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On Saturday, in a move that stunned the media and politicians alike, the permanent secretary of the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam held a press conference in which he resigned, singling out Priti Patel as the main reason for his departure.

He pledged to bring a case of constructive dismissal against the government, claiming that the Home Secretary had orchestrated a “vicious” 10-day briefing campaign against him. 

Furthermore, he alleged that she had shouted, sworn at and belittled other staff – as well as “making unreasonable and repeated demands”, which had apparently “created fear and needed some bravery to call out.”

Rutnam said he had asked Patel to “change her behaviours”, but it appears she thought little of this advice – and thus he felt no option but to walk out.

These accusations should be listened to. None of us are privy to the everyday operations of the civil service, or know what went on with Patel and Rutnam, so we can only speculate on who’s right.

But the criticism aimed at Patel has struck me as having something of a sexist edge. It’s the wording of the accusations that are telling, which one suspects would not be considered so damning – or, indeed, noticed – if applied to a man.

Now I am not one to cry sexism usually, which has rendered almost meaningless as a term by the Left, nor a fan of quotas or sympathy.

Yet it struck me as odd that Patel was condemned for making “unreasonable demands” as Home Secretary. What boss hasn’t done this, after all? Surely having high standards and challenging employees – even to the point where they’re exhausted – is what leaders do, especially in stressful environments. And let’s face it, many would see Patel as weak if she displayed the opposite.

Other complaints against Patel came from a whistleblower in The Sunday Times, who told the paper “there were a number officials she did not get on with” and “[N]othing was ever good enough and she would be quite rude and aggressive at times.”

Again, so?

Incidentally, I am not suggesting that Patel has displayed any of these behaviours of which she has been accused. She may be entirely innocent and many have testified to her good character.

But it does beg the question why people find it so shocking for a Home Secretary to be demanding and sometimes fall out with people. Could it be because she is female? 

Some reading this may say, “hang on, there – we’ve had female home secretaries before” – and they had better tenures at the Home Office (like Amber Rudd’s famously successful time, of course…).

But Patel is one of the most dynamic – male or female – in a long while. She’s strong, resilient and trying to push through huge changes. It’s inevitable that she will rub some people up the wrong way.

The liberal press hate her policies; The Guardian has accused her of being “out of her depth” and showing “ineptitude”.

Interestingly, “inept” has been identified as a word disproportionately applied to women in the workplace, with Harvard Business School finding that female leaders were more likely to be assigned negative attributes such as this and “selfish”, “vain” and “temperamental”, Men, on the other hand, were ascribed positive terms, including “analytical”, “level-headed” and “logical”.

Patel has also been called “aggressive”, which HBS similarly discovered gets overwhelmingly applied to women in performance reviews. 

This is why we should all pause about the wording of these attacks. Even Rutnam’s advice that she should “change her behaviours”. It’s all a little bit too “sit on the naughty step”.

Like I say, his complaints should be taken seriously, especially given his long career in the civil service.

We must all listen to allegations of bullying, which has deeply traumatic effects, and can be done by anyone – male or female.

Patel, of course, is incredibly resilient, and does not need me or anyone else standing up for her.

But I do hope we can open our eyes to how the language used against her comes across.

It’s patronising and a symptom of the fact society is still getting used to women in high positions of power.

As with Ken Clarke once calling Theresa May a “bloody difficult woman”, these terms are simply never applied the other way round.

One is consoled, at least by the suspicion that the voting public cares little of these accusations against Patel; if “demanding” gets Brexit done, demanding it is…

171 comments for: The Patel backlash has a sexist undercurrent

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