Equality (24 days to go)

“Equal rights for others doesn’t mean less rights for you. It’s not like pie”. Unknown

I truly believe that regardless of gender, faith, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnic make up, age, or socioeconomic status that everyone should have access to equal opportunities.

As the adage goes, one should never discuss politics, money or religion in polite society. Well I’m not usually one for sticking to convention and so I’m going to be ‘political’ in this blog entry. Don’t worry though I’m not going to talk about any recent referenda, be it on Scottish independence or Brexit, or US politics even, nor comment on the two main parties, Conservative or Labour in the UK.

Previously I’d never been a member of a political party and have never voted for the same party throughout my voting life, partly because I have voted in 5 different geographical locations in England and partly because my views have altered over time. But that changed earlier this year when upon returning to the UK I joined up as a member of the Women’s Equality Party.

Why the WEP? Well I would like to say I’ve never felt like I was treated differently due to my gender, but that wouldn’t be completely true. I like to think I’ve not been deliberately discriminated against, but I’ve had ‘experiences’ nonetheless. Most of these have not been overt rampant sexism, but more of a subtle ongoing variety. As someone who was competent in STEM subjects from an early age, it never dawned on me that it was unusual for girls to be enthusiastic about them. Certainly my parents and teachers actively encouraged me. However when I arrived at Oxford there would be the occasional condescending joke about whether they gave full degrees to women and a look of surprise when I said I was reading maths. In the mid 1990s the student body was one-third women, two-thirds men, and women had been granted full degrees since 1920. However a quota limiting the number of women was not abolished until 1957. Certainly the number of women in the maths lectures was less than a third. It just goes to show though that what were once well held society beliefs can still echo down the generations 75 years later. Reports in the media today suggest that Oxford isn’t getting any less misogynistic with stories of men’s college rugby clubs ‘targeting’ female freshers in their social activities. I’ll leave you to seek out the finer details, should you wish to.

As I chose to play rugby, a ‘man’s sport’ that invited a lot of sexist and sexual comments from men. “Do you shower together after the match?”, “Surely you don’t play proper rugby, you don’t tackle do you?”, “You’re all too pretty to play in a rugby team” as if they expected us to be two-headed monsters and because we played a contact sport where strength, speed and power are important, we couldn’t possibly be “feminine” in any way. It even happened last weekend at Twickenham watching England vs Australia. I was doing my usual thing of shouting out instructions to the England team like all those around me (predominantly men) and commenting on referee decisions. A guy in front of me turned round, looking surprised by my comments and asked if I coached rugby? Now I’m sure it was intended as a compliment, but I can guarantee he wouldn’t have asked my Dad that question. As a woman you’re just not expected to be able to understand sport, particularly a ‘man’s sport’! Why would I be at an international test otherwise if I wasn’t able to interpret what I was watching?

Cycling as a woman invites unwarranted comments from men; some supposedly complimentary (“you’re speedy for a woman” from a male cyclist I’ve just overtaken and who’s caught me up at the lights, or men wolf whistling out of a van), others abusive such as when I was called a whore for supposedly cycling too close to a male driver’s Porsche. With this I wasn’t enraged about being shouted at in the first place, if you’ve ever cycled in busy traffic in a big city, you regularly receive these comments whether you’re male or female, it was the particular use of the misogynistic word “whore”. I struggle to see why the simple act of me cycling needs commenting upon by men in any way whatsoever, but it seems sometimes it does. I can’t recall receiving any comments from women!

The way media portrays women in sport can be truly shocking. Here’s a great example:

“Thrasher, a precocious 19-year-old, closed out the summer with her biggest surprise yet.” NY Times reporting on the first gold medalist, Virginia Thrasher in the 2016 Olympics. Can’t quite imagine that sentence being applied to a man!

In 2016, Cambridge University Press conducted a study, which analyzed over 160 million words from newspapers, academic papers, tweets and blogs, to find that language surrounding female athletes was disproportionately focused on appearance, clothing and relationship status.

It’s not all bad though as the Olympics is one of the few times that women athletes receive media coverage. Outside of that only 5% of total sports coverage relates to activities by women. There is an increase in female sports broadcasters, but echoing my recent experience at the rugby, too often it’s assumed they don’t have enough knowledge, or they have to go above and beyond to prove themselves worthy of reporting or commenting on sport.

At certain clients as a young auditor I often felt I had to prove my worth, before I would be taken seriously. Starting out my professional career in the Midlands meant a lot of visits to traditional manufacturing businesses and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. The mining sector was dominated by men and sometimes, in addition to overcoming the challenges of being an unwanted quizzing auditor, I really found it hard work and think I was given the run around more than male colleagues. Even more recently I was the only woman at a dinner with senior business men who were being scathing about the physical appearance of a female head of government. What bearing does this have on her capacity to govern a country?

Some people believe it helpful to remind men that they have wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters as a way of keeping sexist or misogynistic behaviour in check. I fundamentally disagree with this approach as we are all humans, and should be treated the same. Full stop. Getting men to rethink their actions or attitudes by focusing on a woman’s relationship with a man does not help. Defining her value merely in relation to a man is the core of the issue in the first place.

Please don’t read this and think that I’ve had a hard time, I’m rather thick-skinned and believe I can hold my own and although there are other situations I care not to include here there has been nothing too serious. The shocking thing about my experiences above however are that they are not unusual in any way for a woman of my generation, and not every woman perhaps has my confidence. Oh and if you’re male and thinking: a) you are not individually responsible for gender inequality or b) that you would never do any of the above, then I thank you. However even if you’re not part of the problem, it doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution.

I may have joined the WEP, but do not read this as I am a man-hating feminist. Last week, on 19 November it was International Men’s Day and when I met up with two other organisers of the Nottingham Branch of the WEP we talked about how important this was to the WEP. Equality will help all. Patriarchy is not necessarily healthy for men either. For example more men commit suicide than women and women are automatically assumed as the most appropriate parent to be given custody of children when a family breaks up. I read this report only today about young men still feeling such a lot of pressure to be tough and not discuss their feelings: https://ounews.co/arts-social-sciences/society-politics/act-tough-hide-weakness-research-reveals-pressure-young-men. Personally I still have a long way to go to overcome stereotypes that society has about men and that I’ve “learned”. For example don’t assume a man is interested in sport any more than you should assume a woman isn’t.

Our gender stereotyping starts at such an early age in the way we are treated. So think about how you treat boys and girls and how your actions and speech may differ and what effect that will have. It’s so easy to talk to boys about being strong and tough and comment on how pretty or cute a girl is. Ask a child what their favourite book or story or TV programme is, there are so many things to talk about that are gender neutral. Perhaps you’ve seen this experiment that was on a recent BBC programme about toys that we offer to babies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-40936719/gender-specific-toys-do-you-stereotype-children. It’s fine if girls love dolls and pink things, but don’t assume every girl does, give them the option of having trucks and science type toys. Equally give boys the option of playing with cooking implements and dolls.

So let’s work together to make society inclusive for everyone and that each of us can do what we choose and not what we’re conditioned to believe we ought to do. Women this does mean being sensitive to how men feel when we are redefining roles and what impact this may have on them and how they see they fit into society. I truly believe men and women have to work together and if you’re a man there is nothing stopping you joining the WEP. I am very thankful that my family encouraged me to do anything I like and because “I was a girl” never entered the discussion!

Attending the Women’s March in Washington DC, January 2017

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