Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: This is still a man's world

There are men in parliament who cannot accept that they have to share space with politicians in bras
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The Independent Online

Turns out I can be sexist, easily, naturally, as if it is what nature intended, though I like to think I am a passionate advocate for women's rights. Over the last 30 years the articles on gender injustice this Ms Right On has written, plus speeches, policy papers, chapters in books and emails, would fill a shipping container, or two even. And yet last week I let the side down, badly.

It was at a seminar on broadcast interviews – the most effective styles, and how real answers can be extracted from media savvy interviewees. Justin Webb of the Today programme, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw and I were on the panel. We discussed great exchanges and inquisitors. Until the last five minutes, not one female broadcaster had been mentioned, and two smart young women spoke up to ask why not. They shamed us twice over– a vital conversation had dwelt only on male excellence and we hadn't realised that. Somehow forgotten were Martha Kearney, Kirsty Wark, Caroline Quinn, Ritula Shah, Anita Anand, Sarah Montague, Jenni Murray, Victoria Derbyshire... At every level, still, even in the West, women are invisible, neglected, kept down, slighted, patronised, objectified, denied and demeaned in everyday life.

And as the seminar above shows clearly, we women can devalue ourselves and our sisters, often gamely playing along to avoid the dreaded "feminist" tag. That must be why the all-powerful Hillary Clinton gabbled stupidly about her hot pink handbag and others she owns when interviewed by Harper's Bazaar – a magazine for shopaholic bimbos. They are a great "uniter of women", quoth she. Though many of us feel the urge to throw up over the pages, others will no doubt rush to buy the pricey sack she plugged.

Every week brings stories of women who piss on the long struggle for female equality and dignity. Some coolly commodify themselves. A new book, Sugar Daddy Diaries, by Helen Croydon, is about to hit the shops and the media is salivating – just as with Diary of a Call Girl. So, a woman knowingly using her body to get pathetic, rich men. So what? It's been done through the world, through history. The only difference is that today selling your body is projected as "empowerment". Next, we hear that another beauty, Canadian ex-model Karen Gordon, is about to give herself in marriage to Earl Spencer, 46, who seems to have the attention span of a spoilt two-year-old in a toy shop when it comes to women. They come, sometimes breed, cope with his liaisons and then go. So why do birds keep flying into this aristo's adulterous hands? And how does the druggy, woman-beating porn addict Charlie Sheen still pull them in, a long line of beautiful ladies with everything to lose? Maybe the female psyche, some will conclude, is programmed to serve, cannot resist the loaded bad boy. Looking at the abject way some teen girls are with dickhead boys, you do wonder if subservience is a biological imperative.

I expect some of our male readers will be chuckling by now. Not so fast, boys. Yes, we can be our own worst foes, but nothing we do can match male sexism – alive and strong and kicking viciously every day. Victoria Coren has a sharp intelligence and an exceptional way with words. She is a formidable poker player. Too much for the horrible and self-overrated Michael Winner, who doesn't know her. He – whose own dangling jewels are kept under very loose trousers – has been tweeting about Ms Coren and her breasts – messages so crude you feel he is losing the little he had. After the sacking of Andy Gray and Richard Keys, you might have thought some decency was coming into the public space. Not so. Nothing's changed – why, even Ms Coren says she wishes they hadn't been fired. In modern culture, boorish men who debase and pornify women are to be indulged, laughed with. Berlusconi – why, he's just the ladies man, and such fun. So what's the problem if he likes the company of pretty teenagers and gives them a bob or two?

Our politicians here are less flamboyant and were not amused when Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker, wore an inviting bedsheet in a photo shoot. But talk to women in parliament and most will tell you they still have to live with unpleasant jokes and men who cannot accept that they share space with politicians in bras. More serious is the male dominated Cabinet and the way female ministers are treated. Cameron simply dropped the forest sell-off, chucked Caroline Spelman in it as if she was a wet J-cloth. I don't like the woman or the policy, but the Prime Minister would not have treated a male colleague as a dispensable thing. Tony Blair did the same to Tessa Jowell over the Ecclestone affair.

Only 10 per cent of directors, 9 per cent of High Court judges and 14 per cent of Vice Chancellors are women. Other sectors are no better. Lord Davies of Abersoch is about to report on how the numbers of women in boardrooms can be increased – and what do we get? A new study claiming women don't break through because of modesty and low ambition. I have better possible reasons: some don't want their knickers gazed at from under the glass ceiling, and others just can't bear the sexist company. Meanwhile substantially more women are losing jobs in the cuts – must be that sweet modesty again.

I have saved the worst till last. The boy sensation Justin Bieber told Rolling Stone that when women are raped, "it's really sad but everything happens for a reason". Julian Assange should call him as an expert witness. Countless women are beaten up, and some murdered, by partners who blame them for the violence. Last week music teacher Andrew Lindo stabbed to death his lover, Marie Stewart, because, he says, of what she had "done and said". She obviously asked for it, an age-old excuse still used, even in courts. Appallingly, each case is treated as an individual tragedy, not a symptom of hardening misogyny. It really still is a man's world.

In this mythical post-fem era, warns Zoe Gannon, research director at the High Pay Commission, "women can choose their partner, their family, their jobs, their shoes. But this choice acts as a mirage to disguise the very unequal situation beneath". How right she is. But as long as some can buy hot pink handbags, all will be well one day. Or never.