Tag Archives: gender gap

In pursuit of equality

Watching grainy footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby today (where suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse) made me think about how attitudes towards women’s issues have changed over the last 100 years.

The right to vote is something so fundamentally just and reasonable, that from today’s vantage point the counter arguments seem absurd. I looked up some of the prominent opposers of women’s suffrage: they included Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister and supporter of Liberal reforms), and Winston Churchill, the ‘voice in the wilderness’ warning us of Hitler as early as 1934.

Churchill opposed suffrage on the basis that “women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.” What this tells me is that people who are intelligent, astute, and morally well-disposed are capable of forming entirely flawed views of a woman’s place in the world. And that’s something that hasn’t changed.

This was brought home to me this week, when I decided to ramp up my involvement with feminism by actively engaging with non-feminists. You see, nice though it is to interact with fellow feminists – people who relate to the injustices that rankle in my soul – these aren’t the people you need to convince. The people you need to convince are the men and women out there who don’t think gender equality is an issue.

Gloves off: I’m going in
To this end, I got chatting to a friend and ex-colleague about gender equality. He is intelligent, in a good job, and personally I like him a lot. Yet we sat together in the pub, beers in hand, while he spoke about how women have already achieved workplace equality, and how as a well-educated white man, everyone else has a louder voice than him – especially women.

These comments unnerved me for two reasons. First of all, because they come from someone I know to be in all other respects well-informed and fair-minded. Secondly, because they’re based on perceptions rather than reality. My friend’s perception is that wage inequality no longer exists. The reality is that women earn an average gross full-time salary of £23,100 – £5,600 less than their male counterparts. For recent graduates, men earn more than women across all degree subject areas. In a scienctific study, research shows that male candidates were offered over average £4000 a year more – based on gender and no other factors.

His other perception (that he is marginalised and women’s voices take precedence), is I think based on a lack of awareness of the menace with which women’s voices are shouted down and dimmed when they do speak out. Which is what the rest of my post is about.

For some people, women having the audacity to publicly speak out about things they consider unjust provokes ire and outrage: they’re deemed to be stepping out from their proper sphere. A hundred years ago, suffragettes were sexually assaulted and had ‘their breasts twisted’ by London police in the infamous Black Friday campaign. They were smashing stuff up? Then arrest them and put them in jail. The threat and execution of sexual assault upon women who speak up is not something new, and more worryingly, it has not gone away.

“Shut up or I’ll hurt you”
Fast forward to today, and activists still endure sex-based threats on the heels of public speech. Two female students received a spate of rape threats (not one or two) after objecting to sexist comments made on their appearance by male Glasgow Uni students during a Cambridge-Glasgow university debate. And despite these comments, which undermined the whole debate by failing to treat the students as intellectual equals, Glasgow University  replied to a groundswell of complaints that there is ‘no case to answer’. This can’t be written off as merely the work of minority internet trolls. These are students at a good university, abetted by responsible adults, literally shouting down women in a debate who are trying to conduct themselves as equals. And it’s the same pattern: voice an opinion, get shouted down, then roll on the misogynistic abuse. In this case, the abuse went like this: “I scrolled through comment after comment discussing whether it would be preferable to rape me using a knife, or to keep me as a sex slave.”

That’s not what equality looks like.

The women I’ve profiled below (today’s feminists, arguably our answer to the Suffragettes) have all received significant threats of rape and assault, for speaking publicly about feminist issues. The men who make these threats aren’t attempting to challenge their opinions or engage in a discussion: they are effectively saying ”shut up or I’ll hurt you”.  And this is a society in which men’s voices are maginalised?

Who? Public action/statement Resulting violence/threats
‘Black Friday’ suffragettes Campaigned for women’s right to vote Sexual assaults
Laura Bates Created ‘Every Sexism’, an org and online space to share upsetting and sexist experiences Death and rape threats
Lucy Holmes Objected to page the Sun’s Page 3 Death and rape threats
Rebecca Meredith Objected to comments on appearance in intellectual debate Rape threats
Lindy West Objected to rape jokes Death and rape threats

To return to the view of my friend: I can’t accept claims that we live in an equal society, when instead of a rational debate, a woman voicing an opinion provokes threats of  sexual violation. If you fit the profile of my friend, you rarely encounter sexism firsthand. You don’t experience the undercurrent of sexual intimidation, the unconscious bias against female employees, the lack of pay equality. I don’t blame you for not being aware of these things – but just because you haven’t experienced them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

equality

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Feminism: the conversational turd

Have you ever dropped into conversation the fact that you’re a feminist? I have, and some people continue to react like you’ve dropped your trousers, squatted, and taken a crap in front of them. You get a raised eyebrow accompanied by embarrassment, as if you’ve said something indecent.

The crazy thing is, if you broached the conversation in a different way, and didn’t mention the dirty F-word, most rational adult people would probably agree with you. They would think it’s pretty reasonable that women want to be paid the same as men, that trafficking women to use as sex slaves might be a Bad Thing, and maybe a bit unpleasant for the girls involved. Genital mutilation? That’s maybe not a lot fun either, and since they’re your bits, maybe you should have a say in what happens to them.

Stop complaining!
Some colleagues of mine made the point recently that as a working woman in the UK, I don’t have a lot to complain about. I do know what they mean. The UK ranked 18 out of 135 countries in the 2012 Gender Gap Index. I had a free education, and unlike Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, no-one tried to shoot me when I went to school in the mornings. I live in a developed society where there aren’t rape-mobiles masquerading as legitimate forms of transport. I live in a country governed by laws that mean I could prosecute and seek redress if I were raped or sexually assaulted. I know all of that, and I’m genuinely thankful. But that doesn’t mean that feminism doesn’t have a place here.

Take gender inequality, and the following ire-inspiring research I discovered. A researcher at Yale University submitted 2 identical CVs for roles in science; the same qualifications, the same experience. One was male and the other female, and on average, the female was offered a lower starting salary – by $4000. Based on gender and NO other factors. Wouldn’t it be nice if people were paid based on their actual qualifications and experience, rather than their possession (or otherwise) of a penis?

Yes, I know that’s in America. But in the UK, that’s not a problem, right? Wrong. You don’t need to go all the way to the States to experience gender inequality – just toddle on down to your nearest Boots, where the science toys are stored under ‘boys’ and all the fluffy pink shit is left for the girls. You want a chemistry set? Sorry love, you look more a tea set kind of girl. Not for you.

Boots display of toys 'for boys' and 'for girls'

Then there’s sex. A fellow blogger spoke very eloquently how society views men who have lots of sexual experiences as players, while women are sluts. And there was the charming piece online (that I can’t now find) about how ‘nice girls are rarer than unicorns’. The gist was that we’re all to stay at home guarding our virginity, while the male writer has the freedom of unlimited sexual experiences. He’s joking, right? I’d love to think so, but sadly I think not.

Love sex, hate sexism

That brings me to the intimidating and sinister side of sex, and how women are treated in the UK. Passing over the incident where I was grabbed by the crotch in a club a few months back, last week I read that barrister Barbara Hewson proposed the age of consent be lowered to 13. I totally disagreed with her, as did many others. But here’s the creepy bit – people were tweeting this woman and threatening to rape her.

Let’s be clear, her suggestion was controversial and unpopular. But if a man had made it, would he have been subjected to that?

She’s not alone here – Rebecca Meredith, one of the Cambridge University students who objected to sexist comments made during a debate, received her own set of rape threats. Specifically, whether or not it would be preferable to rape her using a knife, or keep her as a sex slave. Because she and her fellow debater disagreed with some men. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s OK. And it’s just one reason why we still need feminism.