An infographic from the UK government that was pulled after being declared sexist and sending an outdated message about women’s roles. (Photo credit: UK Government)

An infographic from the UK government that was pulled after being declared sexist and sending an outdated message about women’s roles. (Photo credit: UK Government)

The Editor’s Desk: What might have been

The images we see — or don’t see — around us can have a profound influence on our lives

Cassie Campbell doing colour commentary on Hockey Night in Canada. Kamala Harris as the first female vice president of the United States. Janet Yellen, the chair of the US Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018 and the current US secretary of the treasury (the first woman to hold either role). Finally, an ad from the UK government urging people to “Stay Home. Save Lives”.

One of these things is not like the others, so let’s deal with it first. The ad, published on the UK government’s website but since taken down, asks people to stay home during the pandemic, and the graphic depicts four households where people are doing just that. The first shows a man, woman, and child sitting on a sofa, enjoying some down time. So far, so good.

In the second household a woman stands beside an ironing board, a baby balanced on her hip. In the third a woman sits at a table reading to a toddler while beside her a girl does schoolwork. And in the final household, a young girl is holding a mop, while a woman with a pail stands beside her.

It all sounds fairly innocuous. However, the unspoken message — which quite a few people were quick to notice — is that household chores and childcare are women’s work, something reinforced by the fact that the lone male depicted is taking his ease.

For those inclined to mutter about “mountains” and “molehills”, it should be pointed out that this sort of thing matters: not only because it reinforces outdated, sexist stereotypes about “women’s work”, but also because people’s view of their place in the world and what they can (or should) do is coloured by what they see depicted in places like an official government advert, or on their TV screens, or in their newspapers.

Which brings me to the three women named at the beginning of this piece, and I’d like to focus on Campbell. You see, when I was growing up, there was one job that I desired above all others, and that was being a play-by-play announcer on Hockey Night in Canada.

I never played hockey as a child, because girls’ hockey barely existed in the late 1960s/early 1970s (we will ignore the fact that whenever I did try to skate, I resembled Bambi the first time he takes to the ice, only with less grace and skill.) However, I loved the game, and could recite hockey trivia and stats, and facts about my favourite players past and present (Stan Mikita, Andre Boudrias, Jacques Plante), with the best of them.

I had no interest in being a colour commentator, since having played hockey seemed to be a prerequisite for that job. No; I wanted to be the play-by-play guy (or gal), breathlessly giving the viewers and listeners at home the ebb and flow of a game, describing thrilling end-to-end rushes, great scoring chances, incredible saves.

But there were no play-by-play gals. There was not one woman on my screen or radio doing the job which I dreamed of doing. And in the absence of any example I could look to, the message was clear: women don’t do these things. Thus the dream died, and I crossed play-by-play commentator off my mental list of career options.

That is why having women like Campbell — and Harris and Yellen and so many others — out there, doing jobs that were previously the purview of men only, is so critically important, because they give girls and women the chance to see someone like them doing these things, and send the message “You can do it too.” And it’s why reductive images like the one from the UK government need to be sent to the scrapheap (or better yet, never see the light of day), so that other girls never have cause to think ruefully of the words of John Greenleaf Whittier: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

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