Oxford University has apologised for an awkward incident on International Women's Day

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Apparently someone missed the message about who 8 March was designed to celebrate

Oxford University has been forced to apologise after an image of a female cleaner scrubbing a message off campus steps on International Women’s Day went viral. 

Posted by Dr Sophie Smith, Professor of Political Theory at University College, Oxford, the photo shows a woman forlornly scouring the phrase “Happy International Women’s Day” from the steps of the town’s Clarendon Building, flanked by two burly security guards.

“What an image for #IWD,” wrote Dr Smith, in the accompanying caption.

The scene has a left a sour taste in the mouths of many. 

“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” tweeted one user, of the photo, which has also been rendered as Banksy-style graffiti on the site.

“Having a woman scrub off chalk that says ‘Happy International Woman’s Day’ while some blokes stand around in the background isn’t a good look,” replied another.

And whilst there was the usual flood of people (cough, men) asserting that Dr Smith’s tweet was a case of over-sensitivity, the image is a undeniable metaphor for several intersecting struggles, including that of the gender pay gap, the larger proportion of women in low-income jobs and the current pensions dispute that recently prompted a nationwide strike of university staff.

The picture of a woman working in a low income position, watched closely by men as she erases a message of female empowerment from the steps of a university that’s become symbolic of potent elitism and privilege, on a day dedicated to celebrating women, is a powerful one. 

And it became clear Oxford recognised the subliminal message they’d unwittingly sent out, as the institution swiftly fired off a tweet apologising to Dr Smith for the gaffe.

“We are deeply sorry for this and for offence caused,” the read a statement from the Oxford University Twitter account. 

“International Women’s Day is hugely important to Oxford. This should not have happened.”

There was no word on whether the cleaner pictured received an apology. Oxford has also been the subject of criticism after it was revealed in February that none of its 38 colleges pay their staff the recommended Oxford Living Wage of £9.99, set to reflect the higher cost of living in the city. Only one-third of Oxford colleges are living wage employers and two colleges – Wycliffe Hall and St. Anne’s – pay their staff under the recommended living wage rate. 

This factor did not go unremarked upon in Dr Smith’s response to the university’s apology. 

“I appreciate your apology,” she wrote. “But far more importantly can you please make sure that the woman asked to remove the message receives a heartfelt apology, a warm cup of tea, the rest of the day off and, along with all our precarious staff, good enough pay to live in this city[?]”

Excellent requests.

Images: Rex Features