It’s Only Natural,Isn’t It?
About two months ago I attended a Fawcett Society debate about women in power. There were three guest speakers; Mary Riddell, political columnist for the Daily Telegraph, Dr Caroline Lucas MP, former leader of the Green Party, and Dr Ruth Sealy, Deputy Director of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders. The debate was chaired by Ceri Goddard, CEO of the Fawcett Society. For those unfamiliar with the Fawcett Society, their website can be found here.
A few facts from the debate: –
- 1 in 4 MPs are women
- 5 out of the 23 cabinet members are women (there are more millionaires making up the numbers, this despite Cameron’s pledge pre-election to have at least one-third of his cabinet being female)
- 9.4% of the FTSE 250 top companies have women as Directors
- 9.5% of the national editors of newspapers are female.
- Women make up just over 50% of the population.
The disparity is startling.
Why is this? Well, what it boils down to is the method by which power is attained and sustained. We do not have a representative democracy, not in terms of gender, race, culture, disability or sexuality. As Ms Lucas stated, the otherness of MPs disenfranchises the populace from them. There are no ‘familiar’ faces, nothing that helps one to have confidence that one’s feelings and beliefs might have a voice in parliament. The same goes for all organisations comprised of a power heirarchy, be they corporations or media or otherwise. The absence of women in parliament to speak up has led to a perpetuation of the economic inequalities – 8 out of 10 job losses in the recession have been female workers. Within the public service cuts, women are disproportionately represented because they are disproportionately employed in these roles. Ms Lucas stated that in parliament there is still overt sexism. I ask how can parliament truly represent the interests of women if the mindset is still that of male patriarchal oppression?
Ms Sealy gave the corporate overview, summing the position up as “appalling representation”. In the last decade there has been progress, with new appointments to positions of corporate power and decision-making rising from 10% a decade ago to 1/3 (as a result of the publication in February 2011 of Lord Davies’ review of gender imbalance). However, this still means there are only 6.5% female Executives in decision-making positions in the ‘big’ financial organisations directly responsible for the recession. Interestingly, all of the whistle-blowers in the scandals around the recession were female; women are more policy compliant and therefore less likely to break rules and cause the problems which led to the recession, and are more likely to speak up when such wrong-doing occurs.
Ms Riddell echoed the position with regard to media. There is only one female editor of a national newspaper, and even when there is a large female employee base (currently the Daily Mail has the highest ratio of male:female employees), the information printed is patriarchal and sexist. A report published by UNESCO cited by Ms Riddell found that the press overwhelmingly pigeon-holed women as the glamorous sex kitten, the mother, the witch or the hard-faced corporate unwoman. The recent publication of the Leveson Report (summed up by the BBC news website here supports the conclusion reached by UNESCO. The inherent culture in the media is macho, and the phone hacking scandal is a direct result of that culture in which entitlement and competition countermanded the standards of decency and ethics which should, and which many thought did, guide the media, even to the extent of breaking the law.
For all three women, the reason for the imbalance was not down to a lack of talent or suitability, but down to the inherent structure of the institutions. The genderised characteristic assumptions made regarding candidates and the values placed on those characteristics with regard to the contribution and resultant profitability (both in financial and policy terms) of an organisation. The long hours demanded of workers within all three power structures directly affects women, who are still overwhelmingly the primary carers (even when in partnerships) of children.
Women who are successful in the three sectors tend to adopt what are traditionally defined as masculine characteristics, which perpetuates the inherent sexism and valuing of the ‘masculine’ over the ‘feminine’. It is important to remember that such characteristics do not solely belong to the genders; men are not ‘all masculine and no feminine’, nor are women ‘all feminine and no masculine’. However, women are socialised to be feminine and men are socialised to be masculine. To veer from the path is to invite criticism – those women who succeed are often derided for adopting the masculine characteristics the industries deem necessary to have to succeed.
I found myself challenged; I am loathe to say ‘women are…’ and ‘men are…’ yet the facts show the truth of this. I hate it when people say it’s natural that a person behaved in a particular way because of their gender. My problem is that when it is stated that women are more (insert feminine characteristic here) and men are (whatever the masculine characteristic might be) the presumption is that it is natural for the entire gender to be so. I have come to accept that most women do have feminine characteristics in common, and most men have commonalities in masculinity. When a person says ‘natural’ they generally mean socialised to be a seemingly natural quality because it is natural to the person displaying that characteristic. Characteristics are not natural to an entire gender though. From birth we are socialised, such the time colours are defined by gender (as late as the 1920s in Britain pink was for boys and blue was for girls, these things are culturally and socially mutable) and girls are cooed over for their prettiness and boys for their strength, we are informed what our gender should reflect in us.
These characteristics are assigned values with the masculine being highly prized. Such values are then considered the most important in attaining and retaining power positions. The power positions then perpetuate the belief in the value of the characteristics and thus is born the catch-22 which maintains patriarchy. Such characteristics become racially stereotyping also, and those which are deemed non-white are given lesser value. The characteristic may be the same on paper but when enacted by different races, the values alter. This then perpetuates the racism inherent in institutions of power and hierarchy. The same occurs for each intersecting inequality.
I firmly believe it is well beyond time we stopped assigning to gender/race/sexuality/disability (etc.) particular characteristics, and that we stopped believing characteristics have genders. All people exhibit myriad characteristics crossing gender definitions. We learn and grow from what we see, hear, understand and are taught. By limiting our children according to expectation, we limit the potential and put them in boxes. We stunt them from birth. If we describe them as natural, we create a mindset whereby to seem opposite to our assigned gender creates an ‘otherness’, and we cross the acceptable boundaries. We divide, and we discriminate.
Feminine characteristics have been shown to have a positive and beneficial effect in the three institutions I mention, despite not being the desirable ones according to patriarchal hierarchy. Ms Sealy posited equality policies in business have a positive impact in profitability, for example reducing travel to conferences to enable women (as I said before, primary carers and most affected by long hours) to participate more equitably, over £20million was saved in six months. The feminine quality of listening and empathising enables businesses to reach solutions to problems the masculine qualities of following previous procedure and competition over cooperation will never reach. Caring promotes loyalty and good morale.
Characteristics are not inherently genderised, they are assigned gender and then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until we stop saying “it’s natural” for a woman to do this, or a man to be that, we are going to be stunted and unevolving society. We are going to discriminate. That’s not the society I want to live in.