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Feminism is Not a Dirty Word

For the longest time, I resisted identifying as a feminist.  I felt it was almost a dirty word.  The label seemed to suggest an instigator, a trouble maker, a boat rocker.  None of which I wanted to be known as.  Besides, who was I, in all of my educated, white privilege to bemoan my lot in life?  How dare I cry bias, when I was afforded opportunities, so many others are denied?

Growing up, a strong sense of fairness was instilled in me.  A belief in meritocracy.  When I started my career, I had no reason to doubt that if I kept my head down, I would be rewarded.  Surely effort would be recognised above all else?  Anything else defies logic.

I have come to learn that this belief is so common among women, it has been given a name.  Tiara syndrome.  Lots of women believe, as I did, that if you work hard, and keep your nose clean, good things will be bestowed upon you.  We shouldn’t need to kick and scream for what we deserve.  “Be a good girl, try a little harder,” as Alanis would say.

Furthermore, I had the idea that if I should ever speak up about gender issues, either for myself or on behalf of my female colleagues, that I would be vilified.  So, I put up far more than I should have.  When my male boss called me a “smart cookie,” I let it slide.  I played small and made nice.  Never daring to ask for the raises or vie for the promotions.

In my first ever “grown up job” I was harassed by a male colleague.  He persistently made lewd comments and behaved in a way that made me so uncomfortable, I dreaded going to work.  When I eventually plucked up the courage to complain, my request was simple.  I just didn’t want to sit within ogling distance of him.  The complaint was handled badly.  I was made to feel like it was my fault.  That I had encouraged him, or that I should have just kept quiet.  I was only 21 when this happened and it was an early lesson that speaking up won’t get you anywhere.

Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to audio books.  Two titles that have made me re-evaluate my stance on feminism are “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and “That’s What She Said” by Joanne Lipman.  Both of these excellent books tackle the thorny issue of gender equality, and it is important to note, neither bash men.

Working my way through these books the seed of an idea began to take hold in my mind.  Equal does not have to mean the same.  We can accept that there are differences between the sexes, and still insist on fair and equal treatment.  We can begin to see these differences as complimentary rather than contrary.

Both authors also converge on the idea that in order to close the gender gap, we need men.  Women cannot go it alone.  Without the advocacy of men, we are on a road to nowhere.  We women are in a double bind.  By not speaking up, we get nowhere.  But when we do speak up, we risk reciprocity.  It kind of reminds me of the movies when the sane person is accused of being crazy.  Anything that he says or does to prove his sanity after that, only serves to make him look crazier.

It is an awkward dichotomy for me personally.  I want to play with the big boys, but I don’t want to be there simply to make up the numbers.  This issue came up recently, when there was a social media kick back about a nutrition conference.  Of the panel of ten speakers, only one was female.  This incited a lot of backlash in the community, with several people threatening to boycott the event.

My feelings about this were really complicated.  I must admit that when I initially saw the promotional posters, I failed to notice the male to female ratio.  I have been telling myself that it’s a non-issue for so long, I have become blind to it.  When I started to become aware of the outrage it had caused my reaction was “who cares whether the speakers are male or female?”  I want to listen to the most qualified and influential people in the industry.  It matters not a jot whether they are men or women.

However, my thinking was fundamentally flawed.  My argument would only be valid if speaking opportunities were awarded on merit alone.  The level of heterogeneity among the panel would suggest this is not the case.  Apart from the single white female speaker, the rest of the panel is made up of white men.  It would seem statistically unlikely that the best and the brightest in the field, all fall into this category.

This situation is not unique.  From orchestras to operating theatres, women continue to be under represented.  I am the first to admit I don’t know what the answer is to gender inequality, but burying my head in the sand and pretending it’s not my problem, certainly isn’t going to help.  I once heard someone say “if you’re not an activist, you’re an in-activist.”  Every time we see inequality and ignore it, we widen the gap.  I know I have been guilty of this in the past and I want to apologise to the next generation of women for failing to forge a path for them.  I will do better.   Be well xxx