So, how's everyone enjoying the culture war? Whether you're a simpering millennial who wants everything that's ever offended you banned, or a furious, puce-faced baby boomer ensconced in a palace bought with the profits from your fleet of rental properties, there's always plenty to get angry about.
Not least the controversy over William Sitwell, the now former editor of Waitrose Food magazine. Sitwell resigned last week after an email reply he sent to a young female freelancer came to light. The email in question was a reply to a perfectly reasonable pitch by food writer Selene Nelson suggesting a series about veganism and vegan options, in which Sitwell made a weird joke suggesting hunting vegans for sport.
Much of the following uproar framed the two opposing views about Sitwell’s behaviour and subsequent firing thus: either he was a valiant martyr for the cause of free speech, crucified by the dreaded millennials, or he was rightly fired for discrimination against vegans, who in the intervening seconds had somehow become a protected group.
Both of these takes are bullshit: it seems obvious to me that this whole debacle is nothing to do with the freedom of an embattled press, or even really with veganism.
Sitwell's reply was unfunny, yes, but it was also dismissive, rude and condescending in tone. For me, this is just another example in an established trend of men (especially older) having absolutely no idea how to speak to women in a work context. So I decided to go looking for other examples. I put out a call for women and non-binary people to contact me with the weirdest, rudest and most unprofessional correspondence they had received from men in a work context. The volume of replies was massive, though probably to be expected.
Here are a few of the best (some names have been changed so that people don't ruin their careers):
'KIND OF FRUMPY'
A few years ago, I was trying to get in on this mural project. I am a comic artist so I thought it would make a great mural. We had to include a mini bio and picture of ourselves.
So, I send it in with five examples. I hadn't heard anything in the timespan they said I'd hear something. So I email a follow up. I got this:
Dear Ms. L
I didn't choose you since you don't photograph well, you are kind of frumpy. This will get media attention, likely and we want every artist to look their best. You don't fit in the core artist look. Maybe skip a sandwich and look the part.
When I was a PhD student I had a seminar with a visiting scholar, who was very well known and quite famous. In the seminar I pointed out a flaw in his argument and suggested that he read the work of a particular theorist, and he was fairly responsive to it and asked me to email him afterwards. I dutifully did so, and his rambling reply included this line, apropos of nothing:
"I not only want to keep in touch I want to marry you – it would give my wife of 51 years a break"
I wrote a short eBook about overviewing a fairly specific area of my field – creating and maintaining style guides for web use – and made it available on my website for $8 (£6.15). A man emailed me to say he was disappointed in the book; he didn't think it was worth paying for and that it only took him a few minutes to skim through. When I asked what he would like me to do in response he gave me a numbered list of ways to provide "great service" over email, including a whole template of how he thought I should have responded. I hit the refund button and blocked him.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
I was an MA student doing a programme in scientific translation. I had to choose translation sessions in two languages. I was considering three different languages – English, French and Italian.
I emailed the professor in charge of the programme asking if I could choose any of those three languages, and he answered telling me "not to pretend to speak several languages".
I do speak all three (as well as Spanish and my native Polish!) and have certificates to prove it. But he knew better, I guess.
IT'S ALL ABOUT ME
I was quite near the beginning of my career and had written a few things about sexism in the university – from women in STEM subjects to "lad culture" and sexual harassment. Quite soon after a big report I had written came out, I had an email from a prominent male scholar of masculinities, saying that I really ought to be citing him more in my work as he was the leading figure in the field. He also sent a list of his publications and arranged for his publisher to send me a copy of his latest book. Needless to say, I didn’t cite him.
So, what is to be done? I would love to see men release their over-tugged forelocks for a second and reflect on how widespread a problem this is. Women in every sector are just trying to do their jobs, while their male colleagues barely know how to communicate with courtesy. A plague upon their inboxes.