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Sexist or gender specific?

I have to admit to not being an avid follower of all the goings-on at The House of Commons but a recent story surrounding events in the lower house caught my eye. The reaction of the pregnant Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, to being left standing during Prime Minister’s Question Time by her predominantly male colleagues surprised and disappointed me. Afterwards she said that she would have considered it ‘sexist’ if one of her colleagues had vacated their seat for her, despite being seven months pregnant. David Cameron was said to have distanced himself from her comments and suggested that giving up your seat for an expectant mother would be ‘the decent thing to do’. However ‘a source’ quoted by The Independent stated that: ‘The idea that just because she is seven months pregnant she has lost all ability to stand on her two feet or fend for herself is quite sexist.’

This got me thinking about two things. Firstly, is it the ‘right’ thing to do to give up your seat for a pregnant woman and secondly, if you did offer up your seat could this action be construed as sexist?

Pregnancy is a unique state. Levels of hormones increase which are thought to be a cause of the dreaded morning sickness, the plasma volume increases by 50% and many women become anaemic. The circulating volume increases by 40-50% to nourish the growing foetus, cardiac output and heart rate also increase and the blood pressure drops due to vasodilatation and smooth muscle relaxation. The most visible change is the anterior weight gain, which disrupts the centre of gravity making a pregnant woman as likely to fall over as someone over the age of 70. I haven’t even mentioned the metabolic, immune, intestinal, renal changes or the peripheral oedema. So in summary, pregnant women may be feeling sick, dizzy, breathless, uncomfortable and unsteady. Which begs the question, why on earth wouldn’t you jump up out of your seat for her?

My sister in law gave birth to a beautiful baby girl last week but in the process unfortunately found herself having to negotiate London public transport. Her waters broke at an antenatal class and, as her contractions became more established, she boarded a bus in order to return home. She was 40 weeks pregnant, contracting every 6 minutes and not one person offered her their seat.

The aspect of this story that I find the most troubling is the conclusion that vacating your seat for a pregnant woman would be sexist. It is a fact of life that only women can be pregnant. If we wish to continue the species then pregnancy has got to happen and given that it is a time of such physiological change for the individual shouldn’t we all agree to cut them a bit of slack? Perhaps it’s more a sad reflection of the role Ms Swinson feels she has to adopt to survive and progress within the male dominated lion’s den of the House of Commons. Either way, I would hope that an equalities minister would be able to define ‘sexism’ a bit more accurately than in terms of a simple act of kindness. 

Dr Laura O’Loghlen is a GPST1 who lives in Cheltenham and works in Gloucestershire