We need to value women!
The first thing people register about me is my gender. And as female, in the eyes of society I am inferior, incapable, not to be trusted, hold less worth and will be expected to provide incalculable numbers of hours of unpaid and unrecognised labour. Gender isn’t abstract. It isn’t exclusionary. It isn’t random. It sends very real and tangible signals about how people should interact with and behave towards each other to ensure alignment with the social expectations. It is also the structure of the society that we live and operate in. And unless we change this foundation and shift what is valued, specifically to actively engage and value women and feminine unattainable, gender equality will remain unattainable. My post explores the different ways my life has been impacted by the inability for our society to value women. This has led me on a truly incredible and inspiring journey to believe that gender equality will remain a far off unattainable dream until we shift the foundation of our society to value women and feminine attributes.
The first thing people register about me is my gender. They register my gender first because it is the foundation of the structure we live and operate within. Gender isn’t abstract. It isn’t exclusionary. It isn’t random. It sends very real and tangible signals about how people should interact with and behave towards each other to ensure alignment with the social expectations. It is these complex social conventions and interrelations that I learnt from a very young age, that as female, I will be valued less than males. In the eyes of society, I am inferior, incapable, not to be trusted, hold less worth and will be expected to provide incalculable numbers of hours of unpaid and unrecognised labour.
My dad was a breadwinner, my mum a housewife charged with raising my brothers and I. My mum worked hard not to constrain us to traditional gender norms. We had dresses and suits in our dress-up box and were encouraged equally to play with both, our Christmas presents were often uniform and ungendered. We read the same books and played the same games. Within our home, we weren’t coloured by our gender and learnt that gender should not limit our capacity to do or be anything. But we didn’t grow up in a bubble. We weren’t immune to the external structure outside the walls of our home. Unsurprisingly, my brothers and I developed vastly different expectations of what it meant to be and live within our society. I was ambitious and courageous for enjoying maths, they were simply good at it. My brothers behaviour was often excused by those around us because you have to let boys be, but I was being naughty. As male, my brothers were the headline act, as a female I was the support act.
After decades of financial control, manipulation and emotional bullying, my mum finally divorced my dad. Watching the entire court process from afar, I became incredibly angry at the family court system. The court system did not acknowledge how my mum’s day was never done, she never got to stop to enjoy a moment of peace with a glass of wine. She had to do admin for the family business to make sure it would provide for our family, she had to make sure my brothers and I were fed, clothed and washed, provide the support and encouragement we needed to thrive and provide the all important taxi service. All free of charge and often unacknowledged simply because this is what is expected of a wife, mother and woman; to be the support act to the husband, father and man. During the court proceedings, not only was this work ignored, but denied by my dad. And the family courts allowed it. My dad rewrote history because why believe a woman, when a man is talking.
I witnessed the system fail my mum. In addition to the lack of acknowledgement of the countless hours of unpaid labour, there was no recognition of the domestic violence perpetrated against my mum and the continuing manipulation throughout the court proceedings. There was no acknowledgement that at the age of 60, the decisions made by the family court has meant, my mum was restarting her life with no qualifications and little formal work experience within a work environment that does not want to hire a former housewife who worked for the family business. Meanwhile, my dad lives a very comfortable retired life traveling overseas with his girlfriend monthly.
I could just get angry, but that’s not going to change my mum’s situation. Instead, I chose to stop, think and look. I chose to take a journey exploring the multiple, interlinked and complex ways gender inequality manifests itself in our communities.
I stopped to see the multiple intersecting and unique ways women experience inequalities every single day. I thought about how we are teaching our girls to be strong, tough and courageous, but failing to teach our boys the importance of being kind, collaborative and supportive. I explored internalised misogyny where girls are taught to disrespect their own gender, becoming masculinised to survive and turning their backs on fellow women. I looked at the way Lego sets reproduce gender norms so that the few distinguishable female mini-figs are designated to the periphery, teaching all children that females are there to support the males who belong in and own the spotlight. I examined the assumptions behind scientific data that is used to justify the treatment of men over women.
As I come to the end of this particular exploratory journey, I have concluded that unless we change what society values, gender equality will remain an unattainable dream and the sustainable development goals will go the same way as the millennium development goals, largely unachieved. We need to stop talking about the economic and financial benefits created from gender equality and shake the foundations of the structure we exist in to pro-actively and inclusively value women and feminine attributes. Because after all, values are only as strong as the foundation that holds them up.
The UK’s role in ensuring a standalone SDG on gender equality is widely acknowledged. It is also acknowledged that in order to achieve the other SDGs, it is imperative gender equality is achieved. But so far, more than 12 months in, the UK is failing in its obligations. There is no clear strategy for the SDGs implementation and the responsibility for their achievement sits with the Department for International Development. I believe this sends the very strong message that the UK government’s advocacy for SDG 5 was based on their belief that gender inequality is something that happens over there to ‘other’ women’ in ‘other’ communities and cultures and is completely blind to the inequality that exists in at the very foundation of the UK society.
Whilst advocating for SDG5, the UK Government continued to impose strict austerity measures. The hole created by these ideological measures is swallowing more and more women every day. It is now clear that over 86% of the tax rises and benefit cuts have fallen on the shoulders of women, this figure rises when BME women are considered. These women who already starve themselves just to give their children that little bit more won’t be able to put any food on the table after the most recent budget cuts. At the core of these decisions is the UK government’s inability to acknowledge and value women. Children across the country are missing school because their mothers are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and buying sanitary products. And whilst women are shouldering this additional burden from these cuts, women specific services are being underfunded and shut down. Specialist organisations are being forced to fight for survival each and every day to provide love, support and care to the women the UK government chooses to ignore.
I believe this speaks very clearly to my argument that in order for gender equality to be achieved, the foundations of our structure needs to be changed so that women, and feminine attributes are valued. The UK government can advocate for a specific goal, but what good is a goal when the government is making daily decisions that directly contravene gender equality and demonstrate an innate inability to value women. I believe the starkest example is the UK government’s active decision to remove women’s right to reproductive choice. Within the last week, the UK government as provided £250,000 of funding to Life, an anti-abortion charity whilst at the same time removing all benefits to third or subsequent children. I don’t think there has ever been a clearer message that women are not valued.
This predicament, demonstrates the tightrope women are forced to walk on a daily basis. Women spend their lives trying to master this art of balancing. We can’t be too assertive because we wouldn’t want to be considered too bossy and chastised. But we can’t be too quiet and too timid because it becomes our fault men don’t listen to us. But people also don’t listen to us when we become passionate and argumentative because now we are just being ridiculous and we need to chill out, relax and not get so angry. We can’t work too hard, too long or too far away, we can’t give children too much attention but then we are careless when we allow them too much freedom. We can’t be too masculine, but we also can’t be too feminine either.
We are faced with this balancing act because of the foundation of the structures we live in and operate in. The current economic models used to determine the ‘right’ decision can’t possibly be used to achieve gender equality because at the core they do not value women and feminine attributes. And to achieve gender equality, we need to start valuing women and their unique circumstances and decisions. The neutral is not neutral, it is in fact masculine, and further a masculinity only white men can ever fully achieve.
Adam Smith is widely regarded as the founder of modern economics. His ideas, developed in the 1700s, are still taught throughout the world as the basis for any economy. And although I believe in and have respect for many of his writings and theories, he never once acknowledged women, let alone his mother and her work to ensure his dinner was ready and waiting for him. In Adam Smith’s workings, he never acknowledged the unique situation of women and how much of their work is not conducted out of their own self-interest, but out of love and duty.
Since Adam Smith, there has been a continuous stream of old white bearded men, transforming Smith’s theories into mathematical formula and models. Continuing Adam Smith’s benevolence to women and feminine attributes, these men did not consider it important or necessary to incorporate these alternative perspectives as theories transformed into models which are readily applied to make many of the most pressing decisions of our society. It is these models that continue to be charged with determining the ‘right’ decision for society. But how can they make the right decision, if at the very core they exclude 50 per cent of the population.
At university, I loved studying economics, it made sense to me. But then I started as a regulatory economist. From the start, I was applying models and my economic knowledge to varied problems finding solutions. At first, I was also shielded from the masculinised culture by my talented and incredible supervisors. But as I developed and took on more responsibility, I became acutely aware of the rigid masculine approach required to work. I believe that this meant that the decisions being made did not result in the best outcomes for society. The approach was masculine, one-dimensional and did not allow for creativity and alternative approaches, styles, attributes.
Having worked in organisations, I believe that the approach to achieving internal gender equality was also approached through this single lens and never applying to work in a broader way. Much of the discussion to improve gender equality revolves around the need for flexibility and work-life balance for women already in leadership positions. I believe that flexibility and work-life balance are important and should be included in a company’s policy, but constraining discussion to this point has four major concerns to me.
1. it excluded women who were not in leadership positions
2. it excluded women who were not in leadership positions but had children
3. it excluded women who were in leadership positions but did not have children
4. it excluded all men regardless of whether they were themselves in leadership positions or had children
The varied, multi-faceted and unique concerns and issues relating an individual’s experience of gender inequality is not considered and often deemed relevant within this discussion framework. I believe that this occurs because women and feminine attributes are not valued at the foundation.
I have seen an organisation’s internal satirical weekly column, where gender and discussing gender, was linked to dangerous territory and included an apology for having to discuss the topic of gender. I do not blame the writer for these comments; they like so many in our society and communities are unsure how to talk about gender in an educational and inclusionary but light-hearted and non-threatening way. Given little experience and limited knowledge, the writer used stereotypical assumptions about gender to write the article and provide information to staff completely unaware of how their comments would be interpreted and the impression they would give to staff about the wider organisation’s commitment to gender equality. But this occurred within an organisation that had a commitment to gender equality. If this organisation valued women and feminine attributes it would not feel a need to apologise when discussing it.
Until what is valued at our society’s foundation is shifted, what is considered acceptable for men, women, trans and non-binary people will remain constrained to the current rigidity of what it means to be a man or a woman. By shifting what is valued, it will shift the perception of what men and women can and cannot do. But to ensure that the shift occurs, we need to make sure that we change the foundation in which we exist.
I will conclude that we may be created by the system we live in, but that means we have the power to change it! The time has come to value women and feminine attributes. We can’t expect a to be there for us when it wasn’t designed around women and women’s needs. And working together, in solidarity we can change this failing system that is based on unjust and ignorance to incorporate our own needs and experiences.
I don’t believe there is a right way to making this change. But we need to change the visible and implicit rules that are used to maintain women as inferior. We need to actively and equally include women and men at the centre of legislation and policy. We need to stop using shame to control and manipulate women. We need to change the assumption that women are the problem, inhibiting their own success and change the way women are forced to operate and exist. We need to make sure men are held accountable for their actions.
Men may have it easier, but they also face enormous pressure to conform to external social pressure to be manly. They aren’t allowed to show emotion or weakness, they have to be in constant control holding power and earning money. To achieve gender equality we need to remove the rigid constraints society place around men, women, trans and non-binary people. I truly believe that the only way to remove these constraints is to shift the foundations of our society to change what is valued. Where there is no hierarchy to the values, we see being kind and caring equally important to being strong and courageous. I want a world where we are no longer operate along gender lines where finance is a man’s concern and childcare a woman’s. But finance and childcare are of equal importance to society. We need to value women and feminine attributes.