Equality still matters in the modern world
Kathrine Ohm Thomas, manager of the Radisson SAS Hotel in Birmingham, asks if we still need an International Women’s Day
Since its launch almost a century ago, International Women’s Day has helped to chart the lives and expectations of women across the globe. So much has changed in that time – and some of those changes have been sufficiently dramatic that one might question why there’s a need this Sunday to continue to mark the occasion.
I believe there are lots of reasons – but the main one is equality. I don’t say this as a “feminist” (even the word makes me cringe), I say it as someone who feels equal to men in every way, thanks to my liberal upbringing in Norway. Sadly, I think there are lots of my contemporaries who don’t.
Consider the reaction to Gail Trimble. The “human Google” university student who led her team to victory (now, sadly, rescinded) in BBC2’s University Challenge last month attracted almost as much vitriol as praise. Hostile messages, many from women, sprang up on blogs and social networking sites, criticising her braininess and her appearance. Would a man dubbed an “intellectual blitzkrieg” have sparked such comments? I don’t really need to answer that.
The response to Gail Trimble suggests that we women haven’t come as far in the past 100 years as we think we have. We struggled for emancipation – the freedom to vote, the freedom to have a high-flying career and fight in wars – and the struggle paid off, but it rings slightly hollow when you see a brilliant scholar being verbally attacked because she chooses to wear her hair unfashionably long. Freedom, surely, is about being who and what you want and being respected for it. And freedom comes from true equality.
There is evidence everywhere you look that equality still eludes women. Why are there still girls’ schools, for instance? What is the point of them when girls need to learn about working and living alongside men as much as they need to learn geography and English.
The education system is supposed to equip youngsters for a world of equality of the sexes, yet it sends out mixed messages. Boys are still more likely to study sciences at GCSE and A-Level, while girls tend to opt for arts-based subjects. Is this because their brains are wired differently or do old habits die hard?
Then there are school sports. My teenage daughter, Hannah, doesn’t do PE with the boys: why not, I wonder? When she was at school in Norway, she played football; now, in England, she plays only “girlie” sports such as netball.
Today, more than ever, it’s important for girls and boys to participate equally in the school curriculum: girls need to know how to solve an IT problem and boys should learn how to cook. It reminds me of a story told by a man called Chris Duffy who grew up in Scotland and did, unusually at that time, study home economics at school. In the first lesson he managed to set fire to the stove and his teacher told him she hoped he’d marry a woman who could cook, as plainly he never would. Chris is now executive chef at our hotel’s award-winning Filini restaurant.
Another member of staff, Roula Samaha, who’s also chairman of the Birmingham Young Professional of the Year awards, recalls her dad making her change a flat tyre on her car in the wind and rain while he sat in the vehicle, telling her afterwards: “I made you do that so you never have to wait for or depend on anyone in your life.” She says those words stuck with her and helped to shape her into the independent woman she is today.
But being able to change a flat tyre doesn’t mean a woman has to dispense with her femininity. Yet there’s always been a clash between feminism and femininity and this has contributed to so much of the confusion surrounding the meaning of equal rights.
This apparent sublimation of womanliness is presumably why women feel the need to be aggressive and macho to stake their claim on equality. But this is missing the point – real, simple equality is about being yourself and being accepted and respected for being the person you are. It is because we have missed the point so often that equal pay for equal work – one of the most basic rights – is still not a given for women, yet the concept of positive discrimination is still deemed acceptable: female tennis players at Wimbledon now claim the same prize money as men, even though they play matches of only three sets while men play five, and women can be hired to fulfil quotas rather than because they have the right skills. It’s why maternity rights for women have improved a lot in this country, but are still called “maternity” rather than known as “parental” rights, as in several European countries where it is accepted, if not anticipated, that the father may want to take as much time out from work as the mother to care for a child.
It is no wonder, then, that many women still aren’t comfortable in their skin – and become so agitated when they come across someone like Gail Trimble who is.
Gail is an example of someone who has exercised the greatest gift equality can deliver – freedom of choice. She has chosen to channel her exceptional intelligence into academia and chosen not to colour her hair or have it cut in a trendy bob. She makes no apologies and she makes no boasts. She is who she is and has the quiet confidence to know she can get whatever it is she wants.
The “having it all” debate that has raged in this country for several years now is all about choice – but again I think we often miss the point. I “have it all” – a home life with my daughter and a demanding career – but I do so not through being super-human but by being relatively efficient when I’m at work so that I am able to spend evenings and weekends at home. For the first eight years of my daughter’s life, I didn’t work. In my native Norway, this was greeted with derision. But it was my choice – and so it should be a choice that is open to all women, and men.
So, this International Women’s Day (which, incidentally, is on many European calendars but not ours), we might be wise to think about the small disparities between the sexes that often go unrecognised, but which are still preventing 21st-century women in the First World enjoying what I believe I have myself and what I want for my daughter – simple equality.