The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge.
A friend recently sent a quote attributed to William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, round our What’s App group, which certainly challenged me. It goes like this:
“I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she will give you a baby. If you give her a house, she will give you a home. If you give her groceries, she will give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she will give you her heart. She multiples and enlarges whatever is given to her. So if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of shit!”
I had never heard this quote before and was intrigued by the old fashioned misogyny veiled as compliment, so checked it out. In fact, only the first two sentences are Golding’s and the rest was added later by another author. So I won’t be too hard on Golding. The part that isn’t his… well. The assumptions in there about women’s role in the world are pretty awful (“you’re all so amazing, your bodies are magic and give us men exactly what we want, oh and by the way, smile love, while you’re chained to that kitchen sink I gave you!”). Personally I’d rather buy my own house and groceries and have control over my own body, thanks.
But on International Women’s Day 2021, following a year in which women have seen hard-won progress towards equality sliding away in the home and the workplace, with some commentators even talking about reverting to a 1950s-type situation[i], what should we make of Golding’s claim that women should bypass the whole equality agenda and just accept that they are superior?
The Gender Friendly Scotland approach recognises that in terms of power, authority, access to resources and rights, women are at a disadvantage. But we also look at the many impacts of gender stereotyping on other groups. We explore the idea of masculinity and all the good and not-so-good things that it can mean, making links between the pressure to be a powerful, dominating man and the mental health and relationship problems that arise when boys and men try to live up to this impossible stereotype. We look at education, employability and workplace issues for men and women, and the barriers that are still very much in place to, for example, men working in early years and childcare, or women in science, technology, engineering and maths. We also look at how men, women and non-binary people are harmed by our heteronormative assumptions, and the homophobia and transphobia that exists at every level of our society. We take early years practitioners on a journey of discovering all this, and then show them how they can make a difference through equitable approaches.
So this idea that women are actually superior has two problems. First, the assumption made by Golding and others is that women have a secret, goddess-like inner wisdom and patience that allows them to suffer the ignorance of a world that just doesn’t see this and continues to treat them as inferior. Just knowing we are superior should be enough. Having the patience and organisational skills to support the chaotic minds of our genius husbands, while multi-tasking (another ‘natural’, skill attributed to women) the demands of home educating our kids, managing a household and often also our paid jobs, should be reward enough. Far from tearing our hair out in frustration at our failure to manage it all, we should be in a state of zen because we know that we’re just better.
The second problem is, we’re not superior, and we should want equality. We’re not exactly the same as men: we have very clear biological differences, mainly linked to our reproductive functions. We have also in most cases been raised differently from men, exposed to a whole world of stereotypes and assumptions that lead girls and women towards different beliefs in their own abilities, their role in relationships, families and society, and different career paths, than boys and men. But there is more that unites us than separates us. The work of scientists like Gina Rippon and Cordelia Fine[ii] have shown us that outdated notions about vastly different ‘girl brains’ and ‘boy brains’, and about certain personality traits being ‘naturally’ female or male, are just that – outdated, and often based on sexism and misogyny in the formative days of the sciences. Differences between the brains of baby girls and baby boys do exist, but are less important and less interesting than the differences we find within, say, a group of boy babies. And the experiences we have throughout our lives shape the ways those baby brains develop. If we assume boys are better at and more interested in science and give them lots of science-y toys, then it’s quite likely that by the time they reach high school they will be way more confident at science and more likely to pick science subjects and enter a career in science than girls (for a much more sophisticated and nuanced explanation of this process, please read The Gendered Brain!). And if we treat little girls like natural carers and housekeepers and give them dolls and playhouses and kitchens, should we be surprised if all this practising encourages them to strive for domestic goddess-hood (and encourages us to think of these traits as something ‘lower’ or ‘lesser’ and not something our boys should have to bother themselves with?)
Even for women leaders there are assumptions about female qualities. The question over whether women make better leaders came up during 2020 as the world looked at how its leaders dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic. Are women biologically predisposed to being more compassionate and level-headed and do they make better decisions in a crisis, while naturally risk-taking, ambitious men get it all wrong? Or is this another case of stereotyped assumptions sending us off on the wrong path? As an article in Forbes argues, making these assumptions does everyone a disservice[iii]. Rippon, Fine and colleague Daphna Joel tell us to beware anyone who makes over-generalised, essentialist arguments (like ‘all men are…’ and ‘girls’ brains tend to be…’)[iv]
This International Women’s Day the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. Let’s call out gender bias and inequality. Let’s recognise the many situations across the world where women and men, boys and girls are not treated equally. Let’s challenge ourselves to recognise and address our own unconscious bias. Let’s be mindful of the intersecting characteristics that compound the inequalities faced by people of colour and other characteristics. And no more painting women as mystical goddesses of the kitchen. I’ll settle for equal human beings of the world.
[ii] Fine, C. Delusions of Gender and Rippon, G. The Gendered Brain