“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. We don’t need to sit around scratching our heads about what the problem is – the problem is sexism. That’s literally it. We’re not making it up.”
It would be hard to improve on Bidisha’s closing statement at the recent ‘We are the 22%’ event at Warwick University. I chaired a panel of four female speakers; Gabrielle Shiner, writer for Spiked, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a journalist and trade union organiser, Professor Shirin Rai, from the University of Warwick and Bidisha, the broadcaster, writer and journalist. 22% referred to the average level of women’s representation across the board in professional and influential industries. This level has stagnated for years; the debate was about why, and how to change it.
The first question of the evening came from Welfare Officer Izzy John, incidentally the only female member of the seven Sabbatical Officers at Warwick. She asked what the panel thought of the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. They were pretty unanimous in hating it – ‘instead of smashing the glass ceiling, we need to blow up the whole building’. As with so many gender-based issues, instead of examining the structural inequality of a system built by men in the first place, the glass ceiling narrative refocuses the problem on women’s behaviour. It elucidated a wider debate about whether the problem of a lack of female participation in politics is a problem to do with women or a problem to do with politics itself. I am certain it’s the latter.
This argument can come off as essentialist and patronising. I don’t think women (or men) are essentially anything, and I don’t think women are incapable of debate, combativeness or self-assertion. By blowing up the entire building, I mean that our entire conception of what it takes to ‘get ahead’ and what we mean by ‘success’ needs to be redefined. Part of the problem with masculinity is that is has been characterized by dominance, competition and acquisition for a very long time within our culture. This is not only bad because it hinders women from success in life, but it’s bad in itself because that whole definition of success is wrong.
We see a successful businessperson as someone who has acquired vast amounts of capital, and a successful politician as someone who has defeated his opponents and managed to hold onto power for as long as possible. This is the crux of capitalist ideology, which commodifies the idea of accomplishment like it commodifies everything else.
Men are trained to achieve this commodified success to a greater degree than women are. Women are encouraged to put more store by personal relationships, to co-operate instead of competing, and to put other peoples’ needs ahead of their own. The only reason these attributes are seen as weaknesses is because the dominant ideologies of capitalism and patriarchy have for a long time needed the model of masculine-provider and female-consumer-and-nurturer to sustain itself, and have rendered feminine-coded behaviour as inferior.
Most feminists agree that femininity as a social construction socialises women, generally, to act in certain ways that are anathema to what is needed to achieve what our society terms ‘success’. Thus, they can accept that women are largely socialised to be co-operative and not to put themselves first, without accepting that men’s socialisation is equally constructed, and possibly equally damaging. Furthermore, it’s not clear that a more feminine-coded way of doing things, is necessarily less productive or effective, particularly in terms of personal happiness, as the higher rates of male depression, alcoholism and suicide would attest to.
On a societal level, what with the crisis of capitalism and all, it seems as though the tide is turning towards more co-operative and collective methods of getting things done. Discussion of how feminine traits disadvantage women is far more common than discussion of how masculine traits disadvantage men, both individually and as a community at large. Yes, these traits may help men (and women who possess them also) to achieve what is commonly thought of as success, but the structure of achievement is all wrong in the first place. We live in a society where a hedge fund banker is described as more “successful” than a midwife, when it’s really not clear that the first deserves to be more celebrated.
Accomplishments such as a happy family, wonderful life experiences and a positive difference made to the lives of those around you fit uneasily into our capitalist model that defines success as accruing capital, and more readily equips men with the traits needed to achieve this. Depicting the mass acquisition of capital as the primary goal of human existence is threatening not only to our society, but now, through the threat of climate change, civilisation itself. Instead of smashing the glass ceiling, let’s deconstruct the whole building, and make something else – a “pagoda of equality”, perhaps.
What would this pagoda look like in terms of political life?
We currently have around 22% of female MPs, and a political culture that rewards winning arguments instead of finding solutions. How exactly does the jeering Punch and Judy culture of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with its emphasis on putting down one’s opponent, help to advance political debate?
Furthermore, our electoral system discourages coalitions, meaning that as long as a party can win about 35% of the vote, they need not take into account the ideas of any other party. Even if women were rendered physically incapable of holding any professional position whatsoever in society tomorrow, the power structures of politics, business and the media would still need to change. That’s the thing with privilege – it allows the bad behaviour of privileged groups to be seen as the problems of individuals, whereas the behaviour of marginalised groups is used as evidence for their inferiority as a group. Ultimately part of the problem is the structure and behaviour of the dominant community in and of itself.
I love a good debate, and I don’t subscribe to the opinion that civility is always the most important thing even when confronted with bigotry and ignorance, but I do think that the best debates are conducted with the aim of furthering the pursuit of truth, and not of winning. This was exemplified by the one I chaired. The four panellists frequently disagreed – yet there was no talking over one another, no aggression, and no mockery.
Politics should be about finding solutions to the only question which matters, that of how we ought live, together. It should attract people with convictions, intellect and organisational skills; it currently attracts self-aggrandising people who aren’t put off by the expectation that they defend their beliefs incessantly despite all evidence to the contrary. The ability to perform Oxbridge-style rhetorical fireworks, much more easily acquired with access to all kinds of privilege, not just male privilege, don’t seem to have produced the best politicians we could possibly have. The best cohort of politicians we could possibly have would be 50% female, because women are just as capable as men of running the country, and the world.
The focus should be on structural issues, not women’s behaviour. These structures are bad; they exclude women, but they are also often just bad in and of themselves. They derive from a masculine culture that has as many mistaken stereotypes at its heart as does femininity.
Traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity can be damaging to men and women, hence why a lot of them need to be deconstructed and done away with. But we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we think that the solution is getting women to ape the selfish, aggressive, combative dick-waving that characterises so much of our political and business life.
Listening to other people, caring about what they have to say, and essentially, recognising we really are all in this together, is the solution – not only to the divisions within feminism, but perhaps to most of the crises caused by late capitalism. That women are taught to do this from an early age is not a weakness, it’s a strength.