As I watched Emma Watson launch the HeForShe campaign at the UN in New York this week, it made me consider my personal view on 'feminism' in society today.
I'd like to start by stating I am not an "inadvertent feminist". To accept this would be to accept that my belief on gender equality is somewhat accidental or unintentional. My set of beliefs are not unconscious, they are my choice. That said, I guess I've always been fairly unconvinced with the word "feminism". While I appreciate the term derives from late 19th and early 20th century campaigns to advocate women's rights, their successes have vastly improved gender equality since that time. Shouldn't we represent that change in how we describe the modern movement?
I've been labeled a feminist by people close to me and, while that tagging is up to them, I won't be adding 'feminist' to my Twitter bio in the same way I don't brand myself as an anti-racist or an anti-homophobe in every day life. These are just the beliefs I, and many men and women, live by. Ms. Watson asks the question, "why is the word such an uncomfortable one?" My answer: it does not portray the equality it claims to represent. While a neutral term for gender equality such as 'genderism' or 'gender egalitarianism' might appropriately represent my view (while accepting the latter doesn't exactly roll off the tongue) I appreciate to some it may appear to subjugate the term 'feminism' which has achieved so much progression over centuries.
Ms. Watson asks the question, "why is the word such an uncomfortable one?" My answer: it does not portray the equality it claims to represent.
The problem is that unlike other nouns referring to discrimination, like 'racism', 'sexism', 'ablism' and 'homophobia', the word 'feminism' refers within itself to only one gender and not the other. In the examples given: race refers to all races; sex to all sexes; ablism to all disabilities; and homophobia to discrimination against all homosexuals. An actionable change to the word depicting advocacy for gender equality is progression.
It is, however, about much more than The F-Word.
It is unfair to blame any stigma around the feminist movement solely on the media representation of an archetypal feminist. I don't believe a true feminist hates men - they simply aspire to live life on a level playing field. Women should have equal pay. Men should have their parental value equally compensated. Equality gaps exist for both sexes ergo both sexes have a motivation to achieve parity.
I have been the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace from a member of the opposite sex: from unsolicited groping to inappropriate sexual comments. I knew those things should not have happened but chose not to formally complain? I was a man in my early twenties, tall, fit and healthy, who did not feel physically threatened by, or vulnerable to, the incidents. I did however feel confined by pre-determined stereotypes of what constitutes sexual assault. As a man, I did not feel able to bring this incident to light.
Something not offered in the UN speech was a clear proposal on how to bridge the gender equality gap. There is a strong push from some advocates for positive discrimination to achieve representational parity. This is something I cannot abide by. In my professional career to date, which has varied from government, the charity sector, the media and even a professional football club, the individual managing me has been a woman on a scale of six to three. At no point have I questioned their credibility in their role, and nor should I have, but it is a fact that the senior management I've reported to have predominantly been women. Girls in the UK are outperforming boys in secondary education, as they have been since 1989, leading to much higher numbers achieving their university grade requirements. In a recent BBC panel discussion the CEO of university admissions was asked if universities would consider positive discrimination to balance the gender gap on campuses around the UK. If the theory is that Higher Education needs to proportionally represent society in general then smarter brains than mine can discuss the implications of not doing this but in the same way I would be uncomfortable knowing a board member, doctor, politician, pilot or head teacher was employed to achieve a race, religious, disability or sexuality quota, I do not believe less qualified men should take the place of higher qualified women to achieve gender balance.
If gender equality is as much about men as it is about women, using a term which is defined in the dictionary as "the advocacy of women's rights" cannot continue.
I accept Watson's formal invitation for men to join the gender equality debate. Understanding that "no country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality", I appreciate I may be more progressional in my views than those this speech is aimed at. To my question: who is this speech aimed at? We are closer to achieving gender equality in the UK, for example, than say Rwanda or Nigeria where the female Human Development Index (HDI) rates extremely low. Should the actionable change be to support 'feminists' (or ' genderists') in these countries to learn from our experiences? If we don't assist fellow advocates in these countries, will the gender equality gap between developed and developing nations widen further?
So, what are the next steps? The speech at the UN has put this issue in the news, generated debate on social media and clarified that there is still disparity. Despite the speech, I feel change is needed before we can call this a gender inclusive approach. Rather than just raising awareness by using a hashtag or signing up for a newsletter, let's offer up some actionable change:
- If gender equality is as much about men as it is about women, using a term which is defined in the dictionary as "the advocacy of women's rights" cannot continue. Why not opt for a neutral alternative when advocating gender equality. How about "genderism"?
- we clarify who we are targeting with this message and what change is needed. If equality is seen on a spectral scale, as Ms. Watson suggests, let's decide how to approach it. Are we focusing on specific socio-economic groups? Does age impact where on the genderism spectrum someone is? Geography and religion may impact discriminatory views so should these get more focus? If we tackle the low hanging fruit, the achievable wins, by educating in Western schools or professional enterprises, will the gender equality gap between the developed and the developing world widen?
- to avoid an 'opposing set of ideals', outlined by Ms. Watson, both genders need to have equal ownership of this movement. Men need to involve themselves more in the gender equality discussions and women need to welcome this point of view. Both genders are victims of discrimination, to varying levels, and while we need to ensure we continue working to a day women have complete equality with men, we must ensure men also rid the constraints of gender stereotypes.
I'm not an inadvertent feminist. I'm an intentional genderist. Emma Watson has brilliantly raised awareness on a global scale to the issue at hand and encouraged men to take joint ownership of the gender equality movement. Awareness is good. Actions are better.