Ceri Goddard and questions of gender equality

by Raisa Ostapenko on 16 February 2015

The third session of the “Women of Achievement” lecture series brought a very special guest to Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge: Ms. Ceri Goddard – an individual whose strides in securing opportunities for women have paralleled the College’s own historic journey in enabling women to reach their full potential.

Listed amongst the Telegraph’s 100 most powerful women in 2010 for her leading role in the fight for maternity rights and equal pay, Ms. Goddard is one of Britain’s leading campaigners for women’s issues. After Ceri Goddardhaving spent four years working as Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society, she became Director of Gender of the Young Foundation, where she develops approaches to tackling structural gender inequalities by harnessing and implementing strategic initiatives. Ms. Goddard’s goal, as described on the Young Foundation’s webpage, “is to see the power and ideas of the social innovation movement better applied to strengthening the impact of the gender equality movement and vice versa.”

Social innovation can come in various forms, including ideas (such as newly developed social understandings or movements) and practical inventions (such as the contraceptive pill). It is hoped that, when implemented to solve social problems such as gender inequality, innovations will serve to empower those groups that have traditionally been marginalised by giving them tools to exercise more control over their own lives. Using innovations to solve structural inequality does not necessarily require revolutions or new inventions, explained Ms. Goddard. It is often more efficient to combine existing innovations and methods.

What exactly is gender and why is this concept problematic, if it is at all? As Ms. Goddard explains, gender is not necessarily biological or natural. It is, instead, a social construct that shapes our world and our experience of it. For instance, a little girl might prefer a doll in a blue dress, but be expected to prefer dolls in pink dresses. The girl might also not like dolls at all and prefer toy automobiles, though it is traditionally assumed that the latter is more “appropriate” for boys. Similarly, a small boy might begin to cry upon bruising his knee and immediately be told that crying is a sign of weakness or that men are expected to demonstrate bravery. From their very childhoods, people are expected to embody character traits or form life preferences that are traditionally associated with their biological sex. A static presentation of gender can, consequently, be restricting and prevent us from becoming open-minded and freethinking individuals. Such expectations can also result in gender inequality, especially when individuals are forced to fulfil certain functions or are discriminated against as a result of their biological sex. However, gender inequalities are not inevitable, says Ms. Goddard, precisely because gender roles are artificial constructions instilled in people’s minds through nurture.

Another interesting point made by Ms. Goddard was the following: the fight for gender equality involves ensuring equality for all people, regardless of sex, an aspect that is often overlooked in the debate. Men are in just as much need of gender equality as are women and behavioural expectations for men can be just as damaging and debilitating as behavioural expectations for women. “A Crisis in Modern Masculinity: Understanding the Causes of Male Suicide,” a 2014 study released by mental health charity CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), provides that male suicide rates in Britain are at a 15-year high, with 78% of all self-inflicted deaths in 2013 being male (for a total of 4,020). The report concluded that perceived societal expectations, pressure to be the main breadwinner, etc. all have the potential to contribute tremendous psychological and emotional stress and compromise men’s self-esteem. It is, therefore, important that the fight for gender equality focus on ensuring that both women and men are given the opportunities to reach their full potential in nourishing, welcoming, and accepting environments.

Finally, it is also essential to introduce mechanisms that will enable people to fulfil their “gendered” roles, should they choose to, without having to compromise their other roles. For instance, all women should be able to secure paid maternity leave after childbirth, preferably equivalent to 100% of their monthly salaries. Parental leave, whether in the form of maternity, paternity, or adoption leave, is available in most countries, though benefits vary depending on legislation. The United States is the world’s only high-income country not to provide such benefits to its populace. Gender equality cannot be achieved if such basic mechanisms do not exist, because their absence forces people to have to make sacrifices or forgo opportunities that should be available to all.

Raisa Ostapenko (2014) M Phil (Modern European History)

Photo credits: Anastasia Kozlovtseva

Filmography: Carl Peck

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