Outside the Box: Considering Gender Equality on International Women’s Day
By Rachel Elgy
International Women’s Day is here again, celebrating the achievements of women throughout history. The day aims to inspire women and girls worldwide, encourage men to appreciate the women in their lives, and ultimately, to promote and strive for gender equality. While it is met with an outpour of female solidarity, there can be just a twinge of resentment, or scepticism felt in the air. With all the empowering quotes and feminist hashtags being banded around social media, it’s all too easy for us to lose focus, and become entangled in a narrative that merely skims the surface of what is still a significant issue in society today.
Here in the UK we have indeed come a long way from ‘the olden days,’ when Kings could behead their wives on a whim, and well-to-do women sat tamely in the corner doing embroidery and softly pining over an array of eligible bachelors, waiting to be chosen. The kitchen has become more of a family hub than a “woman’s territory”, and we are starting to see more strong female characters in films and TV shows, as well as women peppered through various ‘male’ industries, such as engineering or aviation. It’s certainly a start.
But it is just that, a start. The start of what is still a very long road. Globally in 2015 only 22% of all National Parliamentarians were female. There is also a significant gender pay gap, meaning that across the world last year women earnt 24% less than men. These are just some of the areas that need a huge amount of work before we can say we have achieved parity.
So why is it proving to be such an arduous task? Why, in 2016, do we still need to remind ourselves that women deserve equal rights to men? In a recent study by the Fawcett Society, 32% of men and 21% of women believed that men and women were already equal. Job done. Perhaps more concerning was that more than 1 in 10 people believed that women’s equality has gone too far. Another significant barrier to gender equality was identified in the same study, looking at the word ‘feminism’. People were asked for the first word they thought of when they heard ‘feminist.’ 26% of the responses were negative, using words such as ‘irrelevant’ or even ‘bitchy’.
So here lies the challenge: To fight for equality for women, to highlight the current disparity to those who can’t see it, and all the while challenging the dangerous and divisive terminology now associated with ‘feminism.’ No easy feat.
There have been recent campaigns and movements that have given the cause a great boost. Not least Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign for UN Women, urging men to stand alongside women in this ongoing battle. I can’t help but think though, that focussing just on getting men on board, while obviously important, is allowing us to overlook some other real barriers to the cause.
If we think about those statistics again, and look at them in context: 32% of men think we’ve achieved equality. Too many, we can probably agree. But let’s allow for the fact that it is always much harder to see the glass ceiling when you’re not the one hitting your head on it. For men, who are working with and supporting the women in their lives, it will be much easier for them to be oblivious to the wider issue.
21% of women, however, also think we have achieved equality. 11% of women think that women’s equality has gone too far. In an article for The Independent I read recently, it was suggested that as more women are working up into positions of power, the struggle is over for them, and so they become ‘apolitical, or apathetic…’ The idea of ‘a man’s world’ is becoming linked with the notion of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ Women who’ve broken through the glass ceiling are now also standing on top of it. Women and men alike are overlooking, or avoiding the issue of structural gender inequality, as they can’t see the direct issues themselves. Recent research by the IPPR showed that the wage gap between high-skilled and low-skilled women has grown at a far faster rate than the gender wage gap. The successes of some better-off women are disguising the struggles still faced by many others. Women have been hit harder by the government’s austerity cuts, and are more likely to be living in poverty. Globally women make up 60% of those who are illiterate. These are very real issues that men and women in all walks of life need to be aware of, and fighting against.
I was asked recently if I felt I’d ever experienced sexism at work. My initial reaction was ‘no.’ In my career so far I’ve been able to work, and achieve, without any feeling of discomfort, or discrimination. But then I remember, and I say “Well yes, of course I have, I’ve worked as a waitress and barmaid before.” There were countless occasions when my sex left me targeted by punters who were “just being friendly,” or who “didn’t mean any harm,” or who thought that maybe I’d be flattered by the various pet names I acquired. And that’s just one industry, and one area of society. Outside the workplace we can look at ‘everyday sexism’ as women feel uneasy walking home alone, the massive issue of victim blaming in sexual assaults, the distortion of the meaning of beauty in the media, and the continuing issue of gender-based violence. When we stop, and think, we realise just how far we still need to go.
We need then, to stop making this battle so personal. It’s not just about our own successes, or the barriers we face ourselves. This is also not about women vs. men, but more about people vs. a legacy of inequality, which has been so ingrained in society that we don’t always notice it. Gloria Steinem said “A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”
And on International Women’s Day, we need to remember that recognising someone else’s power does not diminish your own.
So I’ll leave you with a quote, not from a legendary feminist figure in the historical battle for equality, but from a contemporary man playing his part: Joss Whedon, film and TV writer, who says “Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity… We need equality. Kinda Now.”
Equaliteach have developed workshops, entitled Outside the Box, which work with young people to tackle issues around gender stereotypes and sexism.
Outside the Box workshops are suitable for KS2-KS4 pupils and are tailored according to pupils’ needs.
The aims of the workshops are to:
- Provide young people with the opportunity to explore gender stereotypes and the harm that these can cause
- Equip young people with an understanding of what sexism is and its impact in UK society
- Equip young people with knowledge and skills to recognise myths about differences between genders
- Allow young people to explore where gender stereotypes come from
- Empower young people to actively challenge sexism in the media (KS3&4)
Young people lead the direction of the workshop, participating in a range of hands on, small group and whole group activities. Pupils are provided with the opportunity to ask questions and interrogate their opinions in a safe space; gaining an understanding of the reality and harm of sexism and what they can do to challenge it.