Archive | May, 2012

A diamond is a feminist’s best frenemy

22 May

A colleague at work recently got engaged so I politely enquired about the proposal, you know, the usual – was kneeling involved, where were they, in a special spot, abroad, on a bed of roses or meadow of bluebells? I am told that he asked during a picnic, and would you believe it, without a ring! He’d actually bought it online, but it hadn’t arrived yet. . which, it turns out, she was annoyed about. Cue outrage amongst the women in the office, what, no ring?!

This concept of an engagement ring is a rather peculiar one because the man doesn’t wear one. Which makes me think it’s a little like marking your territory, showing that the woman is taken. What makes an engagement ring particularly peculiar is how important having one, and specifically, the right one, is. Typically, rings are shown off and compared like trophies, trophies of just how much he (and it is generally he) loves you and how much he thinks your love is worth. Putting this sort of monetary value on a relationship surely leaves men feeling immense pressure and women inevitably feeling a little disappointed.

That horrid phrase “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, we play up to it by expecting and even demanding a diamond ring, by showing it to everyone we meet, putting a picture of it on Facebook and generally making the engagement about the size of the rock and not the other person or about love. The ring is, in essence, the ultimate commercialisation of love. I hate to say it, but I think it makes us seem just that little bit shallow and maybe even irrational. We know they cost a load, we know they can be lost, we know we shouldn’t be putting a monetary value on our partner’s love and we have probably even seen the film Blood Diamonds. Yet we want them, so badly in fact, that the diamond industry is worth billions of pounds.

But by saying diamonds are a feminist issue – not only because of the reasons already outlined but also because we know they cause and perpetuate conflict which predominantly affects women – well, this is yet another challenge for, and with, feminism.  Marmite ain’t got it half as hard.

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A cupcake, a bra and goodbye feminism

20 May

Pink bunting. Cupcakes. “Girls getting together”.  Bras.

Should these be the symbols of a progressive movement of women working to overcome poverty and address the real struggle for women’s rights? The symbols and language used to empower women?

A prominent international charity, in the space of only a few months, has done three things which make me think we are taking a giant leap backwards for women.

One. Launched the Big Bra Hunt where women were asked to donate their worn out and rejected bras.

Two. Encouraged women, sorry, girls, to have ‘Get Togethers’, to bake cakes and have tea parties. How quaint, let us bake our way out of poverty.

Three. Had Joanna Lumley wear a t-shirt which said that by shopping and swapping we could shop our way out of poverty and suffering. Obviously that’s all women are good at right? So why not just embrace it and shwop?

In no way is it wrong to put on events and develop initiatives that raise money to help charities do life-saving work in developing countries. That is not my issue. My issue is with the unintended consequences of these events and initiatives which reinforce gender stereotypes, infantalise women as ‘girls’ and turn a very serious agenda – of women’s rights – into little more than a shopping spree and cooking bonanza. This is no way to end inequality.

My request is for organisations to stop patronising women by suggesting we can overcome poverty by having fun little ‘girls nights in’, to stop reinforcing stereotypes, and to start taking inequality seriously. We can rise to the challenge of global inequality and poverty – so let us do it with dignity and self-respect, without talk of bras, and with our hands around a microphone, not a cupcake.

An agenda without men?

20 May

Should gender studies only be about women or should it incorporate male studies? Obviously there are two genders and both genders can be victims of abuse, discrimination, exploitation etc. This thinking has led a former LSE student to take this great establishment to court. In his view, by excluding ‘male studies’ from the course and without talking about the issues facing men, the LSE are pedalling a “sexist agenda”.

It is true that as feminists and students of gender studies we talk predominantly about issues affecting women – about misogyny, patriarchy, sexism, female genital cutting, rape, child marriage, the glass ceiling, pornofication, sexualisation, etc etc etc – and we don’t devote a huge amount of time to talking about men as victims and not just as perpetrators.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, we are reiterating the argument of women being victims and therefore not allowing ourselves to break free from that view. Secondly, as seekers of justice, fairness and most of all equality, we should not be dismissing the injustices that afflict other people simply because they are of a different gender. I personally do not like it when feminists only talk about rape of women, when rape of men is prolific and equally devastating. Something I myself wasn’t aware of until reading this fantastic article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/17/the-rape-of-men

So, if, as feminists, we are trying to create a world more just and equal, shouldn’t we be addressing all the challenges facing humanity, those affecting both men and women?

Perhaps yes. But when feminists have such a huge amount on their plates, can we really take on the problems of men too? Unfortunately statistics still show that women are more affected by violence than men, that globally there are 10 million child brides every year, that in the UK a women still earns £5600/yr less than a man. Perhaps if the man suing LSE mentioned some truly serious, endemic, global violations, then he might just have convinced me. But instead he mentioned “increased subjection to hypergamy (gold-digging)” and unfortunately, as women, we have bigger fish to fry.

Confidence and the Ceiling

20 May

I went to a presentation by Baroness Helena Kennedy recently and she was saying how, generally, men do not feel the need to fulfil all the job specifications before applying for a job. Women on the other hand, do. Even then they might still not apply for the job.

I went to another presentation later that day, by Peninah Thomson – a partner of UK’s leading executive coaching firm and author of A Woman’s Place in the Boardroom. She was saying that if a woman feels she is missing one of the job requirements, she will wait for another post to come along for which she will meet all the requirements. However, the men she mentors will just go for it, regardless of whether or not they fulfil all the criteria.

Only this week, these theories and generalisations really came to the fore for me. At work I manage a young man. He is very keen to progress within the organisation where we work, so he asked to meet to discuss his career progression.  I suggested he look for jobs that matched his skill set, which, at this stage, means having modest expectations since he only just graduated. He comes over to my desk later in the day and tells me about a great job he has found and whether it would be okay if he left the post early in order to start this great new job. I ask him what the post is, and it’s one which requires substantial experience. I had myself looked at it earlier that day and dismissed it, thinking, ‘even though I fulfil the criteria, I’m unlikely to get it’ and didn’t think about it again. But the young, inexperienced male in front of me seemed pretty confident he was going to get it.

Whilst there are many structural problems stopping enough women from progressing and crashing through the glass ceiling, I think a lot of it has to do with our inherent modesty, how humble we are and how reluctant we are to think big and bold. To go toe-to-toe with men who generally believe the world is theirs for the taking, we need to be more confident. This lack of confidence is not only stopping us from applying for those top level posts, but it is also part of the reason why we get paid less, as we are four times less likely to ask for a pay rise than a man (The Economist, 2011).

Since inequality in pay and the glass ceiling cannot just be attributed to male discrimination, but in part to our lack of confidence, it’s time we said goodbye to modesty and bravely welcomed in a new era of assertive confidence.