The Long March of the Mei Nü

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

Walking the tight rope between making strides for women’s rights and being too strident.

So, the Trump-Kim Summit has successfully concluded in Singapore, with the Leader of the Free World shaking hands with the Supreme Leader of one of its most coldblooded dictatorships.

Looking at these two scions of privilege, it is hard not to be struck by how much they have in common, united not just by their comically bad hair, but also by their low regard for women. President Trump has famously bragged that he could get away with routinely grabbing women by their private parts. Chairman Kim is reported to have ordered his government to scour the countryside, sourcing for a “pleasure troupe” of girls as young as 13 or 14 years old, to serve as his entertainers and concubines. The women are eventually passed around to high-ranking officials when, in their mid-twenties, they are deemed over the hill. 

Strides of progress

Seeing these two infamous misogynists feted on the world stage is cause for pensive irony.

The last 18 months have been marked by some great strides for women. It started with the “Women’s March on Washington”, which saw more than two million people flooding the streets of US cities to protest the inauguration of President Trump. Then came exposes of sexual harassment in high-profile companies, notably Uber, whose high-flying CEO, Travis Kalanick, was sacked, all but in name, for various corporate and management scandals.

There followed the #MeToo movement, when victims of sexual harassment spoke up. The momentum toppled powerful movie producers and newscasters, A-list star Kevin Spacey, and most recently, the co-founder of Guess. For their wide and strong impact on the contemporary milieu, Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers”, those men and women who have spoken out against sexual harassment and assault, as its 2017 Person of the Year.

But the backlash has already started against the movement of female empowerment. What is surprising is that this pushback is coming from women themselves. One fear is that if men had to tiptoe around their female colleagues, decreased opportunities for women in the workplace will follow. It is a legitimate concern. If women are seen as a victimised class for whom special protections are needed, the gender equality that the women’s liberation movement has worked so hard to achieve will be eroded.

As a woman, I just want to work in an environment that is blind to my gender.

Singaporean women are blessed to work in a country where blatant sexual discrimination and harassment are, at least anecdotally, rare. That said, our continued abysmal progress in achieving gender equality in the boardroom tells its own story – we still have a long journey ahead of us.

Call out casual sexism each time, every time

Two thoughts on this:

First, we should consistently and fearlessly call out instances of gender bias that exhibit genuine sexism, whether or not it is directed at you, and even where the act is unconscious.

A recent meeting I attended, where a senior business leader made a joke about the arbitrariness of thresholds in corporate governance, nails this point. He had likened it to “sex with an underaged girl”.

“If it’s her 16th birthday,” he mused, “her boyfriend can have sex with her legally, but sex the day before is a crime.”

My objection to this inappropriate comment was met with a brush off, but another male attendee apologised to the ladies at the end of the meeting. I appreciated that but it was an apology that could have been directed to every person in the room, because sexism lessens us all.

Women sometimes feel obliged to tolerate sexist comments poorly wrapped in a veneer of humour so that we do not come across as prim or thin skinned. But inaction in the face of even casual sexism can engender a more general prejudice. Like pornography, watch enough of it and you risk becoming inured to the objectification of women and the consumerisation of sex.

But let cool heads prevail

This leads me to my second point, which will seem diametrically opposed to the first: political correctness can go too far.

There is a move in the west to turn the workplace into a bastion of chillingly appropriate behaviour. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Financial Times, says that men shouldn’t compliment their female coworkers on their looks.

“A comment from a man about a woman’s appearance is usually due to one of three things”, she argues: lechery, gallantry (which she feels does not sit well with corporate manners) or awkwardness (because “men don’t know what to say to their professional female colleagues and gormlessly admire their wardrobes”).

While I agree that commenting on a woman’s appearance can be an act of sexual harassment, it could very well just be a friendly gesture. It humanises the workplace, making us more than just digits of production. Ms Kellaway would surely not approve of my assistant, who prefers to be affectionately called 美女 (mei nü or beautiful girl), responding best when she is objectified by her looks.

With no hard and fast rules, one needs to be sensible about whether words or actions amount to harassment. They must ultimately come down to intent, and have to be taken in context. A boss praising you and telling you he is recommending you for promotion, before inviting you out for a drink after work may be saying uncontroversial things, but the sub-text is potentially nefarious.

Contrast this to a workplace that abounds with seemingly inappropriate dialogue. Like this comment between two colleagues alone in a corner office: “You look hot in that top… why don’t you take it off?” A passer-by might do a double take at the seemingly suggestive comment. As it turns out, it was my female associate suggesting that I was sweltering in my jacket. So I took it off.

Did we feel harassed that day? Yes, but only because of a looming client deadline.


TSMP law corporation