Feb 25, 2019
A year or so ago the BBC presented the 13th actor for the role of Dr Who. Fans were incredulous and there was some shock, horror and whole-hearted celebration as the new Time Lord would be played by a woman, the fabulous Jodie Whittaker. The change in gender was a success and the first episode received the highest ever viewing figures for a series launch. However, on a darker note during the same time-frame, the BBC was also in the news for reports that their male employees were being paid 9.3% more on average than women colleagues in a similar role simply because of their gender; the most highly paid 12 presenters were all men which was a damning reflection on the gender inequality within the corporation. With this in mind, Meryl Batchelder considers the need for gender equality and why we should all celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March.
Is there really gender inequality in the 21st Century?
If you live in China or India, the two most populated nations on Earth, and you are female you are widely viewed as weaker, more expensive, and even less intelligent than your male counterparts. Both countries informally maintain preference for boys over girls. In Chinese society, females tend to be undervalued and families opt for boy babies over girls resulting in a population of around 33 million more men than women. In India, although numbers of child brides are decreasing, 1.5 million girls each year are still married before their 18th birthday. Men and women are definitely not considered equal in most aspects of society in China and India – or almost any other society around the world.
As a female, who lives and works in the UK, I have my own stories to tell about being treated unequally. When I married I made the decision not to change my surname. I liked being Dr Batchelder. I had earned my title after studying science for years at university in a male dominated field, just like Dr Who. In addition, my parents had two children, both girls, meaning my surname will die with me. My husband views us as equals and was happy for me to keep my maiden name.
However, as soon I uttered the words ‘I do’ some members of my family began to call me by my husband’s surname. Overnight, in their eyes, I had become Mrs Johnston losing both my title and name. I know they did not mean to hurt my feelings but the tradition for a woman to change her name upon marriage is a form of ownership and subjugation.
Balance for Better
In order to redress the apparent superiority of men and inferiority of women there is an annual event on the 8th of March: International Women’s Day. The theme for 2019 is Balance for Better. The aim is to build a gender-balanced world and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
In the past few decades there have been some significant steps towards equality between the sexes but the reality is that there is a serious disparity between men and women including in levels of wealth, employability, education, status and even safety. It is in all our interests to promote female empowerment to achieve gender equality as this can help drive economic growth and development.
The Game of Life
I’m going to make an analogy to the board game called ‘Game of Life’ and use it to demonstrate how unfair life can be. To play you spin a wheel, select a blue or pink peg and move a little car around the board; you start by choosing college or career. You then set off down the road of life, making money and having babies. You experience various adventures until you reach retirement. If you reach it first, you get a pile of toy bank-notes and if you're the wealthiest player in retirement, you win!
Imagine now that you and some friends, both boys and girls, are playing the Game of Life. You start the game with everything even; same money, same start point, but then, as you move through the game after a couple of turns the boys are given £100 extra, just for being boys. And things get worse, at every promotion the boys get a pay rise but the girls only manage to go up the employment ladder to a certain point and then have to stay in the same place. If you gain children, any girls playing pay for childcare and lose earnings but boys get to have children and keep their career. Overall the boys are given almost 20% more than the girls.
Is this way of playing the game fair? No. After a couple of games enjoying the imbalance even the boys might suggest that it’s not really much fun when given such preferential treatment. Unfortunately there are many parallels between our imaginary Game of Life and reality. In the UK women are paid on average 18% less than men. In the real world we get only one chance at life and the women are at an immediate disadvantage just as a result of their gender at birth.
As we play the real game of life we are all on a journey – there will be winners and losers but having a bias against half of all players should be against the rules. UNICEF says gender equality ‘means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections’. Sustainable Development Goal 5 calls for Gender Equality.
It is so important that the UN considers that the success of all of the SDGs actually depends on the achievement of Goal 5. Eliminating gender-based violence is a priority, given that this is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world today. Internationally there needs to be increased education for women, improvements in public health, more childcare facilities, and an equal voice for women in cultural, social, economic and political spheres of life.
So what can we do? The best time to embed ideas is in children, so start young. Boys have been dressed in blue and girls in pink since the 1940s with a brief spell of gender-neutral tones in the 60s and 70s – I still remember my maroon corduroys with patched knees. Today it is difficult to buy a tee-shirt for girls with dinosaurs or rockets on it – in some girls’ collections it is all sparkles, unicorns and fluff. Consider shopping with forward thinking companies such John Lewis, the first UK retailer to remove gender labels from children’s clothing. Also, buy toys that can be used by either sex, for example Lego City or, my daughter’s favourite, Lego StarWars, rather than Lego Friends. Celebrate nature with everyone; whether it is looking at flowers or getting muddy.
In schools teachers should support girls in subjects such as maths, science, computing and technology. We need to challenge companies and corporations that do not treat women or people from diverse backgrounds equally. Women will continue to be further empowered and liberated as a result of developments in fertility control, shared knowledge through rise of social media and changes in legislation. In many countries there are now more women in government than at any time in history. So, don’t be surprised if progressive women increasingly shun some traditions that do them no favours; such as declining to change their name upon marriage or deciding, as a couple, to select a new surname in an act of unity.
Finally, in terms of equality we should also celebrate International Men's Day which falls on the 19th of November. Men are integral in achieving gender balance. Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘We must become the change we seek’. It is only when we all, both men and women, lead by example that we will create a fair and safe society which allows everyone the opportunity to prosper.
Should we mark International Women’s Day in our calendars? My answer is a huge ‘yes’; men and women should both celebrate the drive towards equality – I might even make my husband a cake. Not because it is the woman’s place to do the baking but because I make a much better cake that he does. However, he might make the main course because he’s a master in the kitchen when it comes to cooking rice dishes! It’s all about valuing people for their contribution rather than their gender. Balance is indeed better.
Ideas to take this into the classroom
Promote International Women’s Day - find out more here
Study gender inequality in history
Gender discrimination is rooted in history, tradition and culture. There are countless examples of repression of women such as foot-binding in China from the 11th century which only ended in 1912. The suffragette movement is an important historical uprising.
Find out about the French feminist and author George Sand, the meaning of the phrase “nom de plume” and the history of the term ‘Glass ceiling’.
Study gender inequality in the present day
In PSHE, discuss FGM and breast ironing with hot stones which occurs in many African countries and has been found to be happening in the UK today.
Read ‘Inferior’ by Anglea Saini on the gender bias in scientific research
Get the Stemettes to visit your school
Look in more detail at the Sustainable Development for Gender Equality SDG5
There are a number of young female activists promoting equality who are often in the news – undertake some research to find out how amazing they are:
- Malala Yousafzai fought for the right to education for girls in Pakistan and stood up to the Taliban.
- Greta Thurnburg and Elsie Luna are standing up against lack of action on climate change which will detrimentally effect women’s lives more than men’s.
- Sonita Alizadeh is an Afghan rapper vocal against forced marriages.
- Rowan Blanchard is a feminist activist and promoter of #TeamHeForShe, a feminist campaign with the actor Emma Watson.
- Jess Wade is a physicist who promotes women in science and has creates thousands of Wikipedia pages for underrepresented scientists and engineers.