I have been to quite a number of women’s events recently in one guise or another and have been pondering on the different ways we discuss inequality and sexism. In sociology, the word ‘discourse’ is used to describe the “ways in which a particular subject may be discussed”. This implies rightly that there is more than one way, depending on the context and people involved. Nowhere is this more true than when we are discussing women in the workplace and women’s equality.
So let me use the events to illustrate what I mean… Firstly the Opportunity Now dinner, held to promote gender equality in the workplace, and where there is plenty of knowledge and experience in the dinner audience of approximately 500… But this is a corporate event and people are constrained in how they express inequality. The discourse is framed by business interests. Rarely does the word feminism come up but there is much talk of progress, engaging men and the business benefits of having more women in senior positions. Our language is shaped by the power interests of the corporate world. Anything too radical would be rejected.
Next I was speaking at a Westminster Briefing. Now this event is attended by HR directors and managers and was on the topic of ‘Supporting Women in the Workplace’. There was a good number of employees from the public sector there and therefore the discourse had more of an equality emphasis than diversity but overall the discourse is still business focused. There were some men (as usual not enough!) in the audience and I was conscious of them in the way I discussed how men need to address themselves and change too … always jokey and funny, a way of softening what otherwise may be perceived as threatening to men (see below). We women, and in particular diversity consultants, are very, very good at doing this.
Third up I went to listen to the wonderful Kate Adie who was speaking at private members club. She was discussing her recent book “Fighting on The Home Front. The legacy of the Women in World War One” about women in the First World War and what happened to them afterwards. Ms Adie was very forthright about her views and the injustices thrown at women whose labour was required in the workplace while men were away fighting only to find themselves pushed back in domestic world when the men returned. The blatant (nothing subtle about this kind of discrimination) sexism was painful to hear but Ms Adie was conscious of her audience… a mixed, very middle class, privileged membership of the Hurlingham Club in South West London. To give here credit Ms Adie did not stop telling us the facts and indeed quoting the discrimination to us but she, like diversity professionals, softened the message and when she told the stories and repeated the men’s offensive comments she spoke in a funny voice to make everyone laugh. And it worked, the audience laughed.
I thought about this afterwards. If we had been talking about the blatant discrimination and unfair treatment of black people in recent history instead of women would it have been phrased in a funny way? Would we have laughed? Of course not. Everybody would have nodded in acknowledgement of our forefathers’ ignorance in thinking black people inferior human beings. But it seems we are not ready to nod in assent as men and women and acknowledge the huge injustices women have suffered in history at the hands of men. That left me feeling somewhat sad. Funny stuff indeed…
There are many of us -academics, feminists, social workers and others who are not shocked at the exposure of child abuse on a mass scale in this country. Is it too much to ask that we address the problems that men have with issues of sexuality? I have not seen any politician or professional ask the key question – why do men abuse young girls? Let’s at least have an open and honest discussion about it. Like other troubling aspects of largely male behaviour (domestic violence and rape) the problem is filtered through the channel of individual aberration of the normal healthy male adult. But when we see the scale of the problems surely we should be addressing the attitudes and behaviour of a large percentage of male adults in this country. I am old enough to remember the Cleveland abuse scandal. There was absolute outrage throughout the country and fiercely expressed through the media about the suggestion by some professionals that child abuse was taking place within families as well as outside them on a vast scale. Like many of the youngsters that sought help in the recent cases, they were just not believed. Labour have criticised the government for missing an opportunity by not imposing tougher sanctions and making child abuse a separate criminal offence. But I criticise the government and other professionals involved in this area for missing an opportunity to explore the real issue – the abusive and exploitative abhorrent sexuality that is expressed by too many men in our supposed ‘civilised’ society. We know that sexual abusers are not confined to one race, one class but are to be found in all parts of society albeit the types of crimes they commit will vary enormously. The one issue that all must have in common is the dehumanisation of the child they are abusing.
I was so pleased to see the newspapers widely reporting new research which shows there are no material differences between men’s and women’s brains.
I have been critical in the past over the endless regurgitation of this Men are from Mars myth which seeks to explain familiar generalised differences between men and women. I write about it in the chapter on management style in my book, Women’s Work, Men’s Cultures.
It is a lazy way of thinking and popular because it implies there is nothing to change and the status quo i.e. women’s marginalisation in all positions of power is in some way to be expected. This is so much more palatable than addressing the thornier issues of domination and discrimination of women by men over centuries… no wonder firms have signed up to the ‘let’s recognise differences and value them’ style of gender training.
This plus the other favourite of rooting out ‘unconconcious bias’ combine to disguise and hide the ongoing ‘second sexing’ of women in most areas of the workforce today. Let’s start looking at how cultures are created in the interests of the dominant group which will use their resources to keep it that way and challenge and change those instead.
When I first heard Sandi Toksvig give her reason for leaving the Friday night News Quiz as setting up the Women’s Equality Party my heart gave a little leap. I have only ever been interested in politics a couple of times in my life… the first time when I discovered feminism at university and realised it made perfect sense in explaining the order of things in the world and the second time was ahead of the 1997 election when it looked like we would finally have a government that would take women and their lives seriously. That was a honeymoon period which didn’t last. As a journalist I interviewed Glenys Kinnock about British politics and she said she could in no way join a Parliament which faced each other as enemies and was built around the politics of opposition. I totally agreed and still do.
Getting equal numbers is important but so is changing structures and cultures… it does not always happen automatically! Women and particularly women in the mainstream of business and politics where processes have been established around the lives and characteristics of men become immersed in the dominant culture rather than establish their own. This in no way blames women for being like men, they may well be or they may well learn to be – it may have to happen to progress.
So a group of really inspiring and brilliant women from the mainstream, let it be said, rather than the margins which is where my early feminist activities and beliefs were drawn from… are spelling it out. I only hope the complexities of gender relations imbued as they are with power and dominance get their just attention.
I have argued for years for quotas for women on boards and even in senior management in certain circumstances. During the Treasury Select Committee’s interviews and published in their Report into Women and the City which I submitted evidence,
Sally Keeble– the only female member of the committee…noted that women had not gained one step of equality without the aid of legislation i.e. if left to men over the years we would still be without property rights, rights over our children, barred from professions and education etc. etc. We may look in aghast at Saudi Arabia where women’s second class status is enshrined in law but we have not got that big a headstart – what is a hundred years or so in history?
I hope the WE party are prepared for the inevitable backlash that may follow their formation. I know they are keen to engage with all political parties and urge them to adopt their policies but a note of caution – historically when women’s concerns have been politicised, mainstream parties have often co-opted their demands and made them their own, only to shuffle them further down the pack at a later date.
The time is right for women to make their own arguments and have their own party and hold out for the changes they want to make.
I celebrated International Women’s Day with thousands of others yesterday at the WOW festival on London’s Southbank. The particular draw this year for me was Salma Hayek’s premier showing of her animated film The Prophet, a version of the best -selling book by Kahlil Gibran, after which she gave a talk and did a Q & A session with the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
There was something so refreshing to have a figure that is one of Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses talking about feminism and changing the world. I confess to not having known very much about Hayek and so did some research to discover that she started her own production company in order to provide films and TV shows together with roles that she felt the male dominated film world were denying women. She is also responsible for Ugly Betty – the hit TV series. She spent eight years trying to get Freda made and another eight to complete The Prophet which features a little girl finding her voice, such is the resistance to ‘female centred’ films. The film The Prophet is for all ages and charming yet she has failed to find a distributer for it in the UK. How depressing to think that all the public want is violence and action. She was told that a film about poetry and philosophy would not interest a young audience! Hayek also spoke passionately about the charity she is involved in called Chime for Change
Another Hollywood legend Jane Fonda stood up for feminism last week too at the International Conference on Masculinity in New York stating that ‘the most intractable problem that humanity faces is the problem of patriarchy,’. Predictably both women’s important critiques and comments were overshadowed in the Daily Mail write up by descriptions of their appearance and clothing.
One problem that feminism in the past has had is trying to effect change from the margins so to have a number of powerful insider women with huge influence publicly demanding change and an end to patriarchy is cause for celebration. No more having to bite your lip!
We hear a lot about choice amidst the numerous debates about women and their position in society. Women choose to go to work or stay at home, women choose to work part time, women choose to work in the sex trade, women choose to wear a veil…. If we start to add in the less obvious choices.. some women choose the have the daughters’ genitalia mutilated, Chinese women chose to bind their daughters feet, women choose to turn a blind eye to their partners abuse of their daughters, women chose marriage over careers until a few years ago….. the use of the word choice becomes less and less appropriate. Of course women did not choose to hand over all their property to their husbands upon marriage. Of course women in Saudi Arabia do not choose not to drive…
We choose available options… but the question is who makes them available and who and what determines the cultural and social discourse of the time – this can be material and, more powerfully ideological. Please can we recognise the discourse of freedom of choice for what it is – limiting.