The problem of gender boxes

I was reading today an article on Every Day Feminism, explaining why feminism must be trans-inclusive  I was interested in the arguments, because I do see a conflict between feminism – believing that there is no such thing as “female tasks” or “female abilities” and a movement that says that gender roles are very fixed, and if you want to move outside of one, then you need to move to the other role.

I am disappointed that this discussion has turned in to a “twitter war”.  I think it’s a terrible distraction from the misogyny and the patriarchy.  Rather than campaigning against male violence, we’re campaigning against each other.  So I wanted to understand their point of view.

The crux of their argument on this particular element is this:

The problem is not that the gender binary exists, but rather that gender is assigned non-consensually, and that anyone who steps outside of the culturally-defined boundaries are marginalized and experience systemic oppression and violence. 

And that is where I do have to disagree.  The problem IS that a gender binary exists.  The problem is that one gender (female) is discriminated against.  The problem is that if you are born female, you are more likely to face male violence, sexual assault, lower pay, exclusion from the job market, exclusion from politics.

The idea that if we step outside the boundaries we are punished is, at it’s core, victim-blaming.  Even if we behave perfectly – always dress modestly, never walk down a dark street unaccompanied, never drink, we still experience oppression and violence.  The problem of violence is not triggered by us acting up.  It is male violence, and the blame needs to sit with the patriarchy and perpetrators of violence.

It doesn’t matter whether I display “feminine” traits or not.  It doesn’t matter whether I prefer high heels or trainers, whether I like pink toys or all-the-other-colour toys.  I am put in a box because of my gender.  I don’t want to escape in to another box that is restrictive in different ways.  I want to remove the boxes.


Gin as a feminist drink

Honestly, I mostly love the taste.  But I do feel quite a political passion for gin too.  It’s the connotations for me – the 18th century panic about gin (beautifully illustrated in these Hogarth paintings largely focussed on the way that gin would make women terrible mothers with loose morals.  Then it was part of the desperate history of pre-legal abortions (  Buying any sort of alcohol was pretty much a man’s game, but it must have seemed very eye-brow raising for a woman to be buying gin with such strong connotations of illegality and immorality.

I am hugely privileged by my position in history and today’s world, to not even consider gin as a way to blur poverty or as any kind of desperate contraceptive.  But sitting pretty on my bar stool, with a gin menu in front of me, seems like such a reminder of how far feminism has come.

Or maybe just an excuse for one more G&T.  Cheers!

Is becoming a woman a “messy process”?

Sophie Walker took part in a web-chat on Mumsnet this week.

I am a member of WEP, and have been since the very first day membership was available.  I acknowledged that it can be problematic – a very “top down” approach to feminism, but I really felt that it was something I wanted to be part of, and that no one organisation could be perfect or tick all the boxes I needed, but that this approach was a vital one

However, the statements made in this webchat in particular are causing me real problems.  Sophie Walker said:

“I am old fashioned enough to believe that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. The process of becoming a woman is a messy one, filled with contradictions and influenced by many different factors”.

And this brings me up short, as it almost feels like victim blaming.  I didn’t choose to be a woman, I am one.  And the point about the discrimination I face as a result is that it’s not based on my choices.  It doesn’t matter that I’m child-free by choice, I am still seen as a “maternity risk” by some potential employers.  Discrimination doesn’t start when we declare ourselves to be women; we know that girls also experience discrimination, just take a look at Pink Stinks or the testimonies on Everyday Sexism.  We can’t choose whether or not this is the case – the patriarchy is something imposed upon us.

I am really struggling to see what Sophie Walker meant by this statement.  What is the point of a Women’s Equality Party that believes women only face discrimination when they choose?  What is the point of a Women’s Equality Party that doesn’t really believe that women exist?

I am deeply troubled by these statements.  I haven’t made a decision about my membership yet, but I don’t feel that I can avoid that decision much longer.

Is menstrual leave really such a great idea?

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my Facebook pals went crazy, raving about this article:

A Bristol company is introducing menstrual leave.  During their period, women may not be in a fit state to work, and should be allowed time off.  But it works better for companies too, as you’re “synchronising” with your employees, and so will get more from them when they are feeling productive.

I understand why people are raving about this.  Especially those of us who have only ever worked in male-dominated offices, a true understanding that certain times of the month can be crap, sounds good on the surface.

But right from the first read, I have a bit of a problem with this.  My biggest problem is that periods are normal.  We don’t need to be excluded from general population when we’re having a period.  It might be coming from a friendly place, but you’re saying exactly the same thing as those men that say women are unclean and need to be locked up during their period.

Then there’s the subtler messages this is sending.  In offices up and down the country, still when women get justifiably angry about something, it’s often greeted with an eye roll and a dismissal with “is it that time of the month?”.  So an employer actually coming out and saying that women should go home when they’re having their period, hardly helpful.  Again, this particular (female) employer isn’t saying it in this way, but the underlying message is the same.  Women aren’t as effective during their period, won’t contribute as much.  And as it should be quite hard to tell when a woman’s having her period, this pretty much means they’re not as effective and should be treated with suspicion, just in case.

We’ve fought really hard, for many years, to get to a place where legally, we now talk about “parental leave” not “maternity leave”.  And one of the drivers for this, has been that many companies routinely discriminate against all women of child-bearing age in order to avoid paying for maternity leave.  Introducing another reason why women need time off, will contribute to this further.  A forward-thinking company promoting this, will give further excuse to the patriarchal companies that nod along and say “well yes, I’ve always thought that women aren’t really cut out for office life”.  Women are perfectly capable of functioning in the work place – whatever the time of the month.  I’m not a slave to my hormones.

Perhaps I’m over-simplifying here.  I’m lucky that – thanks to lots of medication for many years, and finally a great IUD – I’m not doubled over in pain every month.  I do understand that some women are – but that doesn’t mean that every woman is.  Treating serious period problems as health issues – both recognised by Doctors and employers – would be a great idea, and a campaign I’d get behind.  But that’s not the same argument as saying that all female employees need special treatment.

And however well intentioned you are, asking if it’s that time of the month, is not something I want to hear in the office.

Addressing the gender pay gap

So it’s great news, that 30-something years after equal pay became a legal requirement, the government is actually doing something to enforce this.

You might notice a slight hint of exasperation here, because really.  What is the point of legislation that no-one bothers to even check whether it’s being adhered to?  So, great step forward.

Except, all it’s requiring is that information is published.  Nobody will then actually do anything to firms that are not paying equally – even thought this is the law.  So firms will notify the government that they’re not complying with the legislation.  And then nothing will happen.  *slow handclap*.

The government’s idea is that women can then use their power as employees and consumers to lobby firms, armed with this information.  Except, if women had any influence as employees of these firms, surely there wouldn’t be a gender pay gap anyway.

I know this is a difficult issue.  It’s very closely linked to representation on Boards and in senior management – because the easiest argument for a different average, is that there are more men in senior positions, dragging the average up, or conversely that there’s more women in the most junior part time roles.  And there’s still nothing to address this gender imbalance.  I do understand that there’s not a simple answer here.  But doing nothing is not an answer either.  How about requiring companies who do not meet equality criteria to come up with a plan to address it?  Hardly ground-breaking or business-threatening.  But it would force employers to at least consider some of the factors contributing to the pay disparity.  If they are simply not paying women equally for equal work, their plan would be hard pressed not to address this.  But if there are more complicated factors – like a lack of training and promotion for part time staff, or a lack of women in senior positions – then a firm having to at least consider this, would actually be a step forward.

Rather than this measure, which is a great headline to appeal to those pesky women voters.  But really doing nothing at all.

Choosing between childcare and… well, not leaving the house.

I read an excellent article on LinkedIn today, I’m afraid the original text is not in English, but here’s the translation from the LinkedIn post:

Professor Sydney Engelberg, was unfazed when the child of a mother at his lecture on organizational behavior began to cry. The embarrassed mom tried to leave the class, but instead, the father-of-four and grandfather-of-five scooped the kid up and soothed him in his arms – without missing a beat in the lesson. He allows the mothers that attend his masters’ lectures to bring their children and even breastfeed. No mother should have to choose between a child and an education!

And a link to the original blog (not English)

The comments on this, were almost all incredibly positive, praising the professor for his empathy.  It seemed such a clear but brilliant idea to me – a real win for everybody, as a noisy child didn’t interrupt the lecture (hardly ideal for anyone attending) but this woman wasn’t excluded either.

I wouldn’t normally blog about childcare, because not having children, I feel rather under-qualified to have an opinion.  But, I am a woman in the workplace.  I see talented women leaving, or taking jobs significantly below their abilities, in order to get a better fit with the rigours of child care.   I hear “jokes” often about “let’s hire a man this time – we’ve enough people on maternity leave at the moment” (ha ha – always funny, because if it wasn’t a joke it would be illegal).

But this one struck me, because also this week, I saw this article by Caroline Criado-Perez in New Statesman about how a more radical approach to closing the gender pay gap is required – citing factors such as part time work which are often directly linked to child care.  My one criticism of this article is that it doesn’t go on to say what the more radical approach required is.  How can we measure, monitor and then enforce something with so many variables?

Childcare was also something I noticed a lot while in Cambodia recently.  Women were working everywhere with their children – whether that was babies in papooses or children working and playing nearby, in fields, in markets, in local industries.  In the National Parks, frequently the female rangers were accompanied by their children of pre-school age – and why not?  The ranger is there to support tourists and protect the Park, and why can’t they do this with their children nearby?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offering poverty as a great solution.  There are health and safety and education issues.  But perhaps there are some ideas to be taken here.

Maybe the answer is that we’re over-complicating this issue.  Perhaps the simple answer is the best.  Perhaps less division between “work” and “private” lives is the answer?  Perhaps moving away from the idea that children should be invisible in our work lives.  That career progression shouldn’t be dependent on invisible children – on a “who can best pretend they aren’t a parent” competition. This has previously been dismissed as a very middle class solution – it’s easy for those blackberry-wielding professionals to arrange their schedules how they wish.  But maybe it could work in so many more ways?

Sexism, clothes and judging women

There was an interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour today.  It was a challenging interview, which touched on the racism that was faced by Batmanghelidjh, which is good.  But they didn’t touch on the sexism that she faced, which I think was an important factor.

This idea that she “mesmerised” people stinks of old fashioned “witch” accusations.  Surely if she’d been a man, she’d have been talked of as charismatic?

The interview touched on her clothes, and the influences from Iran, and the racism that she faced, but didn’t talk about her appearance, and whether a woman receiving “so much tax payer money” was part of the problem.

A man’s appearance can be commented on – I’m thinking here particularly about Boris Johnson – but somehow it’s not seen as indicative of whether he can actually perform his job.  Their clothes are seen as an affectation, a vanity, an eccentricity.  A reflection if personality perhaps, but not as reflective of their abilities.  Whereas I’ve heard more than once that “one look at her and you could tell she shouldn’t have been managing multi-million pound budgets” in reference to Batmanghelidjh.

This is bothering me particularly this week, as I shop for a couple of new outfits to start my new job (I do acknowledge the privilege inherent in this dilemma, but that’s something for another post).  One dress in particular, is awesome.  It’s black with flashes of bright orange, the skirt will be comfortably below the knee even when I’m sitting, the straps are wide enough to cover my whole shoulder and won’t show bra-straps.  So far, so professional.  And I love it.  But boy, it shows a whole lot of cleavage.  If I get impassioned and lean across a table, you could see straight down my top.  So I have this nagging feeling “is this how I want to be seen”?.  Which is driving me crazy.  I know how I’m seen in my profession – I’m capable, well known, full of good ideas.  One dress shouldn’t have any impact on my decade-plus in the sector.  And yet, I’m still having this persistent thought that people won’t see or hear me if I wear this dress, they won’t see anything but cleavage.

And while sexism is still alive and well, this issue is important.  The fact that the more senior people are, the more likely they are to be men influences this.  I know that the majority of people I come in to contact with will see an awesome dress.  But what about those people that know me less well?  Is this the first impression I want to leave them with?  Will they hear what I say, or will they just be thinking that I think my boobs are the most important thing?

For now, I’m going to fall back on asking my Mum about this dress.  I can count on her to give an honest opinion on whether the dress works, or whether the first thing that she sees is my cleavage.  But I wish we lived in a world where this wasn’t such a big deal.  Where our clothes are noticed – maybe even commented on – but not seen as a reflection of our ability.  A man’s world.