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Triumph of the ‘Token Woman’

Posted on the 28 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Triumph of the ‘Token Woman’

Helen Sharman OBE. Photo credit: Brunel University

It’s the taboo topic few companies or journalists dare discuss. A virulent ‘corporate cancer’, supposedly a thing of the past, but in reality very much alive and well. And it’s probably affecting you – or your work colleagues – right now, as you’re reading this. The ‘disease’? Rampant sexism in the 21st Century workplace.

Something highlighted by the appointment, and salacious coverage by the press of “Glamorous football boss of Mansfield Town FC Carolyn Still”, who according to The Daily Mail ”used to be a successful escort”. The implication being an attractive woman can’t be hard-working and intelligent without sleeping her way to the top. Not to mention all the snide ‘time of the month’ jibes from moronic male ‘colleagues.’

Even so, if the corporate spin-doctors are to be believed, we’re all equal, wonderful, talented work colleagues. Oh yes, and family-friendly to boot. So if you’re a woman in the corporate world, and you want to have children, you’ll be loved and cherished, your every need met. The truth, as ever, is the first casualty of this war against intelligence.

Ask any woman coming back from maternity leave, and she’ll tell you about the ‘Baby Track’. If you think that’s bad, try being a woman with career aspirations in a ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ job. You think sexism in the workplace is dead? Think again, because whatever anyone says, discrimination against women at work is at an all-time high. Outside the workplace, times still have not changed as much as some would have us believe.

Discrimination against women is at an all-time high.

Yes, women enjoy more rights than they did even 20 years ago, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re anywhere near equality with men in all kinds of areas. That’s just in the UK; many countries around the world still treat women little better than baby-making machines. Fortunately, however, huge strides have been made by women in a number of areas. Many of them anonymous to the general public, but some very public – and very inspiring.

One such inspiration was Helen Sharman, who 20 years ago became the first Briton to go into Space, as part of the Anglo-Russian Juno mission. In her book, Seize The Moment, Sharman discussed being one of the last four candidates for selection to the mission.

At the time of the Juno mission, the press gave each candidate a moniker. One man was handsome and dashing, so they called him “An Officer and a Gentleman”. Another was “The Family Man”. The third was “The James Bond Lookalike”. And what did they call Helen Sharman? “The Token Woman”. As Sharman herself put it, “it was so unoriginal – and ham-fisted”. Especially when you read about what she went through to get to that stage, something no pot-bellied hack would come anywhere close to achieving.

But Sharman had the last laugh when she was the one chosen to go into Space by the Russian selection board – on merit. Another triumph over male chauvinists in this world (and beyond), and a shining example of how anyone of any gender can regain control of their life, wherever they are right now…

Nick Wrathall is an independent copywriter and marketing consultant. For more information about Nick, visit

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