This post brings in a few different stories to make my point, which ultimately is a simple one, yet it still seems to pass many people by. The insistence that women are already equal (more or less) and feminism is stupid is one I am faced with quite frequently. Obviously I disagree – if you know me or my writing you probably know I will make a case for the importance of feminism, or, if you prefer, pushing for gender equality.
I find the definition of words used in such debates to detract from the point somewhat, but in the interests of clarity… skip to the end*, because I don’t think that’s the interesting bit!
No breasts, please, we’re bishops
I’m sure you will have seen the news that the church has decided women can’t be bishops. I’ve had a few conversations about this and as I have a lot of friends who are also entirely non-religious, a lot of the talk has been along the lines of:
Well it’s irrelevant…
I disagree [edit, here’s the BHA on it]. No, I’m not religious. I would much prefer it if women stopped trying to join the clubs that promote misogyny. “Bring them down from the inside!” doesn’t quite work, I don’t think, but hey – I’m all for choice and if women want to work in/for the church, that’s ultimately up to them. Except it isn’t, because the church has now stuck two fingers up at the equality laws we have by preventing women from holding this position of power.
The knock-on of this is that the House of Lords is also to remain a women-free zone. Despite us making up half the country’s population. That’s not representative and it’s not acceptable. That is why it’s relevant – the church, shockingly, still has a huge say in our country’s policies, it affects popular opinion and a brazen vote of no confidence in women is not something we should just wave off as being of no consequence. Maybe it’s not to you, Mr Atheist White Man, and yes it shows up the church for what it is (a backwards bunch of bigots who want to operate outside of the law) but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.
From cradle to work desk
Our workplaces are often where we spend a lot of our time. Employment law, including the example linked above, is important in making sure everyone is treated fairly in the workplace and companies as a whole do not discriminate. Science, sadly, is not yet free of sexism. There’s a really interesting piece on Nature.com today about their resolve to address inequality in their publishing sphere. They acknowledge, as I do below, that sexism can frequently happen “by accident”. The only way to stop this is to look at the evidence for inequality, accept that it exists and then go on to address it. So I hope this is the start of something great over at Nature HQ – it also reminds me of recent attempts to increase the public profile of women in science, for example by mass-editing Wikipedia.
However, inequality in the workplace, whether due to hiring policy (conscious or not) or applications coming in, has its roots deeper, earlier in our lives. A little bit of anecdote in this run-up: when I went camping this summer, there was a family who pitched next to us with about 4 children. This proved unpleasant in terms of trying to sleep, but one of the little girls (about age 5) was very chatty and I warmed to her a bit when she informed us of her hope of becoming an astronaut and maybe going to Mars. I asked her if she’d heard about the cool new robot that had gone to the planet, and asked her to promise to let us know when she became famous. What was sad, though, was her saying she enjoyed doing ballet but wished her brother would go too, only “boys can’t do that” – why not? Go and be an astronaut! Let him do what he enjoys!
I was never forced to do anything like ballet or other ‘girly’ activities equally unappealing to me, and I’m glad. My interest in the natural world was always supported. I played golf for a while (but was put off by the overwhelming anti-female sentiment that pervaded the club and my dad’s apparent disinterest in helping me to improve) and I did some karate. I have also been upset by hearing friends’ parental resentment that son A likes dancing (oh no!), unlike son B who’s a good boy and loves rugby. Why not encourage your kids in whatever they take to, whatever they want to get better at, instead of all this gender roles bullshit?
Importantly, all of this stuff can influence decisions we make as children and young people, which can then filter into our careers later in life. Here in the UK we choose our limited number of subjects quite early on. The Institute of Physics report on how few girls go on to study physics A level is quite disturbing, and no doubt this continuing idea that girls-do-X and boys-do-Y is partly to blame. Please rein it in, parents, teachers, siblings, companies, everyone.
The ugly undercurrent
This leads me to my final comment, on the phenomenon I refer to in the title. Only for many it is not so silent. The first link I added, to this article by Laura Bates who founded the Everyday Sexism Project, highlights the kind of behaviour that often goes unchallenged despite how unacceptable and damaging it really is:
as another woman cycled through central London she reported how, “a van driver blocked my path so he could shout “I’M GOING TO RAPE YOU!”
Who was this man? It would not surprise me if he were a married father of however many, doing his dayjob. I posted this article on Facebook with my thoughts on what this all means: what amazes me, particularly considering this van driver, is that these people have lives and friends – what would said friends, family, employers, say about their behaviour? How would they feel if they saw someone behaving that way towards a woman whom they loved?
It seems there’s a big disconnect still in many people’s lives – a distinction between people-I-know-who-are-female, whom they care about and respect, and women generally. The latter are public property, exist for their amusement/pleasure/derision, and can be treated like less than human beings. That is our institutional misogyny, that is our problem to address.
I do believe that these attitudes are very much worth talking about, worth exposing and criticising, worth combating. I think it affects all of us – if you’re someone who feels this stuff is irrelevant, maybe you have a daughter or a sister. I bet she’s experienced some of this. Maybe this has made her let go of her dreams. Maybe that happened to your mum, too. Are you ok with that? I hope not.
Feminism is about equal treatment based on gender, not preferential treatment of women (just, preferential compared to what we have now, which is inequality, and if you disagree with that then my use of the word obviously will not please you. I don’t care).
Misogyny is a word I would use to describe cultural attitudes, widespread phenomena that affect women negatively and prevent progress, injustices suffered disproportionately by women. I’d hesitate to call someone a misogynist because yes, it literally means the hatred of women, but the meanings of words can change. Although, if someone is quite clearly hateful of women because they are women, then I would be more confident in using it.
Sexism would be something I would say to describe one or many acts of discrimination based on gender, and I would more readily call someone sexist than a misogynist because it seems less emotionally driven; sexism can come from unconscious places but let’s call a spade a spade. Don’t be offended because you’ve been called out on something, if ultimately it is true.
A lot of the attitudes people hold are passively generated, due to where one grows up, the views passed on to you, and how much you choose to examine them. This is the same for any kind of prejudice. Children are a blank slate and largely free from judgmental tendencies, but it depends on their environment as to how they’ll turn out. Parents and peers have great effects on the development of views about the rest of society; the categories you fall into, and those you don’t.
I grew up with a lot of homophobia, sexism and other nasty things – it’s taking me years, a lot of reading, interaction and thought to acknowledge and address this. I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that – only in doing nothing to rectify it. I’m not done yet.