We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Since women were unable to vote. Since marriage made a woman a man’s possession and since to be a woman was to only stay home and bear children. In the Global North – often denoted as the “developed” world – women and girls can now play football, they can ‘legally’ enter any profession they wish, and many nations have been or are led by a woman. In the eyes of the law, men and women have equal rights and status.
But does our society truly treat women as equal? Has the feminist mission been completely accomplished in the so-called “developed” world?
You see, whilst much has been done to enhance gender equality in recent history, there is still a vast gap in how “equal” things truly are. To a greater or lesser extent, places such as Western European nations are in a relatively privileged position, where they have recognised many issues pertaining specifically to women, and they shape their laws accordingly.
However, it is one thing to change laws – written statements and guiding principles – but it is another, greater, less tangible thing to change minds and perceptions, ways and norms of society. These are still yet to catch up, even in “developed” nations. As Angela Davis puts it, if we want change, “we have to talk about liberating minds.”
Granted, the inequality becomes less obvious. Unlike the law, these elements of society are not explicit, but rather implicit – harder to see and therefore harder to change. Much of this takes place on a subconscious level.
This is where underlying gender norms define expectations of what it means to be a woman.
Here, we experience subconscious ways of judging people, forming expectations of others that make us all beholders of unconscious bias: in hidden and implicit ways, it manifests in relationships, in our words and in our actions.
This is where we still hold specific expectations of women’s behaviour – which then translates into a normalising treatment that remains hidden in nuances of our everyday interactions. The effect so deeply engraved on our societal conscience, that women even constrain themselves according to these norms too.
In some ways, the problem can be easily marked.
Quantitative data points out that something is still not quite right. The disparity that we talk of, and that many of us feel, is reflected in some quite unsettling statistics. For example, why is it that:
- in the EU, in 2020, women represent only 7.9% of CEO positions?
- on average women in earn 14.8% less than men, per hour in the EU?
- 97% of women say they worry about how they come off to others when exercising authority at work, and 87% downplay their accomplishments?
Is it just because women and girls are made of the gentler stuff – “sugar and spice and all things nice”? Despite what your Uncle Barry might have told you at your last family gathering: no, it is not.
The statistics don’t just represent a disparity in numbers. They stand for every individual that has been deterred of a chance due to their gender. They represent the subtle struggles that women are still up against, in our “advanced,” “egalitarian” society.
But when women today speak about these hidden inequalities, they are called “radical” or “petty”. Let us look at what is going on here.
Words are manifestations of subtle traditional expectations of women, and in this, they are examples of power suppression.
Historically, women’s voices have not been listened to. When women call out the issues they experience, calling them “radical” or “petty” is simply a continuation of that power suppression at play – it shuts down the arguments before they have been listened to.
When women today express their feelings and desires, reminding people of glass ceilings, #metoo, pay gaps and keys between our knuckles on our way home, we are called “too much”, “difficult”, and “radical” – and not as a compliment, but to dismiss our arguments as unnecessarily “petty” or “going too far”.
But as a society, we have to progress beyond the label of “radical,” which immediately causes the dismissal of one side of an argument, and the term “petty” that dismisses any valid feeling or emotion, before the accuser has taken the chance to understand. As a society, we must listen to each other. And we must hear each other, even those we think we may not agree with.
These terms suggest that we are whiny and complaining; that “nothing will ever be enough,” further pursuing the pretence that we have already achieved equality (often by drawing comparisons to the ludicrous or to extremes). In this way, we have shamed women into not asserting and standing up for themselves. So women have learnt to sugar-coat everything with “sorry to be a hassle”.
This is what the #PowerPhrase campaign is about. It exposes the ways inequality manifests itself in and through our minds.
If you have ever been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, cunning, insurgent, unruly, rebellious, you’re on the right track. Wild Woman is close by.
If you have never been called these things, there is yet time. Practice your Wild Woman. Ándele! And again.
– Clarissa Pinkola Estés
It is the language we use, and the language we are subject to. Language is by no means a stand-alone concept; it is at the core of human communication. Our cultural and societal norms, prejudices, highs and lows are weaved into language – as Angela Carter states, “language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”
And when we notice this, we begin to understand the big impact of seemingly small and insignificant words. We see how we treat people differently by the words we use.
So, let’s look at how easy it is for women to hear critical words at every turn.
Studies show that unconscious bias is ripe at work. Surely, we are all familiar with bossy. Surely, we all have heard unlikeable. And, surely, aggressive is more than overused when referring to women, particularly in a professional context.
Even if spoken lightly, without such intention, these words are manifestations of subtle traditional expectations of ‘women’, and in this, they are examples of power suppression. They confine women to what was once expected of them. By attaching negative connotations to their presence and aspirations, a barrier to breaking through glass ceilings today is still very high. A woman is penalised for displaying leadership behaviour, while a man is commended.
Feminism is fundamentally the belief that people deserve equal rights and equality of treatment regardless of gender.
Feminism is not radical for those who consider it to be the bare minimum.
Or perhaps it is, and as Angela Davis puts it, “radical simply means grasping things at the root”. And the more we learn to liberate our minds from labels of radical and bossy, and from our unconscious bias, the easier it is to promote true equality.
Feminism isn’t radical.
True feminism is equal.
Do you see the difference?
What is your #PowerPhrase?
Diehl, A. et al. (2020) “Measuring the invisible: Development and multi‐industry validation of the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders”, Human Resource Development Quarterly, 31(3), pp. 249-280.
Gender pay gap statistics – Statistics Explained (2021). Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Gender_pay_gap_statistics
Indicator: Largest listed companies: CEOs, executives and non-executives | Gender Statistics Database | European Institute for Gender Equality (2021).
Senior women often have to appear ‘likeable’ — or face being distrusted (2019). https://www.ft.com/content/ae310208-1d7c-11e9-a46f-08f9738d6b2b