it’s fine to dismiss women in this way. The bigger point is that ‘casual’ sexism should never go unchallenged, because it’s not casual. Every time someone makes a ‘joke’ like this – especially someone influential and respected – it is absorbed and internalised by everyone. The idea that we women are silly, stupid, slags, hysterical, and bad drivers, it chips away at the way we view ourselves. It adds to the pile. We take those labels with us into the world and they become our context. We put ourselves down, we don’t push ourselves in the workplace, we don’t ask for pay rises, and we don’t report the more serious problems we face because we know we won’t be listened to.

Ultimately, there is nothing casual about misogyny, because any climate of misogyny creates a wallpaper of sh-ttiness decorating our life-house. Nobody should have to live like that, and the only way we can stop it is by challenging people like Hammond when they make ‘jokes’ that tear women down.

And also, c’mon, it wasn’t even funny.

Hot Mess by Lucy Vine is out now

Follow Lucy on Twitter @lecv

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