5 Ways to Promote Gender Equality in Your Day-to-Day Life
This year, the UK reached a milestone that won’t occur again for quite some time.
For the first time ever, the head of state (Queen Elizabeth II), the head of government (Theresa May) and the President of the Supreme Court (Brenda Hale) are all women. The head of the Church of England – the Archbishop of Canterbury – has not yet been a woman, of course, but now that women can become C of E bishops, it can only be a matter of time. Our next head of state will be a man, but the law on who inherits the throne has now changed so that it is merely decided by order of birth, not by gender. It could reasonably be said that there are no major positions in British society that remain legally or practically closed to women.
But that’s not to say that British society has reached a point of complete equality; far from it. The gender pay gap persists, both in women being paid less than men for doing the same job (though this is illegal in the UK), and in jobs typically done by women being undervalued in comparison with those typically done by men. Among heads of FTSE 100 companies, men named John outnumber women. The average woman spends 40% more time doing housework than the average man. And it’s not just women who suffer as a result of these inequalities. For example, the cultural assumption that women will have primary responsibility for childcare hurts women of childbearing age in looking for promotions, but also means that divorced fathers seldom get custody of their children.
Many of these problems have now been dealt with in a legal realm, but persist nonetheless. While it may be the case that employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against pregnant job applicants, there’s no doubt that in many places, these practices continue, alongside other forms of discrimination against pregnant women and working mothers. As much as any legal changes, what’s required now is social change. You might not be an employer, politician or lawyer, but you can still do your bit for gender equality in your everyday life. If it’s important to you that in the next generation, your daughters aren’t stuck earning 84% of what’s earned by your sons, and your sons won’t be barred from seeing their own children, here’s what you can do.
1. Avoid sexist assumptions
Try this experiment suggested by engineer Neelima Jadhav: open up Google Translate. Type in the sentences: “She is a doctor. He is a babysitter.” Translate them into Turkish, a language that doesn’t use gendered pronouns. Copy the Turkish text, and translate it back to English. As of November 2017, the resulting text reads, “He is a doctor. She’s a babysitter.” Even in an automated system, sexist assumptions abound.
What does this sort of assumption look like in real life? The Everyday Sexism project has countless examples. One recurring pattern is people assuming that female managers are secretaries rather than being the boss, that women will automatically be the ones to take notes or perform similar administrative tasks in meetings, and that women at whatever position of seniority will make them a cup of tea before a meeting. And it’s not only men who make these sexist assumptions; they are often made by women as well.
What’s more, the assumptions start a very early age. In one well-known study, mothers of 11-month-old babies were shown a slope and asked to estimate their children’s abilities to crawl up or down it. Shortly afterwards, the estimates were put to the test. There was no gender difference in the babies’ abilities to crawl – but mothers overestimated the boys’ abilities to crawl and underestimated the girls’ abilities all the same. It’s easy to imagine how that kind of assumption might manifest every day when parents guess their children’s abilities and whether they will be safe in a particular setting, for instance, whether they’ll be able to climb a tree safely, or how far apart they should stand for a game of catch. If parents misjudge their children’s abilities based on gendered lines, it would be no surprise if girls end up disheartened and overly cautious in their physical abilities, while boys take risks from overconfidence.
You might find yourself thinking that you don’t make these kinds of assumptions yourself, but the truth is that most of us do – we just don’t do it at a conscious level. That’s the case regardless of our gender. You can test the level of your own unconscious biases using an implicit bias test (the linked tests were created by Harvard University) – for instance, you might wish to explore whether you have an unconscious association between “women” and “family”, versus “men” and “career”. If that’s the case, it’s unsurprising – almost all of us live in cultures that give us that message constantly – but once you know about it, you can watch out for occasions on which you might unconsciously act on it. For instance, you might find yourself gravitating towards male political candidates because they seem more “statesmanlike”; if you’re aware of your own biases, you can ask yourself if they are really the better candidates, or if it’s your bias talking.
2. Avoid benevolent sexism too
Mostly we think of sexism as the belief that women are in some way inferior to men; that they’re less brave, less intelligent or less capable in some other way. But that’s not the only form that sexism can take. It can also be about a belief that women are superior to men in some particular field, usually in a way that also serves to limit women’s choices and freedoms.
A classic example is the belief that women are so much more wonderful than men that they need to be coddled and protected – for instance, by not being allowed to work dangerous jobs or long hours. Or there are instances of benevolent sexism like Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay on why women aren’t funny, which concludes that women aren’t funny because they have a higher calling in the form of childbirth, and thus are above any low entertainment like humour. (Do note if you read that essay that there’s also homophobia mixed in with Hitchens’ sexism).
If you’d be horrified at the thought of saying that men are inherently better at certain things (such as driving, reading maps, or whatever other stereotype comes to mind) then it’s also best to avoid saying that women are inherently better at certain things (such as understanding the feelings of others, interior design or remembering people’s birthdays). Benevolent sexism might seem harmless, but “women are just more compassionate” is “men are just braver” with a fresh coat of paint, and it has many of the same consequences for women’s – and men’s – careers and social freedoms. For instance, the belief that women are more caring and better with children has contributed to just 38% of teachers in British secondary schools being men, but simultaneously limited women from rising to the top roles; only 36% of headteachers are women.
3. Teach boys to value female heroes
A lot of progress has been made in recent years to change what’s allowed for girls when they’re growing up. Children’s literature has moved on a lot from the days of Enid Blyton, where girls have to be tomboys if they’re to be in any way brave or adventurous. Modern children’s fiction has brave girls and brave boys of all kinds, and it would seem normal for most of us for girls to look up to male or female heroes that they come across in the books they read and the TV shows they watch.
But it’s worth asking whether we give boys the same opportunities. When the new Wonder Woman movie was released, there was no end of articles about how Wonder Woman was a brilliant role model for women and girls. These articles make sense – there are still too few unashamedly heroic women in cinema – but they nonetheless reinforce the idea that while women can be inspired by women and by men, men can only be inspired by other men. And these messages come through especially strongly for boys. But there are a growing number of female heroes that boys could be looking up to – think about Rey in the new Star Wars films – and it’s important that they be encouraged to do so. After all, the boy who looks up to fictional female heroes today might well turn into the man who looks up to his female boss in future. You can do your bit by encouraging the boys you know, such as brothers and cousins, to read, watch and enjoy stories that star female heroes.
4. Challenge misogyny wherever you can
Organised efforts towards gender equality date back at least as far as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, and depending on how you choose to define it, could stretch back into prehistory in one form or another. We’ve made a huge amount of progress since Wollstonecraft was arguing that perhaps female children also deserved a decent education, but there’s a lot of work still to be done, and you aren’t going to be able to do it single-handed. There will always be times when you overhear a sexist remark, or see a decision being made that seems to have a sexist basis, and you’ll stay quiet – whether that’s because it’s a scenario where you don’t have any power to do anything, or because speaking out would come at a significant cost to you, or simply because you’re worn out and you don’t think it’ll make any difference.
That said, there will also be occasions where speaking up can make all the difference, whether you’re male or female. When we’re confronted by something that we know to be wrong, we react in lots of different ways, not all of them good. You don’t want to become incoherent with anger, or upset, if you’re trying to draw someone’s attention to their sexism and get them to mend their ways. That means it can be worth thinking ahead of time about how to challenge the misogyny you see in your day-to-day life effectively. For instance, if the girls in your school get called out for dress code violations while the boys don’t, then a polite letter to the headteacher or board of governors is likely to be a lot more effective than yelling at the teacher doing the calling out. If it’s your own peers, a calm, “what did you mean by that?” can also do the trick. Thinking ahead means that you’ll know how to respond, rather than coming up with the perfect response half an hour too late.
5. Look beyond the obvious barriers to female participation
As a general rule, men are more willing than women are to put themselves forward for things – such as jobs, awards and so on – even if they think they aren’t qualified. It’s usually put down to a difference in levels of confidence, and so a lot of work on gender equality focuses on encouraging women to be confident; one example is the recent ‘This girl can’ campaign to get more women into sport.
Where this falls down is that the barriers to women participating or putting themselves forward for something are often unrelated to confidence. The reasons can be hugely varied, from caring responsibilities taking up time (as these falls disproportionately on women and girls), to not feeling welcome or safe in a particular setting, to feeling a culture clash with the other people involved, to simply not having any interest in the subject at hand. Even if there is a structural problem, this can sometimes be related to other issues than gender, such as race or disability. It’s worth thinking not only about what might be putting women off as a group and instead thinking about why any particular individual might not have wanted to get involved.
What have you found effective in promoting gender equality in your everyday life? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Images: rosie the riveter; 1950s woman cooking; wonder woman; woman with megaphone; respect womens equality banner; girl wrapped in fragile tape