Searching for the F word…

Last year, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary  feminism was the most searched for term online. That same dictionary describes it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Analysing the data, the website cites spikes in searches following news of such things as the Women’s March on Washington, DC in January last year, in addition to television dramas such as The Handmaid’s Tale and the film, Wonder Woman. Revelations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo and Time to Rise movements also sparked searches.

I remember in the 90s and 00s being told by other women that we no longer needed feminism, in fact, it was all seen as a bit of an embarrassment. I used to worry that I sounded too strident, too ‘political’ (although women across the political divide are often united in equal rights for women). There was a sense, from women, that talking about feminism would damage their career prospects. Or, a sense that if they were successful then, somehow, discussing feminism would undermine the ‘merit’ that had got them there. Even more recently I recall being on a business trip with colleagues, including two more senior men. Chatting in the hotel bar after a successful day about the usual non-work things such as families and holidays, I found myself re-telling a story about my then 14-year-old daughter who had chosen sociology as one of the subjects she wanted to study. She’d connected with the idea of feminism because, as she remarked, ‘you’re a feminist aren’t you mum?’ At this remark both men looked more than a little aghast, with one commenting at how surprised he was, and that clearly, I was one of those ‘reasonable’ ones. Thank goodness for that!

So, feminism is now firmly back on the agenda.

Of course, a blog about feminism can’t leave out mention of Germaine Greer. In a speech she gave a couple of months ago (on International Women’s Day) she wonderfully argued that ‘equality is a profoundly conservative goal for women’

Greer argues:

What everybody has accepted is the idea of equality feminism. It will change nothing … women are drawing level with men in this profoundly destructive world that we live in and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong way. We’re getting nowhere.

“If we’re going to change things I think we’re going to have to start creating a women’s polity that is strong, that has its own way of operating, that makes contact with women in places like Syria, and that challenges the right of destructive nations. Women needed to aim higher and achieve more than simply drawing level with men and entering into traditionally male-dominated fields.”

 I have a lot of sympathy with this. As I wrote in an earlier post, we live in a world where the overarching narrative is male. So are we asking for equality within these existing structures, or something completely new? If we look around us: war, Trump, poverty, populism and the rise of the Right, Carillion, executive pay, Russia, Palestine, the UK railway system, Grenfell Tower, an NHS on its knees…the existing structures aren’t working very well, are they?

I recognise that Greer isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (too out-spoken, too strident, too radical) and her comments about trans women have not made her any less controversial, but let’s not forget that the women who got us the vote in the UK needed to be strident, out-spoken and radical in order to allow us the democracy that we enjoy today. Aren’t we pleased that Rosa Parks refused to give up that seat? Aren’t we pleased that Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t become a typical ‘first lady’? Aren’t we pleased that Tarana Burke founded the ‘MeToo’ movement over a decade ago?

Simone de Beauvoir famously said that women are the second sex, made and not born. Society is what makes us. So how do we make a society that enables true equality, one that empowers women to be who they are, confident and bold and talented and amazing, not people tip-toeing around, nudging gently on a door of so-called respectability for a share of the status-quo? As the radical feminist Jessa Crispin argues in her recent book:

“The feminism I support is a full on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists … but are actively able to reshape it.”

So, in the spirit of not being apologetic, or tip-toeing around making a case that is seen as acceptable; rather than being seen as one of those ‘reasonable ones’ I will end this blog with some lines of poetry I found in the book Fifty Shades of Feminism by the scalpel-sharp poet, Laurie Penney:

There are more of us than you think, kicking off our high-heeled shoes to run and being told not so fast . . . who dared to dance until dawn and were drugged and raped by men in clean T-shirts and woke up scared and sore to be told it was our fault . . . who were told all our lives that we were too loud, too risky, too fat, too ugly, too scruffy, too selfish, too much . . .”

I say, let’s continue to be too much!

Image: Watch out cartoon (from a postcard pinned to my kitchen notice board for the last 21 years) by the brilliant cartoonist Jacky Fleming. Jacky is also author of the wonderful The Trouble with Women.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

 

That’s not fair!

Fairness, I think it’s fair to say, is a difficult concept to neatly pin down – yet it is a much used word (not least by my two teenage daughters)! The dictionary defines fairness as ‘impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination’. But ask a random group of people to say what they mean when they talk about fairness and how this plays out in practice, and they may well interpret it in a myriad of different ways; they may well also vehemently disagree! Fairness, it seems, often comes down to one’s point of view. Yet, as we wrestle with the lack of fairness that has come to light following the gender pay gap reports, and as we digest the overwhelming evidence of the bias (however unconscious) towards ‘stale, pale’ men, how can we all do better to ensure we are being as fair as we can possibly be in all areas of our lives?

The video released on International Women’s Day of Norwegian children getting to grips with gender equality and fairness is a delightful example of how they not only collaborated to help each other complete their task, but they also recognized the unfairness of how each was rewarded (more sweets were given to the boys than the girls, and so the boys chose to share their prize to make it fair). Similarly, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (thanks for flagging @LazMazHarry!) from researchers at Hult International Business School entitled ‘Do you have advantage blindness?’ spoke about the challenges leaders face in recognizing that their success will have been aided by the advantage of gender, race, class, and so on. To cite the article:

“Our research on speaking truth to power shows there is often a blind spot among the powerful, preventing them from seeing their impact on the less powerful. We call this advantage blindness. When you have advantage blindness, you don’t feel privileged. You don’t notice a life of special treatment; it’s just normal. You don’t think about your physical safety most of the time; you don’t worry about holding hands with your partner in public; when you get angry, no one asks you if it’s because of your hormones; and people in power generally look like you.”

An interesting read. The research highlights how, whilst some leaders felt challenged and even uncomfortable with the privilege afforded them, others denied an un-level playing field, citing their own hard work, or challenges in their background and childhood that meant they got to their senior positions purely on their own unique merits. The research recommended that, to counter this advantage blindness, the leaders make efforts to own personal prejudice and bias, to develop empathy for, and connect with people who are ‘other’, and to put their personal advantage to the collective good.

So, how do we, as a society, strengthen our fairness muscle? How do we create a more just society, in which everybody has the opportunity to flourish and thrive?

I was interested to come across the work of the American moral and political philosopher, John Rawls, whose thinking has had a significant impact on Western, liberal democracies. His seminal book, The Theory of Justice, published in 1971, essentially posits two (although I make it three!) principles concerned with achieving a just and fair society. Two of the three principles would be something most of us would be familiar with: namely equality of opportunity and the liberty principle, whereby each person has equal access to basic rights. However, what I was fascinated by was what Rawls described as the ‘difference principle’. Recognizing that there are inequalities in every society and that most people would, for example, expect a brain surgeon to earn more than a receptionist, Rawls argued that a just society is one in which, whilst inequality exists, the worst off in society are made as well off as they can be. Of course, being objective about how you might achieve this is hard. Rawls’ notion was to think about what a just society would look like if, knowing everything about it that there was to know, you would be willing to enter it at any random place and know that you were being treated fairly. Rawls called this the ‘veil of ignorance’ and it is brilliantly described by the behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, is this brief Ted Talk – I would definitely recommend a watch!

In Ariely’s talk he describes a large-scale survey he undertook to ask people whether they know what level of inequality there is in society and what they thought it should be. The results were illuminating. Not only was there a knowledge gap between what people thought versus what was the reality (the reality being far more iniquitous) but there was also a big gap between reality and what people desired, which was to have a much smaller gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in society.

Fairness in practice isn’t straightforward. The world is full of ambiguity (I wouldn’t have it any other way) and achieving a fairer society is hard. Of course, there are some obvious places to start that would achieve some quick wins (gender pay gap anyone?). But, as we all go about our day to day lives, perhaps we should try on that ‘veil of ignorance’ a little bit more and challenge ourselves to create a society that, wherever we found ourselves, we would see it as fair.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’.