March 8th is International Women’s Day 2018. 5 years ago it was also my due date, but our daughter surprised everyone and arrived early on the 7th (in stark contrast to her mum who is late for pretty much everything!).
The Day celebrates the achievements of women: social; cultural; political; economic, and is also a global call to action for accelerating gender parity. It’s been celebrated for over 100 years and this year, 2018, there’s a strong call to #pressforprogress to motivate people to think, act and be more gender inclusive.
I thought about what this means to me, for my family, my small business, my daughter, Thea. I started writing because I wanted my daughter to read something that was about more than just a pink passive princess, waiting for the prince to rescue her. I wanted She’s Not Good for a Girl, She’s Just Good! to be a story that boys and girls would enjoy, but would also take away the message that they’re each other’s equals, and can do anything, regardless of their gender. But something more has happened, for me, in the process of writing and publishing this book.
Years ago at university, on an engineering course, I was asked (by a man) if I was a feminist. It was said with a fairly derisive tone, and I was quick to respond with a, no no no! I told him I believed in equality, but I wasn’t a feminist. I was so embarrassed at the thought (though to be honest I was pretty shy back then and got embarrassed about anything), and I never gave it another thought until after having my daughter. I had grown up thinking the world had become a pretty equal place. I felt I’d had a good career, made my own choices, knew I could vote, had a voice, and I’d laughed off many a sexist comment or joke as ‘banter’. I saw the rise of the ladette culture when girl power grew and women felt empowered to behave like men (and I saw the fall of it, when women were then criticised for behaving like men. To me it felt like the message behind girl power got lost for a bit, until it grew into what I think we have now with a new wave of feminism and call for equality). All in all, I think I naively thought things were mostly fine.
Having my daughter made me look at the world very differently, as I’m sure it does for many parents. I wondered what kind of world she would grow up in, what opportunities she would have, and what choices she’d be able to make. I started to read children’s books, watch films, saw TV adverts aimed at kids, all in a way that I hadn’t looked at them before. I began to realise just how much sexism there still is in the world and how it’s all so heavily ingrained in us that we don’t even realise it’s there.
When our daughter turned 3, we decided to buy her a new scooter. My husband bought a second hand one from eBay. It wasn’t the ‘second hand’ part that bothered me (recycling is a good thing!); it was the fact that it was blue! I didn’t want our daughter to have a blue scooter! Before re-listing it on eBay I offered it to a friend, who had a son. I didn’t offer it to anyone who had a daughter! We eventually compromised on a purple scooter, as in truth I knew I didn’t really want to buy her a pink one (our world already felt like it was becoming a bit too pinkified), and she loved the colour purple, so it was win win in the end.
About a year ago I read that male bias is so ingrained in society, that had we ever noticed when we assign gender to an animal or even an inanimate object, that we tend to refer to almost everything as male. Now, I had no idea that I did this, but I realised that I’d spent the first few years of my daughter’s life commenting on Mr Dog in the park, asking her how many legs Mr Spider had, and to please eat Mr sandwich for lunch, so he can fill up Mr Tummy. I didn’t know I was doing it (and thankfully 99% of the time, Thea will correct me and say, it’s a girl mummy).
But why does this kind of thing matter?! I know many people will ask this. I did. But it matters because the messages we’re sent are so drip drip drip in society that we don’t even know it’s happening. But from a young age it has an impact and will bias our children (and further ingrain the bias in us as adults). And it shows up early. I did a workshop with an assembly of 6 and 7 year old children a couple of weeks ago, and there was an audible snigger when I gave a boy a sign to hold that said the words ‘ballet dancer’. He was laughed at for just holding this sign. In the same workshop, which was a sort of matching pairs game, matching pictures of people to jobs, they overwhelming voted the women to be teachers, makeup artists, dancers. They were amazed that one of the women was an England International footballer, and another an army major. In another workshop last week, when another group of children were asked to draw a firefighter and a ballet dancer, they again overwhelmingly drew male firefighters and female dancers. The teacher later told she was amazed they did this as for the previous 3 weeks they’d been discussing gender in class.
And about a year ago, I saw a little boy in a shop, ask to buy a glittery fairy wand, only to be told by, I assume, his mum, “What do you want that for? That’s a bit girly isn’t it? Put it back down.” How likely is that little boy to be honest in future about his likes and dislikes, or what he wants to play with, to do or to be, after that public dismissal of his choice? How likely is he, or the little sister (who was standing next to him) thinking this is something to make fun of if they see another boy pick up a wand?
I think about these things when I read about International Women’s Day, and its call to #pressforprogress asking us to think about being more inclusive, about motivating those around us to think about it. I think about how I react now if someone asks me if I’m a feminist (very differently to how my embarrassed self did many years ago!). I think about why it’s important to celebrate the achievements of women, to raise them up (not above men, just to the same levels as men!), to allow little girls to see it (you can’t be it if you can’t see it), to show little boys that girls are their equals. To challenge my own bias, and try and make sure that I don’t bias my child so she can make her own choices. I won’t always get it right. But each year, International Women’s Day will remind me to stop and think; to remember how I once thought about feminism and equality, and why I think differently now. And that’s progress.