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‘The trouble with girls’. Or how to avoid sexism by thinking about the true meaning of common expressions, with help from Sheryl Sandberg, Kate Rusby and Dire Straits, but no help from Elton John, Eagles, The Faces or Sir Tim Hunt!

Date posted: Sunday 14th June 2015

Now you may have observed if you walk into a wall
You get a certain sensation of reality
The Incredible String Band: The Puppet Song

 1  2

Bob Marley: No woman no cry?

So far in my life, I’ve only been slapped round the face once by a woman. It was in 1975, I was 17 and we were at a party at a friend’s house. It wasn’t an extravagant bash with loads of loud music and dancing and people like me huddled in the kitchen discussing the meaning of Incredible String Band lyrics, or whether Bowie should have kept All the Young Dudes for himself rather than giving the song to Mott The Hoople. It was a small affair with a few people sitting on the floor in a circle smoking and talking about the Incredible String Band, Bowie and Mott The Hoople.

Lisa, my girlfriend of a few months, asked me to get some fags out of her handbag. I reached in and pulled out what I thought was a large cigar wrapped in thin, crinkly white paper. Not having seen anything like this before (except lit by Bob Marley on the cover of Catch A Fire) I stuck it in my mouth, struck a match and was half way through lighting it up when I felt a terrible burning sensation on one side of my face, heard a loud ‘thwack’ (agony travels faster than the speed of sound) and perceived a certain sensation of reality. Lisa’s face was bright red and she called me a series of very rude words.

“Classic schoolboy error” my friend Roberta muttered, “now you know better.” It was a very embarrassing moment, and I learned never again to look inside anyone’s handbag, even if asked. A year later, when the relationship was over, friends often harked back to the incident that Roberta had dubbed ‘Tampongate’. “Didn’t you see the writing on the wall that evening?” they would ask. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but so is eyesight. My glasses had been smashed to smithereens, so I couldn’t see the wall, let alone any writing on it.

I met Lisa three years later, at Roberta’s flat in North London. (Was she trying to get us back together again, or just hoping for some more ‘fun’?) I was a few weeks into my speech therapy course, on which I was the only man, and was still fairly green behind the ears, (my new glasses had caused a nasty irritation). “Why” enquired Lisa, “are there so few men on a course that is mainly about caring for children?”

Without thinking, I replied, “Maybe because women are naturally more able to look after children than men are?”

No sooner had I uttered this statement then I knew I was doomed, “Michael Jones”, yelled Lisa, “Never let me hear you say something as blatantly sexist as that again!!” I thought “Don’t worry sweetheart, you ain’t gonna see me again.” “I’m really sorry,” I said.

“Classic schoolboy error”, muttered Roberta, “now you know better.” Whenever I met Roberta after that (which was often) she always harked back with great amusement to these two excruciating moments, including that evening, which she dubbed ‘Sexistgate’.

Was I being ‘sexist’? Yes, I have to admit, I was. It was inadvertent sexism, because I was naïve, inexperienced, it was the tail-end of the 1970s and I was unaware of how women and girls are put down, and kept down, in so many different ways by men. I soon came to understand that men are just as capable of looking after children as women, (though men still only represent four per cent of the early years workforce in the UK).

From my experience, one of the main ways that women and girls are put down is through the words used to describe them when they step outside the ‘accepted norms’ for behaviour. Elton John used one such word in the title of one of his hits. Though he claimed he was singing about himself, it’s still one of the words in English most commonly-used to insult women. In the 1970s, groups like The Faces and even The Eagles, with songs about pursuing ‘girls’, having their wicked way with them and then dumping them, or about how underhand women are in their dealings with men, added to a sense that, to teenagers like me at least, women must be inferior to men.

Eagles: C’mon baby, don’t say ‘maybe’ (and what is that thing Joe Walsh has got on his head?)

In my work with children with selective mutism, who can talk confidently at home but who, because of extreme anxiety about talking, are completely silent at school, I often start by looking at the words that adults use to describe such children. ‘Stubborn’, ‘manipulative’, ‘controlling’ are the most common. Most children with selective mutism are girls, and these words, from my experience, are never used to describe them. ‘Little Madam’ is exclusively used to describe the girls, who are thought to be using their silence in some way, when in actual fact they have no control over their behaviour. I’ve never heard a quiet boy being called ‘A little gentleman’. The term ‘madam’ is actually extremely offensive, referring to ‘a conceited or bossy girl’ or, at worst, a woman who controls prostitutes in a brothel. Now we know that, can we use other words to describe girls who are so overcome by anxiety that they can’t speak in public?

What about the word ‘minx’, again exclusively used to describe girls who don’t behave as adults would like them to? Here’s a definition: ‘An alluring, cunning, or boldly flirtatious girl or young woman. Has unusual seductive powers, such that she could commit acts that would otherwise be considered inappropriate, while still maintaining an air of class or poise.’ That’s not nice, or necessary. And it’s sexist, in the sense that we are choosing to use words that are specifically designed to be negative about girls. What surprises me is that women use this type of pejorative language as much as men, to describe girls who in some way don’t behave in the way we expect them to.

But what about the word ‘bossy’? Is using that word to describe a child an example of sexism? Let’s think this one through. When was the last time anyone described a boy as ‘bossy’? It was Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook who brought that one to my attention. She suggests (and I agree with her) that a boy who frequently tells other children what to do is more likely to be described as ‘a leader’ or ‘a born organiser’ than a girl who does the same. She’s more likely to be described as ‘bossy’. It’s a positive attribute in a boy, but deemed negative in a girl. Is that fair? Is it right? Can we change it? Have a go at introducing that discussion in the staffroom, and see where it leads.

“Yes Michael”, you might say, “that’s all very well. But what about the different terms we use to describe girls and boys when we like them and what they do?” To which I would reply, ”That’s a good point, but I’ll never try and stop someone being NICE to children.”

Kate Rusby: ‘a lovely lass and the darling of the English folk scene’

Which brings me to Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who recently caused outrage by describing ‘the trouble’ he has with ‘girls in the lab’.

Sir Tim, who incidentally is married to an eminent scientist, staggered a conference in South Korea by claiming that women scientists have no place in a laboratory because they cry when their work is criticized and have a tendency to fall in love with their colleagues. This apparently distracts male scientists like Sir Tim from getting at the ‘truth’ of science.


Sir Tim Hunt: Nobel Prize for sexism?

You could say that Sir Tim was only joking and he should have known better. That, indeed, was his defence, but he then went on to apologize for offending his audience of scientific journalists, but stuck by the truth of his words. My initial reaction was disbelief and a feeling that it was right that he was instantly dismissed. Then I read about the impact on his career, and I felt some sympathy. Sir Tim’s wife, Professor Mary Collins, is quoted in the Observer interview as saying, “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.” But then I read about the real problem of how so few women are involved in science in the UK, and the misogynistic attitudes that they sometimes experience, and I wasn’t so sure. But then again, I’m a man and have never really suffered the indignity of being discriminated against because of my sex. (By the way, I was taught at a single-sex school in the 1960s…. Come to your own conclusions about that one.)

What’s your view?


Read more reaction on social media here.

And just before we go, for no other reason than I’m in charge of this blog and it’s a brilliant clip, here’s another band full of men. Who’d have thought a song about a South London pub could be so brilliant?

Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing (and not a sexist lyric in sight)

Take care out there!


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9 responses to “‘The trouble with girls’. Or how to avoid sexism by thinking about the true meaning of common expressions, with help from Sheryl Sandberg, Kate Rusby and Dire Straits, but no help from Elton John, Eagles, The Faces or Sir Tim Hunt!”

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Annika! Should we all accept that Sir Tim Hunt made a serious mistake in talking about women scientists in this way, and ‘forgive him’? Or should he have lost his job as a result of his views?
      What would happen if a famous Swedish scientist made unfortunate sexist remarks like that?
      Is it acceptable that we use different words when we talk about girls? Does it matter, if we say nice things about them?
      Very best wishes

  1. I spend loads of time thinking about how the words we use illustrate the way we are really thinking and whether we mean it or not or whether we were “joking”.Or “not”. But in my work I also spend a lot of time sharing sound and music because I know in my heart that music is powerful and transformative.
    Soooooo thankyou for making me weep onto the keyboard at school via Kate Rusby… It’s just science really isn’t it:Certain combinations of chords and melodies do that. Nothing to do with a simple ancient heartfelt song sung by somebody who means it surrounded by transcendent strings brass as sweet as birdsong and general loveliness.
    So thanks for the tears Michael

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim!!!
      Where have you been????????????????????????
      Yes, Kate Rusby is brilliant! (Is it Ok to say, as the female presenter does, that she is ‘a lovely lass?’
      I have made many mistakes in staffrooms and in front of audiences. Should we be grateful that Sir Tim is ‘human’ (an important attribute in a scientist) and let him get on with his work? Or should we thank him for bringing an important issue to the world’s attention. Or should he be sacked from every post he holds?
      This is a rhetorical question and no need to reply!
      Great to hear from you again!
      PS How are you with June Tabor ‘No Man’s land/Flowers of the Forest’?

      • Getting my Folkie head on I do admire Anne Briggs quite a lot. I struggle sometimes with JUne Tabor but will that one a go thanks.
        I also had the honour to meet Shirley Collins once (she very graciously declined an invitation to sing one of my songs with our band about 7 years ago…I know what a cheek.. me not her): In fact her “inability” to sing anymore since quite a long time would interest you very much I think. I will now through the power of the internet try and post a link to my fav Shirley Collins song.

  2. Simon says:

    I’ve just been watching the film of High Fidelity. It reminds me of that quote about listening to music: Women mostly think, ‘Oh I love this song’. They have no corresponding wish to collect all others like it and arrange them into alphabetical order.

    Of course, it is a huge generalisation but it was made by someone who was a scientist who believed that more men have a systemising brain and more women an empathising cognitive style. I don’t know whether you’ld agree with him but I think a lot of people would know where he was coming from.

    There are differnces…. but I don’t believe that anybody should use those differences through their language to demean men or women.

    By the way, Kate Rusby has also been called a ‘folk-babe’ Heard of any male singers called a ‘folk-hunk’? Why? Because its men who make up this stuff – blame it on their systemising brains!

    Keep up the good work. Can we have a clip of Little Feat?


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Simon!!
      It was Simon Baron-Cohen, I believe, who put that idea forward in relation to children with autism, but it’s only a theory… but a popular one. I suspect it’s like Basil Bernstein and his concept of ‘elaborated code’ and ‘restricted code’ in the use of language by certain groups. I met Bernstein once (actually ‘met’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s another story’. He said that his ideas were grabbed hold of by many teachers in his day who completely distorted his ideas and attributed some ideas to him that he didn’t actually write, such as ‘working class language’ is ‘less well-developed’ than ‘middle class English’.
      Thanks for mentioning ‘systemising’ as I feel a blog coming on. Though it will take me a while to make a link with Little Feat!!!
      More soon!

  3. I agree about men and systemising and stuff.But lets evolve why don’t we?

    I also think a little Feat clip would be fantastic for no other reason than Lowell George…….
    However in common with much 70’s stuff the lyrics of almost all of it don’t bear a lot of examination through a gender equality lens.CF the Eagles clip above, co-written by Jackson Browne, who by anyone’s standards is a reasonably right on chap vis a vis the environment, social equality etc (not so much with Take it Easy lyrics though).
    RE Sir Tim Hunt I’m not sure he got sacked he resigned /retired: Probably for the best, especially for all the potentially brilliant women scientists that his “hilarity” contributed to holding back.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi again Tim!
      Ah yes, ‘systemising’: some men do (engineers apparently), but not all men. Some women do… but not all women do. Some children with autism do… but not all… I feel a blog coming on!!!

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