What is the next chapter for feminism? This is the question being debated at the first Intelligence Squared panel of 2016; no mean feat when the current status and definition of feminism is still such a topic of disagreement. Chairing the panel is broadcast journalist Jenni Russell; she is joined by historian Amanda Foreman, Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin, Sky News’ social affairs and education editor Afua Hirsch, neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, and last but not least Anne-Marie Slaughter, a lawyer, political scientist, and author of ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, the most popular Atlantic article of all time.
A prehistoric primer in patriarchy
“The idea of patriarchy, and the idea that woman have always been the second sex – is that true?” Asks Amanda Foreman. “Well the answer is no, in fact patriarchy is very much the new kid on the block.” She cites archaeological sites from 8000 BC as evidence that early human civilisations were gender neutral. Skip ahead a few millennia to around 4500 BC, and the bones tell a different story; when women began to marry outside of their previously egalitarian communities, they would lose status and influence.
Helena Cronin goes even further back in time, 800 million years to be exact, to give us a potential origin for the popular notion that men are innately more aggressive and competitive than women. Back when sexual reproduction was the latest craze, women were selective in choosing mates, and thus men were forced to compete with each other. And sure, a primitive urge to control fertility might have been an historic driver of patriarchal behaviour. But what’s the excuse for gender inequality in 2016?
Cronin asserts that there are innate differences between men and women, and that given free choice, men and women on average tend to have different priorities and make very different decisions. “Feminism should take this science seriously,” she says, adding that “equality” should not be conflated with “sameness.” It is sexism that should be challenged, she says, not these sex differences.
Slaughter opines that while there are obvious differences between men and women, some of that is down to a social construction of identity. For example, the idea that women are more nurturing, while men are more ambitious. Cronin dismisses this, saying there is no evidence to support it, and that some women may well be ambitious or competitive, but on average men are more so. “I absolutely disagree that there is this essentialist notion of gender that has content about gender roles,” says Afua Hirsch. “Gender is a social construct.”
Daniel Glaser also disagrees that these differences are as immutable as Cronin suggests, instead speculating: “I think there is a very small difference in the genders, but there is a dialectical amplification of that difference… so I think what we do as a society, either through amplification or through simplification, is to amplify a bunch of small differences which may originate in biology, which probably don’t line up, and we generate a dominating narrative, which allows us to assert that it is the biology which makes us as we are.”
This narrative has mutated over time to create convenient stereotypes which perpetuate current power structures, casting women as shrill and over-emotional, and men as coolly rational. “While we recognise differences in what women and men do, and where they’re found in terms of professions and so on, one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome if the feminist project is to succeed, is differences in how women and men are seen,” says Glaser. “These differences are cultural, they’re not grown in the womb.” He puts it down to a phenomenon known as cross-modal perception, wherein what a person sees actually changes what they hear. This explains the workplace anecdotes where a woman who asserts herself is deemed aggressive or bossy by her colleagues. “Patriarchy is human-made,” adds Foreman, “and what can be made can be unmade.”
The state of feminism in 2016
Slaughter and Russell both agree that back when they both graduated from university, they simply assumed that gender equality would have become a non-issue by now. Decades later, Slaughter believes that the feminist conversation has been “renewed”, as an entirely new generation of women has discovered that despite matching or even outperforming their male peers in an academic setting, they are still discriminated against once they enter the working world. “We’re still stuck at 20 per cent women in a good industry, and in a bad industry, 10 per cent, even 5 per cent,” she says.
Hirsch works in TV news, an area where she believes women are still openly discriminated against for their looks and race. “Even though there are more female journalists and more women on TV, I still think there’s a perception that when it comes to the serious issues, to politics, to security, to economics, that we revert to the safe pair of hands, and it’s inevitably the white men.”
Race and class are two things which, it has been argued, are often glossed over by mainstream feminism, and Hirsch worries that not enough women are engaged in the feminist discussion because they feel excluded: “I think that many black women who are passionately committed to equality, are intimidated by feminism as it currently exists, because they perceive it to be in conflict with the equally pressing issue of race and ethnicity, and the inequality that exists there.” She also believes that the current white feminist “brand”, such as it is, assumes a certain level of affluence which is impractical and exclusionary to many: “I would like to see feminism do more to acknowledge that not all women are aspiring to be the next CEO of Pepsi, potentially because they’re not in the corporate world, and a lot of feminist books speak very much to a specific context… I think that we tend to still see poor women as ‘other,’ and not part of this debate.”
For Hirsch, intersectionality cannot an add-on or an extra; it needs to be a core part of feminism’s intent from the word go. “It can’t just be about getting more women around the table, it needs to be about getting women from a diverse variety of backgrounds to really represent the range of female experience.”
What does the future look like?
“You don’t have to be the same to be equal,” Cronin maintains, “and men and women can find equality without any sameness whatsoever.” While this is a tidy if somewhat vague view to take when dealing with averages, the fact remains that right now there are men and women on the same career paths, but one group is generally more likely to be favoured over the other. So what can be done to create a more level playing field in a professional environment?
Just putting a woman in a leadership role isn’t enough, says Slaughter, because it is highly likely that she will have needed to behave in a “male” way to prove herself and earn that place. Instead, we need diversity of perspectives in these rooms: “There is good social science that says once you hit a critical mass of women in any group, not only do women feel free to express what they really want to say, but men’s behaviour changes too, because men feel like it’s OK to say what they want to say, that may not conform to traditional definitions of masculinity.” Hirsch agrees: “If you are competing with the entire pool of talent, you just get fewer mediocre people in senior positions, and that is to the benefit of everyone.”
In order to place men and women on equal footing in their working lives, there needs to be a restructuring of stereotypical gender roles and expectations in their personal lives. “If we’re going to get to full equality between men and women, then we have to focus less on advancing women to top jobs, and more on valuing the work that women have traditionally done,” says Slaughter, referring to the work of care, either for children, or for family members at the other end of life. “And that means valuing it when men do it, and assuming that men will do as much care in the home as we now expect women to bring in as much income in the office.”
One of the keys to gender equality is changing the lens of our assumptions, according to Slaughter, and raising sons to think about balancing a career and family in the way that girls are already expected to do. “If men didn’t suffer social opprobrium for choosing to be with their children, they actually would make a much different set of choices than they are making now,” she says. “There will be people who absolutely want to be on the nurturing side all the time, and there’ll be extremely competitive people on the other side, but I don’t think that’s a function of your sex, I think that’s a function of who you are.”
So what are the immediate next steps that need to be made? “Personally, I’m not as interested in equality of outcome, but more equality of opportunity,” says Hirsch. “If women had genuine equality of opportunity, they would be able to choose for themselves what is the right model for their lives.”
“Stop talking about mothers and start talking about parents,” advises Slaughter, who along with Glaser also wishes that corporations would ditch the “culture of time macho” where hours spent at one’s desk equals status within the company, even if it is to the detriment of their family life. “Here’s the thing that I really don’t understand about it,” says Glaser; “would it not be advantageous for a company to say we’re the ones that cracked that problem?”
As the panel draws to a close, Hirsch’s final statement is in response to a question from a member of the audience, and is greeted with cheers and applause:
“What can brands do to help feminism? Stop using women’s bodies to sell everything!”