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Archive for April, 2012

On labels, identities and values (British feminism series, part 2)

Even as a child I was questioning of stereotypes, and held a dislike for the expected behaviour based on one’s gender, though granted I probably didn’t internalise it in such a way. When I was about 7 years old I asked my grandmother to teach me to knit. This is something I continue to this day (admittedly less often than before) but both then and now, it’s not something that I considered to be “girly”; to me, it’s just something I enjoy doing.

At university, though I was comfortable with my gender, I decided to omit the “gender” box on the registration form. This is not because I had any doubts of my gender, but was twofold: firstly, that it wasn’t (indeed, still isn’t) a big part of my identity, and secondly in support of a coursemate who omitted her own gender when registering due to not wanting to the University to give her concessions when making administrative decisions.

It was around that time that I also gained an interest in sexuality and gender politics. I’ve seen plenty change during that time – the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) which gave legal rights to trans people, The Equality Act (2010) which introduced legally supported rights for people on grounds such as race, religion andsexuality. Prior to these dates are events, amongst others, such as the introduction of the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the shockingly late repeal of the right of marital rape in 1991.

Despite all this, there is still lots that needs to change to redress the imbalance. Feminists and other people interested in achieving gender equality sometimes talk about the Glass Ceiling. In broad terms, this metaphorical expression refers to the invisible yet impenetrable barrier that women face in the workplace in situations such as equal pay, or being denied opportunities for senior roles. To introduce some figures to highlight the point, last year the CMI reported that, in the UK, women in managerial roles receive in the order of £10,500 p.a. (25%) less than their male counterparts. Furthermore, women make up less than 25% of senior management roles in the UK.

A woman attempting to break the glass ceiling - from CBC Radio, Canada

Humans love labels. They love to label themselves, and they particularly love to label each other. Though this blog is themed around feminism, and this article discusses some feminist topics, the word “feminist” is not one I use to describe myself. To me, the word “feminist” is inherently gendered. I believe that women should be afforded the same rights as men – not because they are women, but because they are human beings. Furthermore, there are people who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary, and they too deserve equal rights. To use the same word for such people, even if the desire of equality is shared, is erasing of those people’s identities.
So whilst I solidly believe in equal rights and opportunities for all people, regardless of gender, I haven’t yet found a label that I feel describes me well in terms of these values. I’ve seen the word humanist used in this context, but to me that seems unsuitable due to having faith based overtones.

Not having a label to describe this aspect of me doesn’t unsettle me. Instead, when people ask I prefer to respond in a sentence, perhaps a paragraph. This conveys more meaning than just a single word. One person’s idea of a word, and the values or behaviours which that word implies, may differ from another person’s, and so by giving a fuller explanation this leads to clearer communication and greater understanding.

Gender equality symbol from recessionwire.com

Leaving aside my indecision of which label to pick, import questions remain. How do we keep the pressure on the drive to gender equality. And why does it require pressure in the first place? (And is it just my inner idealist who sees the rhetoric in that second question?)

I don’t know that I have a simple answer to these issues. Introduction of additional legislation has only had a limited effect – e.g. despite the aforementioned Equal Pay Act being introduced over 40 years ago, there is still a 25% pay difference in some fields.

Rather than being legislative in nature, perhaps a stronger approach would be a social one. Part of such a solution would be for men (not just women) to speak up when women’s rights are ignored, or worse trodden on. It’s up to us all to care for equality.

No more should we tolerate casual sexism in the workplace. No more making “banter” such as “Did you get lost looking for reception?” to a woman sat in the IT department. No more laughing at these comments – which sadly aren’t so antiquated as one might think. Though I’ve not directly heard such comments myself, I have women friends and colleagues in technical roles who have had this type of comment directed at them, and recently so. To my feminist associates, had I heard these comments directly, I would have spoken up, and I will continue to do so in the future.

The fight is not over. We can get there. But we must keep trying.

-Matt Peperell, British, gender equality advocate (he can be found under @mattpep on twitter)

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