08 March, 2019
When it comes to equality a lot has changed in a surprisingly short time. For International Women's Day 2019, Christel Krueger reflects on her own perceptions of gender equality in the 21st Century and what more still lies ahead. Join in with the #BalanceForBetter campaign.
Sometimes we are aware of something without really taking it in. And sometimes we have that eye opening moment when we suddenly realise the full extent of that something we’ve known for a while. I had one of those moments the other day when I was chatting with my mum.
She said, “When I started working, it would have been within your dad’s legal rights to not give his permission for me to go.”
I sort of knew that, but at that moment it hit me: legal. It would have been legal for my dad to control my mum’s actions.
I think about gender equality a lot, but I often think about it in a ‘21st century in the UK’ context – work place culture and parenting – rather than discriminatory legislation. I take the legal status of equality for granted. Rationally I know that it’s not a given, but I am slightly ashamed to say that when it isn’t, it feels either far away or long ago.
Following this conversation with my mum, I went and looked up the law she was referring to, and was surprised to find it was only changed after I was born. Just to emphasise: this law was actually still in place in my lifetime. And I like to think that I’m not THAT old.
The law my mum was referring to wasn’t a UK law, so I also read up on what things were like ‘not THAT long ago’ around here – and the answer is: not much different. Until the seventies, it was legal to pay women lower rates for the same work, women could be made to resign from their jobs when they got married, or sacked when they got pregnant. Women could also be denied their own bank account, credit card or mortgage, or even just a drink in the pub.
I mean, seriously? Unbelievable.
In practice, many of these laws were no longer implemented – after all, this was shortly before the UK elected their first female Prime Minister. But the point is, it was still legal.
Very broadly speaking, law reflects what a society thinks is right or wrong. However, there usually is a lag between a shift in societal values and its manifestation in law. The question is what has changed from a society that accepts gender discrimination by law to a society which generally feels that those common law rulings are outrageous? I can immediately think of two things.
The first stems from a point of view where women are generally considered inferior, both physically and intellectually, and therefore need to be protected for their own good; making sure that they avoid making silly financial decisions and don’t get into unfortunate situations in pubs. A woman needs to, and will want to be, looked after. The second relates to the idea of a clear division of labour between the two sexes: while women are responsible for the inner realm of looking after house and family, men are responsible for managing the outer realm. And so laws were created to ensure this ‘right’ way of doing things. These days, most of us don’t think like this anymore.
Gender equality has a lot to celebrate. Very tangibly, laws have changed, which is a reflection of a societal shift that would have been considered impossible just a few generations ago. At the beginning of the 21st century we’re finally seeing women being Director General of CERN, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, or winner of the Fields Medal. We are also seeing couples jointly working both inside the home and out in the workplace while raising healthy, happy families. We are becoming ever more familiar with these things.
But we are also familiar with terms like gender pay gap, glass ceiling and #MeToo – continuing evidence of gender disparity in society. And, just out of interest, how many replies to a child’s birthday invitation have you had recently from a dad rather than a mum?
We’ve certainly moved forward on many fronts, but there is no grounds for complacency. The ultimate celebration will be when ‘women’s firsts’ are no longer a thing. And, when after the school trip the teacher no longer says, “I’m so glad your mummy has a washing machine,” but uses the word ‘parents’ instead. The task for our generation is to cherish and protect the seedlings planted by our parents and grandparents – and to make sure they continue to grow.
08 March 2019