An emblem of the discrimination that women still face is a lack of visibility: we simply don’t see women as much as we should. The effects of this are far-reaching, but we can all do something to rectify it.
Gender equality has come a long way in this country in recent years (Twitter notwithstanding) and women are increasingly present across all sorts of arenas. But are they celebrated? Are they listened to?
This week’s unveiling of the effigy of Dame Millicent Fawcett, the first statue of a woman to appear in Parliament Square, is an important and long overdue step towards making women more visible in public life, but the tendency not to recognise women’s contributions on an equal footing with men’s means we still have far to go.
Vital work predominantly done by women such as caring and domestic labour isn’t afforded any economic recognition, despite being worth an estimated £60bn a year to the UK economy. Turn on Question Time, or a comedy panel show, or any documentary about great figures in history and you’d be forgiven for thinking the world’s gender split was far different: as Jennifer Palmieri puts it, “the future is female. The past was too, but no one thought it important enough to write it down”. It’s easy to dismiss these things as superficial or detracting from the ‘real’ issues, but visibility holds the key to addressing lots of the challenges that women unjustly face.
We need better visibility for women because it will accustom us to the notion of women occupying positions of power. As Palmieri points out, women in charge face a conundrum in that the model for leadership is set by men, but it is an affront to adopt too many traits perceived as masculine; people still want women to be modest, gracious and self-sacrificing, but aren’t primed to see these as desirable qualities for leadership. We haven’t yet even worked out how to recognise good female leadership, let alone given women licence to be the visionary figureheads that we need.
It’s no coincidence that the only two female leaders in this country’s history have been conservative not just in their politics but in their demeanours; both have presented as austere and measured, and never made too much of their status as women, having instead to prove that they can fit the mould that men have cast over centuries. We have such confidence in men as default leaders that we give them the benefit of the doubt when they swim against the tide, admiring them as ‘mavericks’ whose divergence from the norm springs from brilliance rather than deficiency. We trust them enough because of who they are to allow them to surprise us in how they behave, because there is a baseline expectation of competence and leadership attached to maleness when coupled with whiteness and wealth. The people trusted to break the mould tend to be the ones who already fit it, and women are often denied the opportunity to be visionaries because they have to spend so long establishing their conformity to our narrow template of what it is to be competent – and then are quite often punished for doing so. The more visible women are at every level, the better attuned we will become to recognising what they can offer in a three-dimensional way and on their own merit. This won’t just be good for women, but good for everyone; we all need bold leaders who can dedicate themselves to making the world better, not having to prove their worthiness of a seat at the table.
Gendered inequality so deeply pervades our public and private lives that overcoming it seems like a mammoth task. Of course it is; but the route there is paved with many small acts of solidarity. We can all help ensure that women are more visible. We can create space for women to speak, and listen to what they say. We can look harder at the implications that our laws and policies have for women’s lives. We can watch films and read books by and for and about women, create demand for their work, and celebrate their successes. It’s surprising how often women’s work is still dismissed as fringe, frivolous, culturally lightweight, or simply irrelevant to large swathes of the population, and this matters because it excuses men from trying to understand women’s experiences. It sidelines their interests and fuels the idea that the challenges women face are theirs and theirs only to overcome. It allows us to forget to consider the impact of public policy on women, and makes revelations like the fact that women have shouldered more than four fifths of the austerity burden since 2010 seem like unfortunate side effects rather than fundamental flaws to be considered and averted from the outset. It contributes to a culture where women are simultaneously conspicuous and overlooked; scrutinised for their appearance but not recognised for their work.
Creating generous space for women and ensuring they are seen has more than just symbolic significance: it enables women to reshape the model of leadership and become better allies to one another, and offers role models to young girls who otherwise grow up with the impression that they are interlopers in a world which belongs to men. We will all benefit if the full pool of talent is nurtured and recognised; it’s true that when women do better, everyone does better. What we see matters – let’s make sure it’s not so long until the next woman is commemorated in Parliament Square.
Click here to watch the full RSA event ‘An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World’ with Jennifer Palmieri