Women Speak Out in… London

29 May 2010, Royal Festival Hall café, South Bank, London

On a typically rainy Bank Holiday weekend, we held our first Women Speak Out discussion in London. Sally, Anne & Christine joined Jessica & Michelle in the Royal Festival Hall café to talk about the issues affecting them as women. As this was our first event, we weren’t sure what to expect.  However, we got a good discussion going in our group of women.  Here’s some of what we talked about:

Work inside the home

We started off discussing how women are still expected to undertake most of the household duties and childcare even when they also work outside the home – and how feminism has more to do on this issue.

Sally: Feminism’s drive for women to climb the career ladder hasn’t made jobs such as cleaning, cooking and childcare go away – someone still needs to do them. More needs to be done to elevate the status of childrearing, but because feminism treats this as inferior, that means no one – woman or man – wants to do it. But why does feminism value the masculine? To increase the value of something, don’t get women to do something, get men to do it.

Anne: It’s important that society supports the attitude that household duties and childrearing should be shared equally between men and women and fathers should take just as much responsibility for the care of their children than the mother is expected to.

Work outside the home

Our discussion also highlighted how certain types of work outside the home are also gendered, which has an impact on both women and men.

Sally: A woman wanting to become an MP or a lawyer or a man wanting to be a nurse or teacher has to jump over a psychological fence and make a decision to step out of the ordinary.

Christine: I’m not so worried about men taking on traditional female roles in the workplace – they can handle it. Even in female-dominated professions, men still hold the higher positions.

Michelle: Working as a secretary makes me conscious of being a woman – the work I’m expected to do and the dynamics between me and my boss encourage me to fulfil a stereotypical feminine role. You’re the housewife of the office.

Women in politics

Sally: Politics needs to be made more accessible.  How many people are going to choose a career where they’re away from home four nights a week?  How many mothers or fathers want that?

Jessica: The biggest obstacle to ordinary women becoming MPs isn’t the working hours, but the campaign to get elected.  It takes vast amounts of time, huge support and money.  And you’re not always fighting a winnable seat.

Equal pay & employment rights

Our discussion on work then turned to equal pay and employment rights. Anne brought up the recent Birmingham City Council equal pay case where female employees were getting paid less than men for comparable work. Jessica asked whether legislation is enough to ensure equal pay for women?

Michelle: Mandatory pay audits for companies would mean the onus wouldn’t be on the woman to speak up about discrimination in pay.

Anne: But we would still need to be cautious. Organisations find the loopholes and exploit their workers.  The fact that men and women often do different jobs masks the inequality.

Anne also pointed out how many women in the workplace are affected by working on rolling temporary contracts which prevent them from gaining full employment rights and how the male domination of trade unions also prevents women’s progress in the workplace.

Anne: In trade unions, there’s an attitude of the ‘boys looking after the boys’ and workers’ rights are fought on the assumption that people work full-time, but a lot of women work part-time hours. Also, women are less able than men to attend union meetings to make their views heard.

Childhood gender socialisation

Another main area of discussion was the all-pervasiveness and impact of gender stereotyping in childhood. From the toys we are encouraged to buy our children, to the subjects they study at school, it was felt there is still a blue corner designated boy and a pink corner girl. But how comfortable are we with breaking down these stereotypes?

Sally: Feminism has made it acceptable for women to be engineers and play with boys’ toys. But something that is feminised isn’t valued, it’s seen as inferior. I think feminism maintains women as ‘other’ by doing this. There’s nothing wrong with buying a sewing machine for your young niece – but we should also give them to boys.

As a writer of children’s books, Sally is conscious of how she portrays gender in her books.

Sally: I write my characters so they are realistic. So a female character may enjoy riding her bike, but still also reads Jacqueline Wilson and wears barrettes in her hair.

Education

Thinking about how gender stereotypes are reinforced in school, when Anne was at school, girls didn’t study physics or chemistry, only biology.

Anne: Feminism should be about confidence and feeling comfortable.  If you’re one of the only women in a science class then you’re going to feel different.  We had to fight to be taught physics and chemistry.

It wasn’t until later on that Anne discovered her aptitude for the ‘hard sciences’ and undertook a chemistry and physics degree. It was noted that today more women are entering university, and taking science and engineering degrees, but are not always going into careers in these areas.

Anne: Women still need to push to enter certain male-dominated areas. I eventually went into teaching. My other options were nursing and secretarial work, and teaching at least offered me some autonomy.

Feeling afraid

How gender stereotyping affects women’s confidence and ability to go out and do things by themselves was another issue that concerned our group.

Anne: There are many women who do not do things through fear.  It makes you unequal if you won’t leave the house.  Fear restricts your work opportunities.  If you’re too frightened to go into a restaurant or a hotel alone then you can’t always participate in the working world.  The media is always talking about women being attacked, and women won’t feel safe until the media stop telling them to be afraid.

Being female…

Sally: I’m aware of being a woman.  Gender governs how people think.  If you’re writing a story about a boy who plays football then it’s simple – he just goes to the park for a kick-about with his friends.  But if you’re writing a story about a girl who plays football then you also have to think about how it fits in with society.  Who does she play with?  Where does she play?  What do other characters in the story think about it?

Christine: Sometimes you want to escape from being a woman, or being a black person, or being anything.

Jessica: I often don’t remember I’m a woman until I look in the mirror.  I just don’t think about gender that often.

Is now a good time to be a woman?

Sally: Now is not a good time to be a member of any minority – although there have been far worse times.  Women are often presented as a minority despite the fact that there are more are us!

Anne: I feel I’m in a minority. I don’t see myself being represented as a woman; for example, look at the government. It’s important we have women represented across the board.

Christine: It isn’t a good time to be a woman, but opportunities are shrinking for everybody, considering the economic recession.

Jessica: The white, male, middle-class model is still the norm and women are marked as ‘other’ against it.

Christine: It’s more of a problem when women and other minority groups believe in this norm, not just the norm itself.

Our discussion kept coming back to how gender stereotypes and assumptions still largely underpin and affect women’s lives. Yet, what can we do to change this?

——————————————

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on what we discussed? We’d love to get your comments and views – Women Speak Out is a chance to find out what issues are on women’s minds and what’s affecting you. You could leave your comments below, fill in our survey-style comment boxes, or take our quick poll.  The poll changes every month, so come back and try it again soon!

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