Last month we were treated to the delightful absurdity of a Texas lawyer struggling with technology. For those who haven’t seen the viral video it is as silly as can be, and as such, hilarious. The legal proceedings were having to take place virtually and the judge and lawyers logged into a video call. Unfortunately for one of the lawyers, Rod Ponton, he appeared on screen as a cat. The judge politely suggested he might have a filter on, to which Rod groaned, then began fumbling with an explanation before giving up and uttering the immortal words, “I am prepared to go forward… I am not a cat.” The seriousness with which the line was delivered is truly impressive.
I suspect the others on the call did already know that he wasn’t a talking cat who had managed to master basic IT, but I suppose it is always best to be certain, after all, sometimes people are unaware that they are viewing information through a filter. This was highlighted by the other video which went viral last month, that of the Handforth parish council meeting. This story saw Jackie Weaver thrust into the spotlight after removing the chairperson from the meeting. He had declared she had no authority there. The interesting thing about the reaction was that there seemed a lack of interest in whether she did indeed have authority or not. In an interview on BBC’s Woman’s Hour following the release of the video, Weaver herself admitted she didn’t know if she did – she didn’t actually know who was in charge! But to many people watching that didn’t seem to matter, perhaps because it wasn’t being judged on the rights and wrongs according to the rules, but viewed through a different filter – sexism. When judging Weaver as a woman standing up against men, particularly rude men, then it seems some people would consider her in the right regardless of her actions’ technical legitimacy. And whilst this may be understandable on some level, it should be recognised that the filter in place may or may not be representing reality.
This was highlighted in the dental world recently following the publication of an article in the BDJ. The two-part article ‘Secretaries and chief executives of the British Dental Association’ was by Professor Stanley Gelbier (Vol 230, No 1&2). The article charted the history of the association by looking at the careers of the individuals who held those positions. I suspect given its nature, reader interest in the piece was expected to be limited. Unfortunately the piece generated great interest, although given the reaction it is a wonder if many of those commenting did actually read it. The offending section related to Linda Wallace, who the article said “filled the gap”. To many, given that Linda was the only woman in the article, the lack of respect shown was a clear example of sexism, however there are some good reasons to question this.
For starters it is simply not the case that Linda was in the same role as all the others; she held the title of ‘acting chief executive’ and was only in that role for just a couple of months. That is not to diminish the importance of the work she did – Linda was involved in the BDA for many years and held a number of roles, and she was given an MBE in 2009 for services to healthcare. The body of her work is not in question, what is is whether she deserves more space in an article which specifically limited its scope to those who held specific roles, and if she did then whether the reason she was treated unfairly was because of her sex. In answer to this it should be noted firstly exactly what role she was in and how long for, and that two men, Robert G. Maclean and Stanley H. Richardson, were also treated dismissively during their time in ‘acting’ roles’. For them the author simply says they “stood in”, they did not even get their own subheading!
Of course, it is possible that the author was driven by sexism to disrespect the work of a female. But if that conclusion is reached in spite of the facts rather than because of them, or based on the stereotype that the author is probably sexist because he is a man of a certain age, then questions really need to be asked about whether such a conclusion is on the right side in the fight against bigotry. The issue of sexism is an incredibly important one both in society and in dentistry. Where it exists it should be challenged and defeated, but in order to do that we may need to turn off some of our own filters and judge things fairly, if not we aren’t so much fighting the good fight as tilting at windmills!