THE BLOG

We Must Unite and Stop Splitting Hairs About Feminism

05/05/2015 11:54 BST | Updated 03/05/2016 10:12 BST

2015-05-03-1430684195-8379888-feminism.jpg

Feminism is a hot topic these days. As I write this, however, I wonder if that will be considered an appropriate description? Will it be suggested that I'm sexualising what should be considered a singularly serious and sober subject?

The truth is that I wrote it deliberately and exactly because there is ambiguity to it.

I have considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember. However, it is only now that I ask myself what that really means.

As I understand it we are in the fourth wave of feminism. The first wave, which will reach its centenary in 1918, was the campaign to vote.

The second was the women's liberation movement which ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, beginning with the introduction of the contraceptive pill and including the passing of laws such as the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act.

It was in 1979 that Margaret Thatcher became the country's first, female Prime Minister. The third wave refers to diverse areas of activity and study and remains subject to debate, but is generally agreed to have begun in the 1990s.

The fourth wave is defined by the internet and technology such that this can promote and foster movements, protests, observations and reactions almost immediately. Placards have been replaced by selfies, slogans are no longer chanted but Tweeted and retweeted and people can gather in virtual chat rooms from the comfort of their own homes, cyber-cafés or indeed anywhere in the world that has a wifi connection.

With global mobile subscriptions at around seven billion, that's an awful lot of potential commentary, imagery and opinions. And it comes in thick and fast.

No longer do women look solely to the singular and traditionally perceived authorities on feminism, such as Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf. Instead there are countless, popular bloggers or 'opinion formers' who can sway and influence any standpoint.

What I've noticed within this maelstrom of views is that those who identify themselves as feminists can sometimes find themselves held to account. Beyoncé has been referred to as a 'token,' 'lite' feminist, while Miley Cyrus has been accused of allowing herself to be exploited.

Interestingly Cyrus' critic was then accused by other feminists of 'slut-shaming'. And then there's the whole debate as to whether a girl or woman who wears a hijab or niqab is being oppressed.

Other questions relate to whether having botox is selling out. The list goes on.

This has led me to question what it actually is to be a feminist. According to the Oxford Dictionary the definition of feminism reads "the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes."

Based on the innumerable views and images out there it would seem that such definitions are rather open to interpretation.

Emer O'Toole's Guardian article at the beginning of last year even included tests men could take to determine whether or not they qualify as feminists.

Personally, and this is very much my own opinion, I'd describe a feminist as a woman who can make a decision for herself. This most fundamental of rights is denied too many women the world over. Only last week, a woman in Pakistan was burned alive for leaving her husband's house without permission.

If Miley and Beyoncé independently choose to strip down to their smalls and shake their bottoms in the air, then good luck to them. And similarly, if a girl chooses to cover herself from top-to-toe or inject her face with chemicals, I have no issue with that either.

But is that even relevant because the world, and a woman's place in it, is changing? And it's changing because women are getting smarter and wealthier.

According to UNESCO "the number of female students in tertiary institutions has grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970."

This view has been echoed by the ICEF Monitor (market intelligence agency) - "In 2005, a decade ago, women represented 55% of the higher education student population in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) area - 1.2 women to every man.

By 2025 this is expected to reach 1.4 women to every man. In some countries (Austria, Canada, Iceland, Norway, the United Kingdom) there could be almost twice as many female students as male.

A similar trend is occurring in the developing world, especially the Middle East. And with champions of female education, such as Malala Yousafzai, the call across developing nations becomes ever louder.

With women accounting for the larger proportion of graduates, the job market inevitably has to change. In fact it already has and female employment participation rates are mostly rising.

2015-05-03-1430682948-4654804-FEMALEEMPLOYMENTRATES2.jpg

The reasons are various; the growth of industries where women can more readily compete, such as service sectors versus the decline of industries where they could not, like manufacturing.

Improved cooking and cleaning technology has freed up time that would ordinarily have been taken up with household chores. The contraceptive pill has also allowed women to have more choice with regard to when they get married and when they have children.

The tide is most definitely turning and it can't be held back.

As women gain financial strength through education and employment, this will lend itself to greater lobbying power when negotiating with governments and corporates for equal pay, better childcare and a seat at the top table.

A woman's ability to make her own money would also reduce financial dependency on an abusive partner allowing her to walk away more readily.

And everyone would benefit as higher and persistent rates of inclusion of women in the workforce should also prove a boost to GDP.

In the US and UK an average full-time female employee still earns only around 75-80% of that earned by her corresponding male counterpart.

Family friendly policies remain a key issue to be addressed. In a poll conducted at the end of 2014 in the US 61% of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren't working compared with 37% of men.

This seems the most likely issue for the decline in US female employment rates (see chart).

In the boardroom the UK is making progress with women accounting for 23.5% of FTSE 100 board members (up from 12.5% in 2011). However only 5 of those 263 members are CEOs (less than 2%). In the US 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women.

So what will make the change? For one, we all need to stop splitting hairs about what constitutes a feminist. Our goal is the same.

Assertiveness is the other nut to be cracked - no pun intended. I've been running a company now for about 18 months. In that short time what has become apparent to me is that men are much more assertive and forthcoming, especially when it comes for asking for a pay rise or a promotion.

The women are diffident and shift uneasily in their chairs even when I raise the subject. This is despite the fact that I have spoken at length about my experience of unequal pay.

I believe assertiveness and confidence remain the key. It is interesting that there is no female equivalent for the word 'emasculation'. It is as though women are considered to be the lowest common denominator. They're not and they're proving it.

What we need is unity. Just think what it could achieve. We need only look at the Arab Spring.

Are We Nearly There Yet? We could be.