Where are the Women? An audience perspective

by Gemma Maitland on 18 December 2015

Harriet HarmanIt may seem somewhat paradoxical for the female president of an all-female college to ask ‘Where are the Women?’, but the November conference, convened by Lucy Cavendish College’s new President, Jackie Ashley, highlighted the continued relevance of this question. The sold-out event, held at the Cambridge Union in front of a predominantly female audience, combined individual talks with chaired panel debates, covering a range of issues linked to its theme. From the dearth of women on bank notes, through the challenges women disproportionately face when caring for relatives, to the lack of women in leadership roles, the conference certainly proved to be thought-provoking.

Labour MP Harriet Harman was the first to speak, discussing some of the issues she’s faced as a female politician with the BBC’s Martha Kearney. Harman commented that, “women’s issues are often not seen as serious issues”. (Perhaps explaining, in one succinct sentence, the so-called ‘tampon tax,’ whereby women’s sanitary products are deemed a ‘luxury’ item for VAT purposes!) She went on to discuss equality within government, stressing that if Jeremy Corbyn truly believes in equality, then his party needs to reflect that belief. Moreover, according to Harman: “anyone who thinks the Conservatives will advance things for women are sadly deluded”.

Where are the Women panel discussion

Following Harman, Jackie Ashley chaired a panel discussion concerning women in technology, with contributions from Dr Sue Black, Caroline Criado-Perez and Anne-Marie Imafidon. This discussion raised several pertinent points. For instance, Criado-Perez noted that the Western media perpetuates the distorted view of a world “that seems 80% male” with women making up just 17% of crowd scenes in Hollywood films, yet men viewing such a scene tend to estimate that it is gender balanced. 

A further example of the pervasiveness of gender inequality was also provided by Criado-Perez, who campaigned against the Bank of England’s decision to remove Elizabeth Fry from £5 notes – the only female represented on UK currency at the time – to be replaced by Winston Churchill. Crowd-funding her campaign, Criado-Perez successfully challenged this decision, with an additional success: Jane Austen will adorn the next £10 note. Her success, however, came at a price, as an online movement against her led to threats of both rape and murder. Many, she said, explicitly told her to “shut up” this attempt to silence women who voice their opinions being sadly indicative of a society in which stereotypes of masculinity continue to be propagated, through a variety of institutions and industries, particularly, as Imafidon noted, the computer games market.

Where are the women audienceAs has often been stated, Western history is largely that of white, privileged, men and, while the fight for gender equality has made significant ground in the past century, there is clearly much room for improvement. Dr Black commented: “The whole of society is misogynist, as a result of an historical overhang of a once useful dynamic that no longer applies.” I couldn’t agree more. As several guests noted, the media’s representation of women is especially salient to this. Indeed, Ayesha Hazarika, Chief of Staff to Harriet Harman, and stand-up comedienne – whose talk got the loudest applause of the conference – emphasised the “male-dominated reporting of public life” while also highlighting that achieving equality in ‘front of house’ media and politics isn’t everything; “the infrastructure behind it is just as important”. Hazarika further asked why there aren’t more female experts in think tanks, and where are they on Question Time or Newsnight? Good questions! In terms of corporate leadership roles, gender equality is still far from being achieved. As Conservative MP Maria Miller pointed out, just 8% of executive positions in FTSE 350 firms are currently occupied by women, in spite of the fact that the majority of graduates from Russell Group universities are female. Hazarika also commented that: “When the women are there, they’re just not taken as seriously as men.”

Jane HawkingAdded to all of this, women tend to take on the majority of childcare, as well as the main responsibility for the care of elderly or ill relatives, often leaving paid work to do so. Heléna Herklots, Chief Executive of Carers UK, pointed out that there are 6 million unpaid carers in the UK, saving the government an estimated £132 billion per year: twice the amount of New Zealand’s GDP! Jane Hawking emphasised these difficulties when describing how she and her children became the primary carers for her former husband, Professor Stephen Hawking. Finding NHS provision unhelpful – they wanted to provide care during office hours, while he was at work – meant that she took over, including bathing both the children and her husband in succession each evening. She further described how she and their children acted as interpreters for Professor Hawking, when his speech became difficult for strangers to understand. She highlighted how the difficulties of caring for children and her husband – while also trying to complete her own studies – often led to “despair and exhaustion”.

Where are the women speakersIf all of this seems rather bleak, there were plenty of examples of reasons to be hopeful, not least epitomised by the women at the conference themselves. Moreover, the Scottish National Party MP Hannah Bardell pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet is one of only a few in the world to be gender-balanced. There were also ideas for improvements, such as Sally Page’s suggestion that unpaid internships – more often undertaken by women – should be abolished, and Polly Toynbee’s call for reform to the electoral system that unfairly “favours Labour and the Conservatives”. Further, Sophie Walker claimed that “feminism should be at the heart of politics” and for that reason she is leader of the newly formed Women’s Equality Party. When Jackie Ashley asked if feminism is the answer to achieving more equality, Polly Toynbee’s answer was a resounding: “Yes! More than ever!” While this may be controversial to some, it is hard to argue against the need for greater gender equality.

Where are the Women panel discussionSome may say, why bother continuing to ask where the women are? Why not ask where are the ethnic minorities? Or where are the disabled? These too, are valid questions, equally deserving of attention. Indeed, some of my friends have asked these very questions, and have pointed out that their experiences are less defined by their gender, and more by disability, ethnicity or religion. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recognised this when she made the additionally important point that the “barriers are multiplied when ethnicity is involved as well as gender”. All of these issues are relevant and important, and focusing on one in no way diminishes the salience of the others. This conference provided many examples of how asking where the women are is, sadly, just as relevant today as it has been for generations. Indeed, through listening to the conference, it became clear to me that it isn’t just a case of asking where the women are – in terms of leadership roles or parity of wages with men, for example – but that the real question is how to change the underlying cause which, as Maria Miller noted, is “an attitudinal one”. Many would agree that gender bias continues to permeate our culture in subtle ways. As Sara Nathan pointed out, a woman may be labelled ‘abrasive’ for displaying the same qualities that would lead a man to be deemed ‘assertive’, while Martha Kearney noted that, in the media profession, “you’re not a broadcaster, you’re a female broadcaster”. Changing these subtle inequalities certainly won’t be an easy task, nor will it happen quickly, but if the discourse of feminism is kept alive – through events such as this – perhaps things can continue to change for the better.

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