Choose to Challenge: International Womens Day 2021

International Womens Day Choose to Challenge
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The 8th March marks International Women’s Day, which is always an important opportunity to take stock of the progress being made across the world with regards to women’s rights and to celebrate the brilliant individuals, organisations and movements that are leading the way.

This year the theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, a bold call to action encouraging us all to stand up, speak out, push back against the status quo and demonstrate active allyship. It’s a powerful and empowering theme, but it also might leave some wondering ‘challenge what?’ or ‘is it my place to challenge?’

The women’s rights movement is fighting an ongoing battle for equality. However, as these conversations unfold, it is clear that many people feel that the fight has already been won, are unaware of the barriers many women still face, or feel that it is not their place to speak up or challenge. Whilst the movement is working to improve women’s rights, it’s vital that men are also part of the solution, working as allies to remove the barriers women may face, and to create workplaces, communities and a society that is inclusive and safe for everyone.

So, this International Women’s Day I invite everyone to #ChooseToChallenge gender stereotypes. Let’s recognise and challenge the harmful messages that seep through right from birth in clothes, toys, music, film, and interactions with family and friends. From boys’ babygrows with the slogan ‘Future Hero’ next to the girl’s babygrow that says ‘Future Superhero’s Girlfriend’, toys marketed in pink or blue boxes to make double the profit, lyrics that reduce girls to their bodies and films that encourage boys to hide their emotions, gender stereotypes are pervasive and shape the hearts, minds and aspirations of young people. Fawcett Society’s recent commission on gender stereotypes evidenced the harm of gender stereotypes and explored recommendations for parents, educators and the commercial sector to challenge them. The commission’s co-chair, Professor Becky Francis said

“What every parent hopes for their child, and what educators hope for children in their class, is that they will be free to achieve their potential – yet what the evidence shows is that we still limit our children based on harmful, tired gender stereotypes.

That adds up to real harm. From boys’ underachievement in reading, to the gender pay gap, the evidence is clear that the stereotypes we impart in early childhood cause significant damage to our children.”

I also invite you to #ChooseToChallenge misogyny, in all its forms. How many more generations of girls will become accustomed to catcalls and honking horns on their walk to school, will learn which routes to avoid at night, which train seats are safest to avoid being trapped in by a leering man, to hold their keys between their fingers and be prepared to justify what they were wearing when being grabbed, yelled at or assaulted? How long before social media platforms address the daily, hourly, misogynistic abuse hurled at women, and especially women of colour. As writer and activist Laura Bates told Amnesty International:

“We are seeing young women and teenage girls experiencing online harassment as a normal part of their existence online. Girls who dare to express opinions about politics or current events often experience a very swift, misogynistic backlash. This might be rape threats or comments telling them to get back in the kitchen. It’s an invisible issue right now, but it might be having a major impact on the future political participation of those girls and young women. We won’t necessarily see the outcome of that before it’s too late.”

Let’s #ChooseToChallenge sexual harassment and violence against women and girls. In the UK, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 sexual assault during her lifetime. The Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates 20% of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. UKFeminista’s report into sexism and sexual harassment in schools found that ‘it’s just everywhere,’ with 37% of female students having personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.

Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted of the National Education Union stated:

“We need to understand what creates sexism and expose the attitudes which repeat the patterns of harmful experiences that women and girls face. We need to break the mould – the expectations about men and women, and girls and boys, that perpetuate harassment and gender injustice.”

Finally, let’s #ChooseToChallenge the policing of women’s bodies. From laws deciding women’s choices on abortion, to policing the clothes that women choose to wear (too revealing, too modest, we can’t win!), to gatekeeping womanhood itself, it can be an overwhelming and often contradictory attack on women’s autonomy. The current ‘debate’ on trans rights, for example, positions these rights as being in opposition to women’s rights, ignoring the fact that many trans people are women, and reducing women to biology. It’s a tactic that many women, particularly women of colour, recognise, where the definition of ‘woman’ becomes a narrow and homogenised picture – often white, cisgender and able bodied – and, as Rachel Mann put it, ‘those people who don’t fit very particular narratives of what a woman is tend to get thrown out.’

There is so much to challenge- and I haven’t even mentioned the so-called ‘motherhood penalty,’ or the lack of representation of women in various industries such as the film industry. Each of the issues raised in this blog will affect different women in different ways, often combining with racism, ableism, ageism or other forms of prejudice to create multiple burdens of discrimination.

So surely, we have no choice really BUT to challenge? To stand up, speak out and try to make change. Unfortunately, for some people, challenging these behaviours can cost them dearly – their jobs, their income, their safety. So, those that can, must. In the words of Laverne Cox, “we have to be able to ask ourselves, ‘Am I feeling uncomfortable or am I feeling unsafe?”’

It’s not always going to be comfortable. But I have learned that when I am uncomfortable that’s when I have the potential for the most growth.”

It can, of course, be uncomfortable, awkward and difficult to challenge prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, whether in the workplace or amongst family and friends. So, as I implore you to challenge sexism and misogyny and, while we’re at it, all forms of prejudice, I’ll leave you with some tools and tips for effectively doing so:

Use reasoning and enquiry questions

  • What do you think that word means?
  • What makes you think that?
  • How would you feel if someone spoke about you in that way?
  • Do you realise that what you said is sexist/ableist/racist/ageist/homo/bi/transphobic?
  • That word is an insulting term. Do you know why?
  • Can you think of why some people might feel uncomfortable and disrespected when they hear these comments/witness these behaviours?

Challenge them directly

  • Language like that is not acceptable.
  • You might not think that remark is offensive, but many would.
  • What you are saying presents a very stereotypical view of what men and women are like. When you do that it means that people who don’t fit into your way of seeing things can feel left out or ashamed.

Use an institutional response

  • Our workplace policy says that we are all responsible for making this a safe place for everyone. That kind of language is sexist/racist/homophobic and makes people feel unsafe. Therefore, it is unacceptable.
  • Some people would find that word insulting so it’s not ok to use it in our workplace.
  • It’s really important that in this workplace people feel able to express their gender however they feel comfortable, so we try to avoid gender stereotypes.
  • Do you remember the training we had on sexism/racism/unconscious bias?

Explain your own perspective

  • I’m not happy with what you said.
  • Sexist/ableist/homo/bi/transphobic/ageist language offends me. I don’t want to hear it again.
  • What you’ve said really disappoints/disturbs/upsets/angers me. I hoped you would recognise that it is important to treat everyone with respect and that it is therefore wrong to use such sexist/ableist/transphobic/racist language.

EqualiTeach offers staff training and consultancy on gender equality and tackling sexist attitudes and behaviours as part of our wider equality, diversity and inclusion offer. Find out more here or get in touch to discuss a tailored solution for your organisation.  

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