Doesn’t it seem there’s a lot of talk about gender equality at the moment? In the past month alone, there have been numerous news stories showing the extent of male power. We’ve watched over 2,000 business leaders meet at DAVOS and found that only one in seven were women. We’ve been reminded that male entitlement is by no means dead when Lord Rennard, refusing to apologise for alleged cases of sexual assault – galling in itself – was backed up by fellow Lib Dem Chris Davies who brushed aside certain types of molestation as unimportant. As if there’s an acceptable kind of sexual assault. Then, UK Parliament was shown to be quite literally a picture of male privilege and, more than this, white, male privilege. Off the back of these stories, criticism has flowed. I’ve heard journalists, colleagues and friends criticise the evident gender imbalance in our society and agree that things need to change.
The Coalition front bench
But (and there is still a but), after making so much progress the established order has remained the same: male power, often predominantly white male power, is still entrenched into our global system of governance, our workplaces and our relationships. It’s relatively easy, and in many instances apt, to blame men. It’s their fault. They need to change. And it’s true; a lot of men do need to change. But the causal factors are more numerous and complicated than this. They are in our everyday lived experience - the performance of conventional gender norms. Men must perform masculinity to be taken seriously, while women, if they aren’t the few who also perform conventional masculinity to get power, passively watch.
A prime example of society’s wholehearted subscription to gender norms is the gender-reductive language that is embedded in our social, personal and professional interactions. I’ve heard on so many occasions men, aghast at the thought of hitting a woman, in the same breath joke about rape or domestic abuse. In the workplace, many of us will have heard our male colleagues make ‘throwaway’ comments about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen or allude to women as sexual objects. To those men and women who tell me to ‘lighten up’ when I call out such comments – much in the vein of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ frequently bandied about schoolyards – you fail to realise that words can be damaging.
If you scratch underneath the surface of ‘mildly’ sexist comments you find a very serious implication: women are less important than men and exist to be used at men’s will. If you need evidence of the way this power imbalance reveals itself in our everyday, start by counting all the occasions where men interrupt women in social and professional settings. Or simply look at Laura Bates’ illuminating project, Everyday Sexism, to see that words are not as harmless as we would like to believe. These gendered categories and the way they manifest themselves have damaging effects. As I write this, I’m questioning whether I’m going too far. Maybe I am taking things too seriously. Maybe it’s me. I know I’m not alone in this, so many women doubt the legitimacy of their own thoughts and feelings. In the same vein, both men and women feel that they have to perform conventional masculinity in order to gain success. Ultimately this shows that in a multiplicity of ways we’re limited and oppressed by conventional gender norms.
A world in which men and women are equal will not be achieved by making piecemeal efforts to promote or include women. A more equal way of being will only come about by breaking down gendered categories. Let’s overhaul the way we see the world by questioning the language we use and the stereotypes we perform. We can’t let this moment slip away, we have to question what we’re told is ‘normal’. If we're to succeed, we must form an alternative world; a world in which performing masculinity is not the only route to power.