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A Reflection on International Women's Day

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Imogen Schoen writes:

This morning, listening to the radio, the first article I heard centred on gender equality. At the moment, there is debate in Hollywood about the voice-overs for trailers, which are overwhelmingly male. Production companies defend the situation, citing the suitability of 'big, deep and resonant' voices for the task; some women are seeking to change it.

In fact, gender equality is always in the news. Yesterday, Annie Lennox made a defence for feminism; last year, the slut walks caused a sensation throughout the Western World. Yet so many issues of gender equality don't make headlines. Today's world leaders are overwhelmingly male: Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Putin and Kim Jong Un to name but a few. According to the UN, over 67 million children still receive no education. And well over half of them are girls.

A few days ago, it was International Women's Day. While women do not have equality, it is absolutely crucial that the world continues to mark this day, and takes action for a fairer future. Yet many, men and women alike, deny the need for feminism today. Some believe gender equality has been achieved; others think feminism is embarrassing, because it is 'too militant,' or too 'strident.' Still others are content with the status quo.

I should lay my hand on the table. I attended an all-girls' high school, and am a student at Murray Edwards College, one of the three all-female colleges in Cambridge. I don't remember a time when I didn't think that girls could achieve the same, or better, than boys. To be honest, before I came to Cambridge I thought the battle, in England at least, was largely won. Clearly I have been cosseted in these all-female establishments, because they don't reflect the real world.

It was a complete culture shock to arrive at university and witness the dynamics in mixed debates, many of them at The Cambridge Union. As a general rule, men speak, and women listen. It isn't that women don't have points to make. They do, they just don't voice them in public.

I noticed this early on, and discussed it with friends, in a distant, abstract kind of way. But this term, one of my papers is taught in a mixed class of 25 (the gender divide is roughly equal.) We divide into groups of five; discuss, and report back. At the end of the first class, I was happily reflecting on how it had gone, and thinking about what else was happening that day. This daydream was interrupted when our lecturer remarked that every person who had spoken that day was male.

True, this is one standalone example. That none of us in the class that day even noticed the gender imbalance could show that it was random chance who spoke. But this interpretation seems wilfully wrong. That class showed, to me, that feminism is still a very much current issue in the west. Actually, it made me more fearful for the plight of gender equality than even overt misogyny. If gender divides are so inherent in our society, that we don't even notice them, we must work doubly hard to combat them.

To achieve this, I think there are two crucial issues to address. Firstly, successful women must become proud to be feminist. This term, the Cambridge Union Society debated the motion 'This house believes that the only barrier to female success is female ambition.' One of the most strident speakers in favour of the motion was a female journalist, Liz Jones. Her argument was based, to a large degree, on the premise 'I have succeeded in a male world; therefore all others can; therefore feminism isn't a real issue.' In fact, I have female friends at school and university who share this view. I find it bizarre: surely women who succeed would want to help others do the same? Yet the view persists, and is crippling to gender equality. If women who succeed never admit the barriers they faced, then wider society belittles them, and the situation is not changed.

Secondly, gender equality needs to become a continuous issue in the minds of all people. At the moment, women are still the absolute minority in positions of leadership. Wage equality is a long way off being realised, and societal sexism is endemic. The feminism debate at the Cambridge Union, and International Women's Day both raise the same issue. If women have centre stage for a day, then where are they during the rest of the year? Of course, events celebrating women are positive, and we need to publicise gender inequality. But to make feminism a solved problem, then the spirit of International Women's Day must be adopted in daily life; by men as well as women.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and would like to contribute to this blog, please e-mail Sophie Odenthal at press@cus.org