What do you see as the main focus of your report?
I see the main focus of the report being the dislocation it identifies between the public gender debate, and people’s actual experience and concerns. Because the report looks at both attitudes to the gender debate, and the way we think about sex differences, I feel it gives a revealing insight into why most of us feel so ambivalent about ‘gender issues’ and particularly political responses. At the same time, it points to the dangers of not re-engaging interest in the gender debate — ultimately that the two things people emphatically say they do not want — sex war and inequality — will be perpetuated. The new approach outlined is intended to influence those opinion formers and policy makers who are in a position to steer a new path in the public gender debate, as well as give encouragement to individuals to feel able to raise gender-based concerns.
The survey indicates that the dominant culture is still seen as male and that women are at a disadvantage in the workplace. Yet it also indicates that sex differences are not seen as political issues. Why is this so?
The research conducted for the report discovered a huge degree of dissatisfaction amongst women with the workplace, yet at the same time, as you say, a reluctance to raise this debate with senior management or the board, or to support wider political campaigns. The reasons for this are several, I think :
One, women are very concerned not to be seen as ‘feminist’. Women’s political activism has always been pilloried and ridiculed in the popular press, and these stereotypes have stuck. Women simply do not want to be associated with these images, even if they know deep down that they are false. On a deeper level, I think women’s political activism has always been presented as essentially unfeminine, so that women who raise political issues are made to feel that in so doing they are somehow betraying their sex. Related to this is the wider problem of being seen as a trouble-maker or kill joy in the workplace — in fact, women in many industries are going out of their way to be seen as ‘one of the lads’. They do not want to risk their popularity by complaining.
Two, women are unsure whether complaining about their own situation somehow implies that all women are victims, and that all men have got it good. They can see that this is not true, and that some men feel as strongly as other women about what are called ‘women’s issues’. The fear is that by complaining on gender grounds, these women will feel they are reinforcing sex stereotypes and antagonisms between the sexes, when in fact what they want is the opposite. They want their issues and concerns to be seen as issues affecting everybody – whether they are about workplace culture or worker policies — and for them to be taken up centrally by management. Work/life issues are a good example — this happens to be a problem for more women than men because women continue to do most of the caring, but most women are also looking to the day when this work is more evenly shared, and so do not want to marginalise men out of the debate.
I realise I have mis-read your question as you are asking whether the political parties are doing enough. I will leave the above in as this may be useful, and no — the political parties are not doing enough! Not nearly, although Labour have made significant steps in this term.
Your report points to a number of workplace issues such as provision of quality affordable childcare, rights for part-time workers and a positive approach to career breaks. Do you think that the political parties are addressing these issues?
Social issues are increasingly being seen as private responsibilities because of both the lack of a clear analysis of where shared interests lie, and because of the dominance of a particular understanding of ‘the market’.
On the former, our understanding of modern gender relations has not kept pace with the changing nature of in/equality between the sexes. In the absence of a clear analysis, real problems, such as that those faced by working mothers, for example, are presented as private responsibilities, rather than social challenges requiring a public response. For example, women’s entry into the workplace under the name of liberation is actually no real liberation at all if the unpaid work they did previously is not alternatively provided for. Currently, the language of ‘choice’ suggests women do not have to work if they do not want to, and those that do should make their own provision for childcare and other domestic responsibilities. In fact, most households cannot survive on one income alone, so women have little choice about working, and little choice about child-care as they know they cannot afford to pay for it. Hence childcare is still overwhelmingly provided free by other family members. If women were really to have ‘choice’ they would need access to free or subsidised child-care. In the absence of it, they will continue to perform their traditional role unpaid, and gender inequality will continue. My argument is that if we do not see gender relations in their full social context we miss the real story behind gender inequality. On an individual level, the sexes appear equal because they have equal rights and equal legal protection. Only if we look at the actual lives of men and women in their social context do we see where the barriers to greater gender equality remain.
Why do you think that “social issues are increasingly seen as private responsibilities”? What has created the trend toward ‘individualistic negotiation’ on gender and other issues?
On the market, this is familiar, but the current prejudice within market economics is that the market is allergic to social justice, and cannot be interfered with without risking economic collapse. So, while employers are asked to do more to support parents at work, it all remains voluntary because the CBI says business cannot afford it. (They also said the same about the minimum wage, and have had to admit they were wrong). A business that cannot survive without denying employers basic entitlements is not to my mind a viable business. Having employer support to look after children or other dependents should be a basic entitlement in a modern society. Using the market as an argument why this cannot be done is a mis-representation of the purpose of the market. The market can and will deliver what we want it to. It is a means of negotiation above all else, and we can factor in the criteria we feel are important. I say support for women and men to share traditional roles more equally is a fairly consensual want. We should make the market deliver this for us — if the private sector is unwilling to do this voluntary, the government should legislate.
It seems sad that the attempt to relate “the personal and cultural to the economic and political” as Lynne Segal puts it has been castigated and demonised. How can we create a public sphere where gender issues are seriously debated?
Creating a public sphere where gender issues are seriously debated is going to take a sea change in the attitudes and approach of both the the opinion formers and policy makers, and those who manage public debate — the media. It would be easy to blame the media more — they are, after all, incredibly lazy about questioning the way they take advantage of powerful if unhelpful social stereotypes — but I tend to feel we get the media we deserve. I, therefore, am appealing to those in government and public bodies, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, to re-think their strategy and communications. They are currently putting out very mixed messages, and often missing the point, as the WI incident showed. And also to those who are active in the gender debate to put out a clear analysis of modern gender relations, and to do more to encourage others to participate in the debate. I do a lot of work with the advertising industry, for example, where there is widespread frustration about the way women are treated in the industry and in advertising itself. People in this industry could be galvanised to be much more active with a bit of encouragement and support. Barriers between such people and political activists are more cultural than conceptual, so are relatively easy to overcome.
How far is the media responsible for blaming women for social ills and presenting gender issues as conflicts between men and women?
On the media, as above. However, I do still get incredibly frustrated with the mainstream media, and have to learnt to rely on a few individuals who I know will write responsibly and constructively. I wish there were more of them, and long may they live!
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The Sexual Renaissance
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Sue Tibballs, author of the report,
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