The Mayor of London stumbled into a sexism scandal last week– just what did he say and just how sexist was his remark?
The British politician Boris Johnson got caught in a casual sexism scandal last week.
London’s conservative mayor confounds and infuriates liberal critics in equal measure and last week he threw them a bit of rope to have another go at hanging him.
Johnson is one of those rare politicians whose personality gives him a popularity that extends beyond politics and has made him an electoral success with the ladies. In the run-up to his re-election in 2012, Johnson was behind in the polls with male voters, but had a remarkable 18-point lead with women.
This left liberals scratching their heads and asking themselves “why do women vote for Boris?”
One female commentator complained that he is an infamous philanderer, promotes few senior women and is the subject of bitter complaints from female colleagues, before going on to eulogize that “he has rockstar quality with a touch of Bill Clinton in his ability to make some women ‘feel like the only person in the world’ for the brief period that he talks to them.”
Johnson is also a skilled comic and clown, a talent he shared with a global audience during the London 2012 Olympics when he was caught hanging from a zip wire in a suit and crash helmet, patriotically waving a pair of cheap plastic flags.
But comedy and diplomacy are uncomfortable bedfellows and so it turned out when Johnson found himself sharing a platform with a Malaysian Prime Minister at the World Islamic Economic Forum last week.
As the visiting PM proudly declared that 68% of university entrants in his country are female, Johnson quipped “they’ve got to find men to marry”.
Some people laughed, some people groaned, some were bemused and some were categorically not amused—but no-one stopped the press conference to find out what Johnson meant.
The issue that Johnson was trying to make reference to in a seven word quip that both amused and outraged, was the complex social inequality that arises in modern economies as the middle classes expand and the rich become richer while the poor become poorer.
This trend coincides with female graduates entering the workforce in greater numbers and forming double-income marriages that widen the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”. As the double income family has become the norm a paradox of choice has emerged. While more families than ever before can choose to have both parents working—more families than ever also feel like they have no choice.
According to the Pew Research Centre in the USA, 74% of Americans say that the increasing number of two-income families has made it harder for parents to raise children, and half say that it has made marriages harder to succeed.
As a right-wing libertarian Johnson values freedom and choice and questions whether or not most couples have any real choice about how much time both parents spend working. He also recognizes our human tendency towards “assortative mating” which results in graduates mostly marrying other graduates, a choice that fewer women have in countries like Malaysia where men are half as likely to go to university.
Female graduates now outnumber men in 89 of the world’s leading economies. This isn’t just a statistical inequality. When one group of society is less educated than other groups, it leads to social inequality. This is as true for women and girls in developing countries as it is for men and boys in advanced economies.
The problem for men and boys, from a political perspective, is that the egalitarian left tends to view gender inequality as something that only happens to women; the traditional right tends to think men should be men and women should be women, while libertarians tend to think that men and women should be free to do as they please with as little intervention from the state as possible.
No-one in that mix of political perspectives is firmly focused on addressing the social inequalities that men and boys face in areas like education, health, mental wellbeing, housing, employment, criminal justice and family life.
Sexism is often subjective and so people who are looking to be offended can always find reason to take offence. At times this sensitivity to perceived prejudice can become functionally identical to bigotry, as people from one group constantly pre-judge what representatives of other groups think and feel.
If you are a straight, weight, wealthy, middle-aged, middle-class, right-wing man in a position of privilege and power like Boris Johnson, then it is inevitable that some people will be more interested in finding reasons to be offended at you than finding out what you actually mean.
Numerous commentators have labeled Johnson sexist for saying that “women only go to university to find men to marry”, which is definitely a sexist sentiment, but probably wasn’t what he said. When critics have to distort someone’s words in order to take offence, it’s usually a symptom of self-indulgent shadowboxing that involves getting offended at your own misinterpretation of what someone you dislike actually said and meant.
The issue that Johnson was pointing to is a Gordian knot of a problem and the time and manner in which he raised it was, from my subjective perspective, stupid and insensitive. Others have taken the subjective viewpoint that what he said is sexist—which may or may not be true but adds nothing to our understanding of the conundrum he was highlighting.
One commentator who did shed some light on the matter was Nelson Fraser, who is editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine, a post that Johnson once occupied himself. According to Fraser, gender equality is a very real concept among the rich, with young men and women doing as well as each other economically.
Fraser pointed to the male leaders of the UK’s three main political parties and noted that they all have partners who earn more than them (the same was true of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher).
What we haven’t worked out is how we help different communities to make the transition from a binary world of conventional gender roles to a post-traditional society where men and women are free to choose the roles they play while still forming interdependent relationships that help to raise the next generation.
This may be an easy goal for rich professionals to achieve, but not so for the rest of us. In the USA, for example, married moms who are the primary breadwinner enjoy a family income that is nearly four times bigger than breadwinner moms in lone parent households. In the UK, men in their twenties now experience a male gender pay gap, are more likely to be unemployed and have bleaker expectations than their counterparts in the 70s and 80s.
It seems that women and the wealthy find it easier to adapt to a modern world of interchangeable gender roles. Despite the clumsiness of Johnson’s comments, one of Britain’s most successful Muslim women, Shelina Janmohamed, says he has point.
According to Janmohamed, the Muslim women in the UK are achieving more in education at a faster rate than their male peers and do have problems in finding husbands. These educated Muslim women are “seeking greater equity in gender roles in the marriage, a partnership rather than a traditional male/female power structure” and Muslim men haven’t adjusted yet. The result is that “Muslim women either can’t find a spouse who is a match for their aspirations, or marriages are increasingly failing.”
Or as Johnson said of the Muslim Malaysian women who are twice as likely to go to university as Malaysian men—“they’ve got to find men to marry”.
Janmohamed says the answer is “to turn our focus on the Muslim men we nurture”. The priority, she says, is to help men, and the parents (especially the mothers) who raise them to have conventional expectations of their future wives, to step up to this post-conventional challenge.
We also need to help young men and boys of all backgrounds to prepare for life in society where traditional gender roles are increasingly interchangeable. The first step is to ensure we tackle the inequality in boys’ educational outcomes from London to Kuala Lumpur—and we need leaders like Boris Johnson to find ways of raising these issues without coming off like a reactionary sexist buffoon.
Photo credit: http:Flickr/David Boyle