In her book How To Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran explains her method of determining whether what you are experiencing is sexism. First, she suggests, ask yourself "Is this polite?", then "Is this happening to the men?" If both answers are no, go ahead and point out how terribly uncivil the other person is being, because, Moran argues, "even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defence against a charge of simply being rude".
Not long ago, I was acting associate principal for the day and I discovered that a few Year 7s had broken into a locked classroom and upended the tables. I stalked off to retrieve the culprits. On my way, the (female) receptionist asked if I wanted help from the (male) deputy principal. As I returned to the office with three 12-year-olds in tow, the (male) head of art asked me if I was all right. The next day, a (male) history teacher mentioned that I'd appeared "rather puffed up and full of myself" when I'd spoken to the Year 7 class about the incident.
I ran through Moran's checklist and decided that what I'd experienced was indeed an appalling lack of manners.
Another incident followed similar lines. Chairing a meeting of all the Year 10 English teachers, I asked a colleague for his opinion. He sat with arms folded, refusing to meet my eye. He shrugged and answered "Whatevs". The meeting descended into awkwardness.
All this comes as our young and enthusiastic principal tries to coax a rather inert staff into the 21st-century world of teaching. The Year 10 English teachers and I are part of a PLC - a professional learning community. The principal has spent thousands of dollars on training for me and the colleague who can't meet my eye. Our task is to provide a model for the rest of the school of how a collaborative, goal-oriented approach to learning can result in student success. The problem is that I yelled at this colleague in the first meeting and now he won't speak to me.
Our principal can't let his PLC sink, even if his chosen leaders are displaying neither professionalism nor collaboration. And so he insisted that we find a way to navigate our differences. I was indignant and convinced that my colleague simply could not handle a strong, forceful woman. When I learned how upset he'd been when I shouted at him, I scoffed and said, "He needs to man up!" As far as I was concerned, he was acting like a sulky child and clearly displaying the bad manners highlighted by Moran.
After a few days of finding excuses not to be anywhere he was, I'd had time to run Moran's checklist against my own actions. Was I playing the "strong woman" card when in fact I'd been dismissive and rude?
If I had upset a female colleague, would I have scoffed and suggested that she "man up"? It's easy to perceive injustice against yourself, particularly where isms are involved, and then make excuses for your own behaviour.
By the time I'd honestly answered my own questions, it was clear that I'd been guilty of some exceptionally bad manners myself. What would Caitlin do about this?
Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia