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We need to talk about "women"
Written by Katie Stanton, associate
and Javier Maquieira, associate
31 May 2019
In a week where Conservative Party leadership candidate and potential next prime minister of the UK, Dominic Raab, declared he “probably wasn’t” a feminist, the Charlotte Street Partners Associate team decided to put pen to paper. In this week’s View from the Street, we offer two different perspectives on how we talk about women and equality in the workplace.
The problem with “women” is that we talk about them too much.
Now I am not aiming for an offbeat period monologue with a sprinkling of man-hate and a dash of theoretical thirtieth-wave feminist nonsense. Similarly, I promise not to go totally Piers Morgan (if I can help myself).
Basically, I’m stuck between weary irritation at being essentialised and spoken for as a “woman” (the rock), and appreciation of the fact that our world was built for men and so the inherent sexist barriers that fundamentally form our society and all of its processes must be brought down (the hard place).
I am aware that I come from a privileged, western-centric position and everything I say is tainted by a system which has served to give me opportunities, while disadvantaging others. To be able to express myself is in itself a great privilege.
Additionally, I fully recognise the importance of the feminist movement and why we talk in the terms we do. From securing the vote right up to banishing Harvey Weinstein et al to the depths of obscurity, progress has been a rallying cry for women everywhere. We’ve fought to be paid equally, to have sex equally, to be heard, educated, and loved, equally.
Why then are we talking about “women” as one agreeable group? Because who exactly are they, this mythical gang of soul-sisters we so often allude to?
In categorising women solely by their gender, we ignore each individual experience. Each struggle and each criss-crossing intersectional factor that defines a person. Last time I checked, we were not all the same, united by some extra-terrestrial womanhood that bonds us together (most probably by synchronising our periods to the moon cycle). Then again, perhaps I missed the team meeting.
So, why are we so obsessed with women in stuff. Women in business, women in tech, maths, leadership, the bath. Women, women, women. Isolated from the main stage in our little lady sub-categories.
(For context, the link is for a twitter thread on what bathtub tray manufacturers think women do in the bath – hysterical).
But seriously, can’t we just be people in * insert noun *? People with barriers, responsibilities, work, commitments, family, health, friends. We wouldn’t personally define ourselves by gender, much in the same way that men naturally would not.
So why do we go out of our way to put women in that box? Surely in highlighting difference, we are failing to recognise individuals – we are isolating women from men; a dangerous game considering that we need men to be a part of this change.
And so follow the dangerous divisions and generalisations: women are hysterical; men are violent; women aren’t funny; men aren’t caregivers; women are victims.
Let’s stop reminding each other of our difference. Let’s get on with treating women as people. And let’s start by recognising that equality in the workplace and society isn’t a female-only accessory.
Why do we talk about “women,” you ask?
When I think of a better world, I picture people of all walks of life coming together in fulfilling conversations and activities. I see equality, respect and opportunity. A world of human interactions where labels – understood as categories of difference – don’t determine our chances.
Regrettably, we don’t live in this “perfect” world and I reckon some corrective action is long overdue. And even if emphasising differences between social groups won’t lead us anywhere, disregarding the often-insurmountable barriers that enable these differences is worryingly problematic.
The reason why we’re increasingly talking about women these days is because we’ve almost never done it in the past. This hasn’t been an innocent act easily explained by women’s “willing retreat” to the private domain of the household, or a bogus “female proclivity” to modesty, lack of ambition or maternal values. Rather, it’s been a case of systematic silencing that can’t – or shouldn’t – sustain itself anymore.
To me, the problem doesn’t lie in defining women as different, but in defining them as different to men. Dichotomies make things look easier, but they happen to be as true as we want to make them, which is to say that they lack any empirical basis. Take the international domain, for example, where female leaders have proven to be as hawkish as men in their foreign policy attitudes.
It’s high time we vindicated the diversity of contributions that women of all backgrounds bring to the table. It’s my belief that, until institutions and companies take a step back and reflect on why under-represented groups aren’t reaching leadership positions, people need to be reaffirmed for who they are and what they have to contribute – be it different or not.
This isn’t isolation, it’s representation; with all the power that it bears.
I’m looking forward to a world of people that leaves problematic dichotomies behind once and for all. In the meantime, let’s talk about women. But most importantly, let’s put those long silenced by patriarchy on loudspeaker. They’ve got a great deal to share.