How are stereotypes perpetuated? How do we ‘assume’ things, habits and traits about people, races or communities? Why is it that this baggage of history is so difficult to toss away?
We in our part of the world, in South Asia especially, are usually seen as classist and even racist in some cases. How widespread this malaise is was revealed recently at Cannes when Sherry Collins, a long-standing advertising practitioner who in 2015 launched Pitch, an independent London-based trade publication.
A woman of colour, three years ago she was solicited by an unnamed man in Cannes, who passing her whispered ‘how much for the night?’ Needless to say she was shocked and upset, and didn’t come out publicly about it. However, whenever she spoke about the incident, she was presented with similar stories by other women of colour, who it was just ’assumed’ belong to a certain profession.
Although she was solicited in Cannes by a person who worked in the industry, the stories that came to her were not restricted to this high-profile event. This year at Cannes she decided to come out and developed an ad in her magazine to highlight the issue, with the hashtag #AssumeNothing. Coming on the heels of the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #NoMore pushback to gender stereotyping, especially sexual harassment, the hard-hitting and direct ad immediately resonated.
The management of the Cannes Lions Festival stepped in to show their support and highlighted the Cannes Code of Conduct, which focuses on actionable alert to such behaviour.
Even if this is just a dent in an industry known for its gender pay gap, misogyny, sexism, harassment and discrimination and there is a long way to go to provide a level playing field, Collins’ #AssumeNothing is a beginning. It has not only blown the cover from how women of colour are perceived in the industry, it has exposed these stereotypes that are dismissive of women’s abilities and realisation of their potential.
Ask any transgender how they are treated and what assumptions are made about what they can and cannot do. Ask women in showbiz how their complaints of harassments are perceived. Or generally women stepping out and beyond the ‘acceptable’ societal norms. How are they viewed?
Women are well aware of what these ‘assumptions’ look like. If a woman executive is accompanied by a junior male colleague and is interacting in a room full of men, they will hardly address her and will speak to the junior. Or, her point of view will be mansplained.
In any discussion programme, whether in the media or at an event, on non-’feminine’ topics, such as energy policies, water issues, the economy, science and technology, it is generally the men who are asked to voice their opinion. It is ‘assumed’ that women will not be able to speak authoritatively on these subjects.
These prevailing assumptions have persisted in Pakistan despite the fact that we have had, right from the start women ambassadors, governors, judges, scientists, researchers, academics, IT specialists, airline and air force pilots, doctors, administrator, journalists, aviation specialists, defence analysts, artists and a Prime Minister (twice) and a Governor of the State Bank.
What is it that keeps their opinions from coming to the table? Nothing except assumptions about their ability to articulate in their area of expertise. To bring these voices to the fore, not only to expose harassment and discrimination, but to highlight their abilities, maybe an #AssumeNothing campaign on a broader scale needs to be initiated. Pushback is the only way to break stereotypes. We should take a leaf out of Collins’ book and tell people to see people for what they are.
It must also be borne in mind that these assumptions are not restricted to women or transgenders. Men suffer from assumptions too; the pushback needs to be against stereotypes which pigeonhole people in a mould and where societal pressure does not allow them to break free.
Afia Salam is a freelance journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org