Monday, 14 January 2013


I haven’t posted since June 2012, and now it’s January 2013. Why? Because despite the positive feedback I’ve received from people who read this blog, negative feedback from people in my personal life has had me banging my head against a brick wall.

Sex discrimination doesn’t exist. Sex discrimination is illegal. Yeah, well so are drugs.  You haven’t experienced sex discrimination. Are you going to claim that suicide doesn’t exist with the same logic? Because you haven’t experienced killing yourself?

I didn’t want to start posting while I was finding it difficult to relate to this complacency. I don’t want my research to revolve around my personal opinions; I just want to report on gender equality and any persisting inequalities or misconceptions. So, and in addition to my post ‘We the Believers’, I researched complacency about sexual discrimination.

This complacency is a symptom of ‘progress’. We need to acknowledge the advances made in the 1960s, study their loss of momentum in the 1970s and recognise their altogether giving up in the 1980s. Only then can we move on to the worsening of sexual discrimination in the 1990s, 2000s and now, the 2010s. This post serves as an outline of the reasons behind our complacency:

1. We had our mind on other things in the 70s. Spiralling inflation, ‘Star Wars’ and the fear of a worldwide holocaust, assassination or attempted assassination of world leaders (Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Gandhi, Sadat), the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland and Poland. Sex discrimination became a low priority issue.

2. Surveys started to express a more accepting attitude towards women. A 1979 national poll concluded that males showed variety ‘along the entire spectrum from traditional to innovative responses about work, the family, religion, leisure, marriage and sex’. The implication was that many liberated men now accept women as equals. [1]
A 1980 poll found that 60% of women felt they had an equal chance in promotions, with the same salaries and work responsibilities as men. [2]
They key word here is ‘felt’. Opinion polls reflect attitudes rather than behaviour. Anyone equating attitudes with behaviour would then conclude that behaviour towards women has changed significantly. Opinion polls rarely differentiate between actual and expected behaviour. It is incorrect to assume that how things should be is synonymous with how things really are.

3. The mass media continue to emphasise superficial changes in terms of equal sex roles and this has led many people to conclude that “sex discrimination is only a minor problem”. On a national and local level the media is quick to publicise women’s ‘firsts’ e.g. the first astronaut, the first female bank executive. This emphasise on ‘firsts’ implies that women are indeed making strides insofar that people will claim women are ‘taking over’.  Many people believe that these firsts are numerous, widespread and representative across all institutions. Very few people realise that our ability to point to firsts is a reflection on female exclusion from most activities. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that the ‘firsts’ move beyond entry level steps. [3]
Many of us believe that the mass media reflect ‘reality’ and real social change. Avid TV watchers will point out the occasional powerful woman executive or glamorous female physician as evidence of gender equality. Such shows however, mirror the media’s perceptions of women as tokens. The portrayal of women and their relationship with men is romanticised, trivialised, or treated in sex-stereotypical, simplistic ways [4].
I like to imagine that everyone’s heard of the Bechdel Test (and I’m definitely imagining it). The Bechdel Test is used to identify gender bias in fiction. In order to pass the test a work must feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (talk about, not offer a single insignificant sentence). Commentators have noted that a great proportion of contemporary works fail to pass this threshold of representing women – and by ‘great’ we’re talking about almost every film you will watch this year.
An interesting point to note is that many people also believe that female nudity and more ‘women’s films’ are proof of ‘women’s liberation’. There’s still no discussion of female nudity as pornography rather than art (we’ll get on to pornography another time, that’s a whoooole issue of its own). There is also little recognition that the protagonists of ‘women’s films’ fulfil traditional, sex-stereotypical roles – as dumb housewives, sex symbols, domestic martyrs or clinging vines (people who behave in a helpless and dependant manner in relationships with others). Even when the heroine starts out as an interesting and intelligent person, she invariably ends up committing suicide, dying or being ‘done-in’, or being rescued by a man [5]. We haven’t really moved on from 1850s opera, have we?
During the 1950s and 60s, teenage films were quite different. Teenagers were pretty care-free (more like old children than young adults), they spent most of their time surfing and having beach parties, with cute cat-and-mouse courtships going on. That’s flattering compared to the anything produced around the 80s, onwards. Now the typical teenage view is that crude and vulgar behaviour is hilarious, sex is the most important thing in life, and that violent, manipulative sex is fun and funny. Adult women are presented in particularly demeaning and degrading roles and most teenage films reflect ‘little more than middle-aged male producers’ and directors’ somewhat pathetic fantasies about teenage girls’. Don’t even bother naming a female producer/director who does that kind of thing – why do you think she got the job?

4. Recent dramatizations of controversial issues such as rape, incest and homosexuality have led many people to conclude that we really are open about these issues and sex-related problems. Mass media does not go into depth. Turn off your television and read a journal.
The media have generated and publicised innumerable books and workshops, to advise individual women how to ‘get ahead’. ‘Find a job, get promoted, dress for success, handle an office affair, use cosmetics, get invited to a business lunch, sue for divorce, travel alone, locate child care, keep in shape, hide wrinkles’. What other advice could an individual, middle-class woman possibly need? You too can be like our cover woman; happy, smiling, attractive and fashionable, with a fairly interesting job outside the home. Need I even say, ‘because you’re worth it’? Wake-up general public, these books and magazines are portraying fantasies about, not realities of, working women [6].

5. It’s also been greatly publicised that few women have been upwardly mobile since the launching of the women’s movement in the late 1960s. These women are found almost exclusively in low-level management positions, and they are often touted as evidence of sex equality. I’ve heard more than enough people point to their female professor or doctor as evidence that “things really have changed”. These changes are highly skewed and they represent only a fraction of working women. How relevant is it? Not very. I find it very hard to hold my tongue when people say ‘but I don’t really understand what you’re upset about. Things have got so much better for us’. Are you all working women? Or are you an individual who feels quite positive about your prospects, because you know ‘plenty’(Really? Plenty?) of female policewomen, physicians etc.

6.  Read ‘We the Believers’ which is dedicated to this one: that many of us rely exclusively on our personal observations and experience to generalise about the world at large. Do not assume something doesn’t exist or is only a minor issue because you haven’t experienced it. With regards to sex equality you only need to look at the recently launched everydaysexism project: (if you have the time and the inclination, vote for them in the Shorty Awards, there’s a link on the website).

7. And back to where I started. Many of us assume sex discrimination is “not really a problem” because it’s illegal. Unlike most other offenses, annual statistics on sex discrimination aren’t published. Even data that are available – like the number of sex discrimination complaints or lawsuits filed – are not publicised or readily available. If they were I imagine that we would not only be shocked by the scope and severity of sex discrimination, but still unable to see how serious and widespread it really is. Most people will not report sex discrimination, they feel embarrassed, they ignore it, they often feel that they’re the problem. We shouldn’t be complacent, we should be angry.

[1] Lee Barton (1984) “To a Sherlockian, Coolness to Women is Elementary Canon,” Wall street Journal, p.1
[2] George Gilder (1981) Wealth and Poverty, New York: Basic Books
[3] Benokraitis (1986) “Modern Sexism”, (Prentice Hall) p. 4
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] “Modern Sexism”, p. 6

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