Cultural progress rarely unfolds in a neat, linear path. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve been witnessing just how turbulent this progress can be—as evidenced by the seismic changes in cultural attitudes that have occurred in countries that previously stood at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to gender equality.
At one end of the spectrum, some of the progress is evident in the changes underway in Saudi Arabia, where male-created barriers have historically prevented women from being treated as equal human beings, both legally and culturally. Motivated mainly by economic concerns, the recent decision to lift the driving ban seems to represent the beginning of a new willingness to legally reassess the role of women in society, one that will hopefully lead to more meaningful changes and full equality.
At the other end of the spectrum are the unfolding sexual harassment scandals in Westminster and Hollywood, both in nations where women have had equal rights under the law for decades, but which dismally have not translated into cultural change as quickly.
While it may be hard to see anything positive about these scandals, there’s progress in the cultural attitudes when measured against the climate of just a decade or two ago. In fact, there is a noticeable shift in how people are responding to the sexual misconduct scandals in both the UK and the US, triggering a level of widespread public rebuke that is unprecedented and long overdue. In both countries, men who have overstepped the boundaries of power and appropriate workplace behavior find their careers and reputations in ruin.
Even, in Saudi Arabia, where men have historically had the upper power hand legally and culturally, we’re seeing some significant shifts in both the attitudes toward women and the legal barriers to equality. Women will be allowed to drive and attend sporting events—long overdue baby steps, but progress nonetheless. This in a country where, just a few years ago, women were callously thrown in jail for simply daring to drive.
In both the UK and the US, scandalous behaviour by usually male lawmakers is nothing new, only now the reaction and resulting impact seems to be charting a new course; a cultural shift. In the UK, the close scrutiny of the blurry line between Parliament and social clubs frequented by lawmakers and professionals, for example, is making it clear that accountability is the new cultural trend. While not all sexual misconduct is criminal, it’s now widely understood that it is, at the very minimum, highly unprofessional.
And in the US, the current support given to the women accusing their bosses of sexual harassment is a vastly different reaction, for example, from the public response that greeted Anita Hill in the US during her infamous accusation of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Those congressional hearings were more like a trial of Anita Hill’s credibility, rather than the other way around.
This cultural shift is making it clear that the longstanding global boys’ club is being read its last rites.
Throughout history, cultural changes are evolutionary, taking decades not months. The steps by British institutions, American companies, and even the Saudi government actually represent tipping points of progress, even if still inadequate. Let’s remember that just a decade ago, none of these events seemed likely or possible. There’s progress, but we’re far from achieving equality, and we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of change.
We’re certainly living through some profound cultural transformations, the full implications of which will not be clearly evident for decades to come.