Why Representation Matters

I wrote this piece for International Women’s Day 2018 and thought I’d share it here too….

2018 has only just started but already it feels like it’s been a significant one for women. It’s proving so far to be a year of introspection – for some, soul searching – for many, and hope – for women. I don’t believe I’m the only one to say it feels like there’s something in the air; it’s hard to pin the feeling down to a single event or incident, rally or exposé – there have already been a few – but it’s a general excited nervousness because we’re standing on the edge of something momentous, just waiting for it to tip, and we know it’s going to.

Women’s rights movements have taken many forms over the centuries; from the Suffragettes of the early 1900s breaking windows to the feminist movement of the 1970s burning bras – each time the reason for the movement has been the same, very simple one – equality.

The thing that knocks me sideways each time the subject of feminism is raised, is that despite it being such a basic and theoretically easy concept to grasp, it’s so mis-understood, derided and mis-represented. No one is demanding women are held aloft as a superior gender, feminists don’t want to take away men’s rights, we just want to be standing on the same platform, given the same opportunities and importantly, the same respect.

One area under the spotlight right now is the workplace. From the bright lights and seedy hotel rooms of Hollywood to the seemly safe glass walled meeting rooms of your everyday office building – the stories of harassment, bullying, belittling and more often than not, silencing, of women are becoming known.

I’ve noticed that the conversation when linked to work-based discrimination is often manipulated into being solely about money – there’s an attempt to shame the woman into silence by making her out to be greedy and therefore unworthy. When Carrie Gracie very publicly left the BBC, she explained that it wasn’t about the amount she was paid (her salary wasn’t low by anyone’s standards), it was the fact that she was paid less for no other reason other than she was a woman. She felt that if she had accepted the pay rise offered (which still would have seen her underpaid compared to her male counterparts) she would have been colluding in the unfair treatment of women – and that’s the crux of it. Even the incredibly talented Suranne Jones had to clear up the mainstream press’ mis-representation of the 50/50 badge which she wore when colleting her recent National Television Award. She wrote to her Instagram followers: ‘Equal representation for actresses is more than equal pay. It’s about an equal and fair representation of women in society. [sic] Representing women from all walks of life can have a big social impact on young women: if you can see it represented on stage and screen, you can be inspired by it. Stories of women in politics, engineering, science journalism… Equal pay is just one reason.’

This is not a singular issue and it’s not about women wanting more money, it’s about what the inequality of being paid less for the same work says about your worth in society. The Time’s Up movement state that ‘the power of representation brings us one step closer to a safe and equitable workplace’ and that sums up why the issue doesn’t start and end with what goes into our bank accounts each month. It’s about how we are represented at work, and society in general, and the knock-on effect this has on how we are treated.

In the UK, research shows that more than half of all women, and nearly two thirds of women aged 18-24, say they have experienced sexual harassment at work*. This figure is horrifying, but sadly to most of us, it’s not shocking. What is shocking when looked at with fresh eyes, is how we were led to believe that this was normal, acceptable, behaviour which we just need to live with. It’s abundantly clear that if we are to improve the way women are treated and valued at work, the way we are represented as a whole needs to be addressed.

Lack of female representation and the negative portrayal of women is one of those things that once you open your eyes and look for it, you realise it’s everywhere – no wonder we have been so conditioned to accept harassment and belittling – our ‘status’ in the world is reiterated to us every single day. As it is to men.

One easy way to test this is to take the world of film. The next time you hit the play button on your favourite, see if it passes the Bechdel Test: Does it have at least two named female characters in it who have a conversation about something other than a man? About half of all films will fail this test including some of the most iconic of all time; all the original Star Wars films, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 2) and each of the Lord of the Rings films. What example does that set to any young person about the role women play in the world? And it’s not like we don’t have an abundance of real life women to take inspiration from, it’s just that we’re conditioned to see them as not as fundamental as all the amazing (typically white) men we all hear so much about.

As girls we grow up with Disney princesses, men who save the day and the message that you’ll succeed when you’re beautiful. Where are the films about Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earheart or Valentina Tereshkova? Why aren’t the hundreds of the heroic women who flew Spitfires in WW2 not lauded like their male contemporaries? Women have always led in the fields of science, exploration and aviation but for so long this is not the message we’ve received – and for so long it has worked to keep us viewed as less able and less worthy of being considered equal to men, even by ourselves.

The case for how general representation impacts on women as a whole was beautifully encapsulated in the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign. I remember debating this many times with both male and female friends and colleagues who we’re very definite that page 3 models should be able to decide on whether they modelled topless or not – and what kind of feminist would restrict women from making their own choices? As my reply would make clear – I agree – all women should be free to make their own choices, even if I don’t agree with them. My disapproval did not lie with the model, but rather with where the pictures were published and the overall message this sent to both men and women – and more importantly – children.

There’s no arguing that the purpose of page 3 was to please (mostly) men who like to look at (mostly teenage) women with their tops off. That’s it – it’s as simple as that. In isolation, that’s fine, if the woman is happy with it. The issue arises when you place these pictures in a daily newspaper, something that is sold to anyone and viewed publicly, often by accident in coffee shops and on your co-worker’s desk at lunchtime. The women featured were there purely for a man’s viewing pleasure, an object to be stared at, and this was normalised by the fact that these pictures weren’t accessible by adults only, but available for children to see and be influenced by. No wonder we have such an issue with how we view women when most people of my generation grew up with the message that when it comes to current affairs and the news, a woman’s place was clear – on page 3 with her boobs out! Page 3 alienated and belittled women and for so long this was considered completely reasonable – you were shot down if you dared share any other view. Looking back to this very recent time, it’s absurd to consider Page 3 a part of British culture that people fought to protect!

And these messages, drip-fed daily with no counter argument have helped to keep the balance of power firmly in the male camp; and no wonder women’s movements face opposition, power is hard to concede when you’ve had it for so long. Dr. Lily Jampol, Psychologist at Humu summed it up perfectly when she said “When the status quo is shaken, it’s seen as a loss for the group that’s had the power. If your identity is normally associated with the kinds of people who end up on top, and those people are usually men, then upending that balance is perceived as a threat to social privilege.”

The most vital factor that can’t be ignored when it comes to representation, is that for change to really happen, it must spread across the board or else isolated efforts will remain just that, isolated. There is a tangible trickle-down effect after every success, but the reason we’re still protesting, still having to fight tooth and nail for each concession to our societal worth, is because the movement it’s self has been insular and has left many women on the outside. We’re currently celebrating 100 years since women got the vote – but not all women, only those over 30 who were homeowners. It took another 10 years to put all women on an equal footing with men.

We stand on the shoulders of great women and awe-inspiring accomplishments, but historically feminism has been the vestige of the privileged white middle class and simply put, that’s no longer good enough if we want to effect permanent sweeping change for all women.

I strongly believe businesses will play a big part in re-shaping the way women are represented in society, and that will in turn have a positive impact on how young girls view their options, purpose and value. Paying us the same obviously features, but at the same time you need to be creating environments in which women can thrive. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and discrimination, no exceptions. Your female employees need to be listened to, supported, promoted and given a voice. A conscious effort needs to be made to tell the stories of the women who are succeeding in your company and not in a concessionary way, but in a way that portrays them as equals and inspirational to other women and men alike.

Looking at where we are currently lays out how far we have left to travel; fewer than 1/3 of MPs are female, all Chancellors to date have been men, more than 90% of PLC Executive Directors are men (in fact there are twice as many men called John who are CEOs than there are female CEOs!) and women are yet to serve in close combat roles (although some are in training).

If the last year has shown us all one thing, it’s that change is coming; no one is immune and there are no hiding places, regardless of how powerful you think you are (I’m looking at you Weinstein, BBC, Oxfam…) so both individuals and industries need to commit to progress, or else they will be crushed by it. Small changes can make a huge difference, so if you can do nothing else on this International Women’s Day, I ask one thing of you – look into the eyes of a girl or woman you love and tell them they are worthy and that they are equal; and if you are a woman, repeat this exercise whilst looking in the mirror. Then go out into the world and make sure every woman you meet feels it – talk to her with respect, talk about her with respect and ultimately treat her with respect; then repeat this exercise every single day and watch what happens…

*Time’s Up

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