What follows is a lightly edited version of the address I gave at the joint Churchill/Murray Edwards Colleges ‘Humanist Happenings’ last Sunday, in advance of International Women’s Day today.
Today is International Women’s Day, with its theme of Press for Progress. Every year this day gains a little more momentum; more people are aware of it, more occasions swell the message. In fact, if you watch the news, stories about women gain more and more prominence all the year round. Not always in a good way.
In the UK we can see a woman be Prime Minister, and yet the average gender pay gap is still close to 20% in those companies which are now legally required to report. If you look around the world, every country will have a slightly different set of issues to address. In some countries at war, survival without molestation is perhaps the best one can hope for, a little bit more education and surviving childbirth and seeing the children (not too many) grow up healthily. In richer parts of the world the opportunity to train for a career and not just be a domestic drudge seems a reasonable aspiration. In the UK and other developed countries the issues are well-rehearsed and yet still seem so far away from solution.
And when a woman’s will is as strong as the man’s who wants to govern her, half her strength must be concealment.
Think about that quote and think what generation of woman might have said it. Your mother, your grandmother? In fact, it was written by George Eliot in her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. Many women need to live their lives like that, even today. A strong woman may be seen as a threat. A woman who speaks out may be silenced, as Mary Beard has written about so eloquently, most recently in her book Women and Power where she points out that the silencing of women dates back at least to Telemachus and Penelope in Homer’s Greece. Just last year this silencing was obvious yet again in the political sphere when Elizabeth Warren was prevented by Senate Republicans who voted to stop her reading out a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King during a debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. Subsequently a male senator read the same letter with impunity.
Nevertheless it is not helpful always to dwell on the dark side. We can choose to celebrate how far equality for women has moved on a day like International Women’s Day, or we can wring our hands about the fact that all is not yet perfect in countries like the UK, let alone elsewhere. When I first moved beyond just doing my research to looking at the bigger picture, around the time I became a professor, I found it frustrating how many groups of women felt it was adequate just to bemoan what was wrong instead of trying to come up with constructive steps forward. A group that complained that there was only a single digit percentage of women professors wanted a commitment to reaching 30% within a very short period. That struck me as just a strategy to alienate people given that it was so obvious the supply was not yet in place.
For myself, I have never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist because the generation of feminists I grew up with were undoubtedly of the view that men were the enemy. (Nevertheless I was there at the first ‘Women’s Lib’ March in London on March 8th 1971 – as was my grandmother, although we had not gone together.) We will never progress if we think like that. Research from Murray Edwards has shown just how important ‘collaborating with men‘ is if genuine progress towards equality is to be made.
However, whatever the old cigarette advertisement may have said about having ‘come a long way baby’ we most certainly have not reached the end of the journey. We need to reach a place where we no longer have to think about gender at all. We need to #press for progress. If I am asked to think about what true equality looks like it is a place where individuals are judged on who they are, not their chromosomes, their looks, their age or skin colour. We know we are a long way off that yet. We all are incredibly culturally influenced in ways that it is easy not to see.
So in the spirit of constructive actions to enable progress to be made, let me propose three things everyone in the room might wish to consider. I am sure in my list there are things that each and every one of you can do when the right circumstances arise.
Amplify. At any meeting you attend you may spot a timid person, not necessarily a woman though it might be, who makes a sensible comment that is – for whatever reason – talked over or ignored. If you are stronger, speak up for them. Repeat it. Remind the other committee members – particularly if some dominant voice then tries to claim the idea for their own – that Mary Bloggs has already said that and wasn’t it a good idea. If you feel uncomfortable speaking up, remember how much worse it must be for the person who spoke first and was ignored.
Support. You may think your peers are all as tough as old boots, but the chances are you’d be wrong. If you see a student being attacked unreasonably in a seminar, or an acquaintance fretting because their mother is ill offer them a few warm words. It doesn’t take much to make someone feel they are not alone. You may not be able to solve their problems, but at least you can show you recognize them. And if, for instance, the attack was unwarranted, just driven by the need the attacker felt to boost their own ego, perhaps you can spell that out and make it real for the victim.
Be an active bystander: this is something the University of Cambridge is working hard at, providing training and opening the dialogue up. Don’t ignore other people’s uncomfortable actions. If you see a young woman being pinned in the corner of a bar by someone who’s had too much to drink or is just a bit of a lad, you might want to catch their eye to see if they’re OK. If they are finally making their escape, ask them explicitly if they feel all right or if they want to download. And if it is clear things are getting out of hand, step in if it’s safe for you to do so. We’ve all observed bad behaviour in bars and have felt, perhaps in a very British way, that we shouldn’t intervene. But sometimes maybe we should. And, if it is a general conversation with jokes that are getting out of hand a quiet reminder may suffice to bring things back into the arena of good taste.
I mentioned Elizabeth Warren. Maybe she will finally manage to convince the American electorate that a woman President is worth celebrating – or maybe she will decide she doesn’t want to go through what Hillary Clinton suffered. A remark the former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Julie Spence made has stuck in my mind, however. It isn’t sufficient just to have the first in any category: the first female President of the USA, the first female Master of Churchill or the first female President of the Supreme Court in Baroness Hale. It is when we have the second and third and so on that we know it is no longer news and therefore we are another step forward on the road to true equality.
I have focussed on the situation in the UK and perhaps unreasonably focussed on the white women in the University in these words. But it isn’t sufficient to think like that. Intersectionality is a word that probably isn’t yet heard enough. Whatever the problems I as a white woman may have encountered I am under no illusions I am still privileged compared with many. But I cannot speak as a woman of colour, or as a woman whose education never got off the ground or who was abused as a child. I know that I have had it easy and I should never forget that.
International Women’s Day is a day to remember where we’ve come from – 150 years ago a woman was merely a chattel in this country and had no legal standing – through the granting of the vote to propertied women over 30 in the UK 100 years ago, to a day when the leading judge is a woman. But it isn’t sufficient and each and every one of us in this room has a role to play in making sure we keep moving forward.
If you want some other suggestions as to actions you can take to improve the situation, specifically for women in science, let me point you to my earlier collection of actions #Just1Action4WIS.