I want to talk about a man named Todd Akin, an American politician who died last year. For 34 years, until 2012, Akin served the state of Missouri in both the state and US House of Representatives.
He was also the anti-abortionist who caused widespread outrage when, during a run for the Senate, he used the term ‘legitimate rape’ in answer to a question about abortion exceptions for rape victims and suggested that the female body had ‘ways of shutting [pregnancy] down’.
In fact, his answer was so jaw-droppingly ignorant that the relevant part of the interview transcript bears printing here verbatim:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
Where to begin?
With the observation that the term ‘legitimate’ rape suggests there are different categories of rape?
With the mindboggling fact he believed a rape victim might be capable of avoiding pregnancy through some kind of biological voodoo?
With the suggestion that there are actually doctors – plural, mind – who think pregnancy through rape is ‘really rare’ and are still allowed to practise medicine in the United States?
Or maybe with what isn’t in that quote. That, having apologised shortly after the interview in an effort to save his political skin, he then publicly stood by his comments two years later, saying he regretted having issued the apology.
In the end, we shouldn’t be surprised. Akin represented a political party famed for being unreconstructed and a state in a part of America not exactly known for its unwavering respect for race, gender, or women’s rights.
But the fact all this happened in the relatively recent past shows how far we still have to go in breaking down stereotypes and misinformation, not only around women but in all other areas of potential discrimination.
Women’s news and lifestyle site The List recently published a piece that ran down a worryingly long list of things people once believed about women.
Going as far back as the days of ancient Rome, some of them are as hilarious as they are unbelievable (menstruating women can kill swarms of bees and their periods can repel storms, to offer a particular favourite).
Others may have their roots in prevailing belief structures centuries ago, but you get the abiding sense that there are plenty of people in 2022 who probably believe them too (women on their period are unclean, for example).
It’s a fascinating read and worth making time for. But it also made me question how far we’ve come and where we are now.
For example, we know that huge progress has been made on gender equality in the 112 years that have passed since Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union and triggered the suffragette movement.
Over time, social and political education has eroded outdated and misogynistic attitudes. The debate around parity in pay and opportunity has advanced, even if it still needs further momentum to drive meaningful change. Sex politics and gender norms have shifted to a better place.
We may have succeeded in silencing the majority of the Todd Akins of the world, but looking at what’s happening in the US (SCOTUS overturning Roe V Wade) have we also reached the point where the problem still exists in that silence, and much like a spiked drink, are we now dealing with an enemy we can no longer see and hear?
In business, as well as in life, what mechanisms exist to root out the insidious discrimination and prejudice that surely still exists, even in a vastly shrunken state? What does best practice around that work look like, and how do we share it?
For those of us working in the inclusion and diversity (I&D) space, the emphasis must now be on ensuring that we continue educating and reinforcing key messages, encouraging business and HR leaders to apply measurable metrics to their recruitment and performance work, and create safe spaces that allow employees to speak out when undesirable (or illegal) behaviour is identified in the workplace.
If you’re ready to take inclusion within your business to the next level, we’re here to help you do it. Please contact us – we’d love to work with you to make a difference where it really matters.