Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party and author, has issued a rallying cry for Brits to “seize the opportunity of turbulence” to make long-lasting change towards gender equality.
“The system isn’t working for most people and never has worked for most women,” she told The Huffington Post UK, urging women (and men) to take action offline and get political.
“It’s not enough to vent about what you don’t like on social media. I would ask everyone who can, men included, to get involved in an organisation actively working for gender equality.”
Mayer, an award-winning journalist and author, co-founded The Women’s Equality Party in 2015 with Sandi Toksvig. The party, which is lead by Sophie Walker, now boasts 73 branches and 65,000 members and registered supporters.
Her latest book ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Women’ (out 8 March 2017) analyses the state of gender equality around the world - and offers “a blueprint to fix it”.
We spoke to her as part of our new interview series ‘Fierce’ about who inspires her, the importance of self-care and her hopes for women in 2017.
What was the last thing you did that made you proud?
I’ve taken a certain a pride in all of my books. They devour so much time and energy that you have to engage deeply or you’d go mad. With my new book, there’s an added dimension. I’ve written about something so close to my heart and so vital to the future of (wo)mankind that I cannot just wave the book off into the world and turn my attention to the next project.
I want people to read it. I want people to be inspired. I also want to make readers laugh. It is, after all, absurd that in 2017 women are still at best second-class citizens. If my book achieves any of these goals, I’ll have real cause to feel proud.
Who inspires you and why?
Everyone involved with the Women’s Equality Party, starting of course with Sandi Toksvig and the original volunteers and members of the first steering committee who devoted enormous chunks of time to turning a passing idea into a vibrant political force.
One of these was Nimco Ali. Aged seven she was subjected to FGM, a vicious practice designed to make women docile. Nimco is irrepressible and channelled the pain and fear into a determination to protect other girls from FGM.
I am constantly inspired by Sophie Walker. A brilliant advocate for people with autism including her eldest daughter, Sophie had no other previous experience of politics when the steering committee voted that she become leader of the Women’s Equality Party. I have watched with awe her transformation into one of the most passionate, principled and spellbinding politicians of our age.
How do you think society views ambitious and successful women?
One of the things I wanted to do with my book is to draw together all the research that helps to explain phenomena such as why so many white women chose to vote for Donald Trump—a misogynist, a racist and, frankly, a buffoon—rather than Hillary Clinton.
There are so many mechanisms at play, from an education system that inculcates all of us with ideas, often subconscious, about how women should act and what we should be to a media and entertainment industry that reinforces reductive stereotypes.
Studies show that women seeking power tend to be punished for doing so, because it goes against cultural bias. Women are expected to be likeable and pliant. We are also trained to expect any success we attain to come to us through men—by pleasing men, as good employees, good partners.
Of course women do manage to break through these barriers—the fifty-foot women of my book’s title—but even then they are never free from a kind of scrutiny and often from a hostility that men in similar positions never experience.
Does success have a downside? If so, what is it?
It depends what you mean by success. Our male-dominated culture tends to define success in terms of wealth, fame, power, the reaction of others. Women are fed a version that includes personal fulfilment through marriage and motherhood in addition to professional acclaim and of course we must look sexy but not too sexy and then graciously disappear when we hit middle age.
I would say success rests on shaking off these notions and figuring out what we actually want to do, where our skills lie, and then making the best of them.
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and keep pushing forward?
I wish I knew how to sleep late! I generally wake horribly early, often with a head full of thoughts and deadlines that propel me to my computer. One of the reasons I’m able to write books and still carry on with other work is that I do my best writing between 5am and midday.
What drives me is a sense of urgency. We live in frightening times. Progress towards gender equality and vital battles to end discrimination on grounds such as race, age, sexuality and disability are stalling and in some places, reversing. This is happening because of the collapse of trust in nearly all public institutions, and in particular in politics and media, and the inescapable feeling that the current system isn’t working for most people. This last point is of course true: the system isn’t working for most people and never has worked for most women.
So there is also a huge opportunity in all of this turbulence, to seize the moment and create real and lasting change for the better. What better reason to get out of bed?
How do you practise self-care and why is it important?
Writing a book is like running a marathon. You need to be fit to do it, mentally and, as far as possible, physically.
I make sure to eat well (and a lot) and for years I have been doing Pilates. My mother worked for London Contemporary Dance Theatre when we first came to England and both parents went to Pilates classes there. This saved my father when he had serious back problems, so when I started getting back pain in my twenties, I started too.
I try to do at least 15 minutes a day, lying on the floor of my office. It’s not dignified, it’s not pretty but it is effective.
What’s your biggest regret? And what did you learn from it?
As a young woman working in journalism, I assumed harassment and discrimination came with the territory and that you just had to get on with the job.
As I rose to senior positions, it took me awhile to realise that just because I’d survived relatively unscathed didn’t mean the younger women joining the profession would do so, and it isn’t until you hit a certain age that the reality of ageism—which is much more acute for women—kicks in.
I tried to use such influence as I attained to promote and nurture female talent—and more diverse talent—but I wish I’d done more to change corporate culture and behaviours.
We are all impacted by the failings of a news media that almost always chooses which stories to cover according to the priorities and perspectives of white men with private educations.
If you had one piece of advice for other women, what would it be?
Take on jobs, projects and challenges that frighten you. It’s the best way to get rid of fear.
What’s the one thing you would change or do in 2017 to push women forward?
We need to seize the opportunity of turbulence. It’s not enough to vent about what you don’t like on social media. I would ask everyone who can, men included, to get involved in an organisation actively working for gender equality. Obviously I’d recommend the Women’s Equality Party. We’re working with many other organisations to organise a Women’s Day Off in 2018.
Iceland’s Women’s Day Off in 1975 saw 90% of Icelandic women take time off from their paid and unpaid work, an experience that not only showed women how much they contribute but turned Icelandic men into supporters of gender equality. We aim to achieve the same impact in the UK.
‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Women’ by Catherine Mayer is published by HQ, HarperCollins on the 8th March 2017
Fierce is our new regular feature on The Huffington Post UK, asking trailblazing women what drives them.
We’ll be speaking to a range of women including those who’ve found success in male-dominated industries, created a service to help other women and are using their position to empower others.