On Wednesday 8th March it was International Women’s Day; a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and to call for action in accelerating gender parity. This is part of a series of events marking March as International Women’s month.
To celebrate women’s achievements and to highlight some of the on-going battles women have to face, we have asked members of the EqualiTeach team to share some of the most pertinent gender equality issues for them, and what they see as the next steps forward in the fight for gender parity.
Sarah – Head of Partnerships
“I am in my forties and I have two daughters aged 14 and 11. Since 2012 I have been a single mother. According to many politicians and media commentators I am the root of most of Britain’s ills. Boris Johnson has previously written of single mothers that we are “producing a generation of ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children“. We are spoken of as irresponsible hedonistic individuals, who set out to be “married to the state” failing to consider the idea that many of us had children in a loving relationship that didn’t work out.
One in four families in the UK is headed by a single parent and in 92% of those families that parent is the mother. One of the reasons that I co-founded EqualiTeach was because of my caring duties. When it was time to move on from my previous job, the only existing options were in London, which would involve me leaving home before 7am and returning after 7pm, which felt an impractical and undesirable solution as the sole carer for two small children.
The duty for employers to consider flexible working has been a huge boost to working parents, but it’s a difficult thing to broach when applying for a job. It puts one on the back foot if you have to start negotiating the possibility of job shares, working from home or reduced hours before you have even been offered the position and proven your worth.
I’m certainly not the only person to find themselves in this position. Women who are balancing caring responsibilities are increasingly turning to self-employment. Between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for 80% of the new self-employed and the number of women starting their own business has grown by 42% since 2010 with almost a third of new businesses now founded by women. 78% of female entrepreneurs said that their reason for starting a business was to “do the best for their family”
I am very proud of my daughters. I worry for them as most parents do, growing up in a pressurised world of social media, where young women are increasingly suffering from anxiety and depression, where job security is no longer something that can be assumed, and where feminism is sometimes still considered a dirty word. I hope that by having open conversations with them about equality and discrimination, rights and responsibilities; by encouraging them to be active citizens to fight against injustice; and by balancing running an organisation alongside caring for them, I am modelling positive attitudes and behaviours, which will ensure that they are not “ill-raised, ignorant and aggressive”, but strong-minded, independent young women, ready to take on the world.”
Kate – Head of Education
“A couple of months ago I was in a 30 minute meeting where my age was mentioned four times. I am 30 years old. Sarah, my co-director, is 11 years my senior. We were in the meeting together in Nottingham. The person we were meeting with drifted onto climbing house prices as a topic of conversation, during which he asked me where I lived and I told him I had just bought a house. He immediately turned to Sarah, exclaiming how that was proof that I wouldn’t be moving and leaving her organisation anytime soon. This assumption was reinforced when he directed questions to Sarah about how and why she set up the organisation. After that followed a few sentences directed towards me which started ‘when you get to my age…’ and ‘you’re too young to remember this…’
I came out of the meeting wondering why he was so fixated on my age and at what age I’ll need to get to before people no longer think I’m too young for my position; indeed experiences such as these can be subtle but can build up to be a continual reminder that you are yet to be seen worthy of your position.
This wasn’t a one off incident; over my career so far there have been numerous mentions about my age in a professional environment. When I set up EqualiTeach I was 26, and I was often warned that it was a very young age to take on so much commitment and was I sure that I could do it. All three banks I visited with my partner directed conversations towards him rather than towards me when discussing business bank accounts. A male friend of mine asked who would be writing the business plan for me…
Whenever I encounter incidents such as this, I always wonder if a 26 year old male would have encountered the same thing. If a 30 year old man had entered that meeting with Sarah, would his age have been mentioned repetitively or would it have been assumed that he was the director of the organisation and Sarah the employee? Often, when two markers of identity intersect so closely, it is difficult to tell which one is the cause of the problem for people. Is it just my age? Or is it my age and my sex combined?
Dual discrimination is the name given to unlawful discrimination against an individual on the basis of a combination of two protected characteristics, for example, age and sex, sex and race. This was shelved from possible inclusion in the Equality Act in 2011, meaning that legally it is important to be able to distinguish between the two. This was evidenced by the now famous case of the BBC vs Miriam O’Reilly. But in reality, how easy is that? And should we have to?
More than four in 10 young women believe that their gender will count against them during their career, whilst only 4% of young men felt that they would experience this, with 20% saying that their gender will have a positive effect on their career. A recent TUC study found that nearly two thirds of women aged 18 to 24 said that they have experienced sexual harassment at work. As a director of an organisation which employs young women, I feel that it is my duty to speak out against the discrimination and harassment often faced by young women, allow spaces for employees to talk about their experiences and provide opportunities for employees to follow up on their experiences, in the hope that together we can ensure that perpetrators of ageist, sexist stereotyping and prejudice can be held to account.”
Theresa Salzer – Youth Education Officer
“I would like to discuss and add my voice to the debate around how society polices women’s appearances no matter what we wear. It does seem like society takes too great an interest in the matter. I’ve often come across articles entitled ‘Sorry chaps, women only get dressed up to impress each other’ or ‘7 Office Wear Ideas & How To NOT Dress Boring To Work’. The way women dress is constantly under scrutiny; essentially it feels as if women can’t do right for doing wrong. I’ve frequently been confronted with comments on how I dress, varying from: ‘Is this really what you want to wear out?’ or ‘Didn’t you want to dress up a bit more?’ or ‘How about you wear more fitted clothing?’ On a night out, when I was 20 years old, a male friend of mine went as far as asking why I hadn’t put in more effort into the way I looked, what I wore and how I had made myself up for the night out. Until that point I had felt beautiful, but you can imagine that as of that moment my evening fell into a series of feelings of self-doubt, little self-worth and generally feeling like the odd one out. This was in 2011. Since then, I have had many moments when I thought ‘can I get away with this look or another…?’ Should I really have to have an internalised checking system for what I wear, for fear of getting judged for wearing loose fitting clothes, showing skin or wearing a bra?
Yesterday I delivered critical thinking workshops in a girls’ secondary school in London, where what women wear was still the subject of much scrutiny. Many of the girls felt that whatever you wore, you would receive comments about how you present yourself. When really whose business is it, but the woman’s herself?
Recently, a case in the UK, where Nicola Thorp, a receptionist at PwC, was sent home after arriving at her workplace in flat shoes instead of heels, has highlighted the inefficiency of the Equality Act 2010 in effectively supporting gender equality in the workplace. The inquiry into the efficacy of the Equality Act was triggered by a petition started by Nicola Thorp, which received a lot of responses emphasising the many experiences of women having faced gender discrimination based on how they presented themselves at work. Reading through an excerpt of the dress code imposed on Nicola and other female employees at PwC, I was shocked at the way women were being depicted as someone whose only purpose it is to look presentable. They even included images to showcase what colour nail polish is acceptable, as if their female employees needed just a bit more help to understand what is appropriate.
This brings to mind a quote from Yvonne Seale, historian of Women and Social History: ‘keep in mind that it is no more freeing to tell a woman what she can wear than to tell her what she can’t.
Nicola Thorp’s petition also caught the public’s attention, which has led to PwC scrapping their dress code policy, showing once again how important it is to speak out to create change.
We must ensure that women are instilled with an inherent self-worth in whatever they do and whatever they wear, without the scrutiny of comments from all around. Can we stop focusing our attention on what should or shouldn’t be worn by women and instead focus our attention, time and words on contributing to a society where everyone is respected in what they wear and are given the space to explore their gender without rules, wrongs and rights?”
Rachel Elgy – Youth Education Officer
“I was taken aback recently, when revealing a photo of the Nobel-prize winning mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani to a year 6 class, by the viciousness of comments that followed.
“She looks like a BOY,” “She looks fake,” “She’s got an awful haircut…”
It was not one child trying to be controversial, but astoundingly almost the entire class was caught up in chatter amongst themselves, pouring out harsh critiques.
Rather than the usual discussion we would have that leads to acknowledging gender stereotypes surrounding subjects like maths and science, we had to talk about how it feels to have your appearance judged and criticised so harshly. I asked them to imagine I had brought Maryam to the class with me, and she’d heard their comments. What impact would their words have?
Our new world of social media can be the sharpest of double-edged swords. It is capable of creating connections, bringing communities together, and can be incredibly effective in pushing forward for positive change.
But it has a much darker side. By looking at the world through a lens, and seeing everything through filters and carefully selected highlights, we can be given a distorted view of reality. It becomes easier for us to disconnect the images on display from the human beings underneath, and it continues to perpetuate the idea that the value of women lies in their looks. The top 10 most liked photos on Instagram in 2016 featured eight from Selena Gomez. The other two are of Christiano Ronaldo. While Selena’s photos are a collection of selfies and glamorous shots, his two are focussed on his professional achievements.
Visual media, is not the only place that we are sold this lie, this story that women are there to look good. I am continually disappointed to hear these misogynistic ideas in mainstream music. All too often songs refer to women as ‘girls,’ and as property of men. Take the One Direction song ‘Steal My Girl’, it tells other men to “…find another one ‘cause she belongs to me.” This isn’t romantic, it’s possessive. I thought; let’s give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this man is possessive because he values her so highly. What is it about this ‘girl’ that they are so protective over?
“Kisses like cream, her walk is so mean,
And every jaw drop, When she’s in those jeans”
Even the poignant ‘7 years’ by Lukas Graham makes reference to someone- his girlfriend? wife? partner? -with only the phrase “my woman brought children for me.”
And the one that really gets to me, and moves me on to my final point, is Omi’s ‘Cheerleader:’
“…right there when I want her
All these other girls are tempting but I’m empty when you’re gone
And they say:
Do you need me? Do you think I’m pretty? Do I make you feel like cheating?
And I’m like no, not really….”
The reason this song grinds my gears so much, is not just that his woman is there for him on demand, but the internalised misogyny at play in those girls’ questions. These harmful narratives are so widespread, it’s not just men who value women’s looks over their personalities and achievements, but women do it too. We have been so conditioned that we will happily criticise other women, put each other down, put ourselves down, and apparently encourage men to cheat on their partners.
We’ve seen it with the girls in my year 6 class, viciously stating that the woman in the photo did ‘not look like a woman,’ and we hear it from women around us all the time: “She’s wearing too much makeup, not enough make-up, she’s too fat/thin/tall/short….” The list goes on.
A prime example was when a “revealing” photo of actress and activist Emma Watson was used in a Vanity Fair article. She became the focus of attention and debate, with the Sun running the images on page 3 with the headline “Beauty and the Breasts”. Critics were quick to shame the feminist, claiming it was essentially anti-feminist to have such a photo taken. We could talk about the arguments in this discussion for days, but luckily, Emma Watson herself gave a pretty good summary to close the debate.
“Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality.”
So, we have two fights on our hands here. To continue to push back against the traditional misogynistic views constantly being spread through media and music, and to become aware of our own personal bias and internalised misogyny. Women and men alike need to support each other, and build each other up, rather than placing unfair goals of what women ‘should’ look like, and how women ‘should’ behave.”