City gents? Brokers use sexist sliding scale in the office

Roger Dobson reports on a psychologist's secret study
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The Independent Online
WOMEN who work in the City of London are classified by male colleagues on a sexist sliding scale, says a woman psychologist who went into a broking firm under cover to investigate how male traders behave.

Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a psychologist at Middlesex University, is telling a conference this weekend that women on the dealing floor are "dimensionalised along a continuum of sexual availability". She means that they are put into categories, and the ones she found in a City oil brokers were "babes", "mums", "lesbians", "dragons", and "one-of-the-boys".

She tells her tale of rampant sexism to the British Psychological Society's 1995 Women and Psychology conference at Leeds University, in a paper entitled "Struggling in the City: The subordination of women traders in the London oil broking market and their coping strategies".

Ms Brooks-Gordon, who says she was told she had been classed as a "babe", passed herself off as a mature work-experience student at a city oil brokers and on the International Petroleum Exchange to carry out her research. Only the directors of the firm knew what she was doing.

In her report she says: "It emerged not only that women were categorised by men in an extremely sexist way, but also that many levels of sexism and exclusionary practices were prevalent in the company and on the trading floor. Male dealers discussed any women who came into the office and classified them according to age, looks and clothing, using these as signifiers of sexual availability."

She says women were put into one of five groups:

"Babes": young and attractive women who have more courtesy shown to them than other women but who are given less professional credibility. They were sub-divided into "goers" - women who looked as if they were sexually available - or "oofs" - women known to be sexually available.

"Mums": women considered unattractive, who wore sensible clothes and did not use make-up. Male traders largely ignored this group apart from trying to get them to make tea or perform other domestic tasks.

"Lesbians": women who dared to espouse feminist views, went to lunch with other women or were thought not to like men.

"Dragons": women considered old or physically unattractive. "It appears that being a dragon gave the men more licence to be rude to a woman."

"One-of-the-boys": women who emulated men and behaved like men. One of the few ways for women to progress is to emulate the men.

Says the report "If a woman made a lot of money for the company and could compete with the men in terms of aggression, trading ability or commitment to the job, then she was classed as one-of-the-boys. The more a woman behaved like a man, the less scrutiny she was under."

It is claimed that some women traders have left because of aggressive sexist jibes. One dealing room had a display of pornographic photographs and new women traders on the International Petroleum Exchange face a barrage of wolf-whistles and hooting. Senior women are often excluded from corporate days out on golfing or go-carting, although "mums" were often given the job of booking the "boys' days out".

Ms Brooks-Gordon said last week: "I was astonished by what went on there. When a new girl goes on the IPE floor the men all flick cards at her. They also wolf-whistle and hoot and women are made to feel hunted.

"In the office where I was there was a board of pornographic postcards in the corner of the dealing room. I found that extraordinary: I thought that had died out almost everywhere. There is also a lot of talk about boys' nights out, but if the women want to lunch together they are called lesbians."

"It really must be one of the last bastions of extreme sexism. It was quite breathtaking."

nIn a paper presented to the conference yesterday, three women psychologists from Nottingham University who analysed media coverage of sportswomen conclude that women's sports are trivialised, marginalised and sexualised.

Dr Precilla Choi and her colleagues Clare Rawdin and Sarah Couzens say the images being presented may deter women from taking up sport. In athletics, men are men, and women are girls, wives, mums or knockouts. While John Regis is a "powerhouse athlete who looks as though he could give piggy- backs to elephants", Sally Gunnell is a "national treasure who in the flesh is far slighter and prettier than on camera and her legs are a knockout."

The trio found that 58 per cent of published photographs of women athletes were passive and taken after the event, emphasising sexuality or emotions. But 76 per cent of pictures of men were action shots.

Their report said: "Sportswomen were referred to as girls and more attention was drawn to their personality, attractiveness, sexuality and marital status. . . .

"In addition, there was evidence of the use of battle metaphors when discussing male athletes' performances. Our findings show that such written commentary and visual imagery depicts women's sport as inferior to men's. The failure of media coverage to consistently provide positive portrayals of sportswomen may contribute to a failure to promote sport to women. This is turn may then in part explain why far fewer women, 4 per cent, than men, 14 per cent, participate in sufficient physical activity to give health benefits, and why women continue to be under-represented in sport at all levels."