Despite the concerted push of good men seeking change for women, the entirety of the movement is based on the same marginalisation we’re fighting. Speaking for us is not the same as giving us a voice.
In a recent speech, former US Vice-President Joe Biden spoke eloquently about the state of American political leadership today. He described how “the siren call of phoney nationalism” preys on the public’s fears of income inequality, terrorism and mass migration, by stoking prejudices and redirecting blame.
Referencing the Charlottesville riots of August 2017, led by a mob of white supremacists, Biden pointed to Americans being in a “battle for the soul” of their country. The pillars of “democracy, freedom and openness,” he added, are under siege, and the fabric of America’s “cherished” values is being shredded.
In response to a question about the state of America’s judiciary after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, this empathetic and politically-experienced man recalled the 1991 sexual allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, over which he presided as then Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had found Anita Hill convincing and had brought in the FBI “immediately” to investigate her allegations.
Biden stressed how he had worked “so hard, so hard, to change the nature of the debate.” In the end, however, Clarence Thomas, whose case largely rested on whether one believed him or the alleged victim, was appointed to the US Supreme Court. Biden, having seen how “easy it was to abuse a woman who’s already been abused” after she goes public, was galvanised into writing “the Violence Against Women Act”, which he argued was “the most consequential piece of legislation affecting women’s rights in our country – other, I would argue, than the right to vote.”
But here’s the rub: women don’t want to be saved by male decision-making. They need a louder voice and greater power in determining their own fate.
In America and the UK, women remain the minority not only in the leadership ranks of business, finance and tech, but also in the executive and legislative branches of government, including the judiciary. According to Catalyst, women in 2018 hold 5% of CEO positions in the Fortune 500 companies, and 24% of all senior corporate management roles. The proportion of women in the US House of Representatives is just over 19%, and 20% in the Senate. 32% of British MP’s are women. The percentage of female judges is 30% in England and Wales and 24% in Scotland. The female percentage of federal judges in the US is somewhat better, at 36%.
Not one woman served on the Clarence Thomas judiciary committee, though Democrat Congresswoman Louise Slaughter co-wrote Biden’s law protecting women. 27 years later, only four women out of 21 senators sat on the judiciary committee examining allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh. It appears that the only meaningful progress made between the two hearings was the timeframe allocated to the FBI investigations, which increased from three days in 1991 to a week in 2018.
I recently asked the events organiser of a well-known, international conference why, this year, despite an agenda that highlighted gender equality and countless speeches urging gender inclusivity, women’s participation as speakers and attendees was just over 20%. His sanguine answer reflected the cold logic of reality: “These types of conferences are about power, and women don’t have it.”
It appears that it is still up to men to try to fix the gender gap. But gender equality is about a woman’s right to self-determination, self-sufficiency and autonomy. Women should not have to depend on the conscience and good intentions of men to protect their thread count in the fabric of their nation’s institutions.
The current situation partly explains why many American women support Donald Trump. When they must still generally defer to men to fly a plane, lead a business or operate on a brain tumour, it is easy to overlook their president’s deep disregard for women and nod along when he claims to be the strongman fighting their corner.
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Educating men to behave better towards women will not change the context for women either, nor the culture of their being seen as the weaker sex, so long as that context is dependent on the self-correcting decisions of men at the highest echelons of political, economic and social authority.
The persistent absence of female empowerment relegates women to grass roots activism. This feeds stereotypes of annoying, attention-seeking feminist protesters who often end up fighting each other over what really constitutes sexual harassment.
Ceding any kind of monopoly, including one on gender supremacy, goes against humanity’s competitive instincts. For some men and women, the thought of empowered and independent women can also be frightening.
But to see the brighter future, one need only take the example of any group of teenage refugee girls who are given the chance to engage their minds inside their makeshift classrooms. Their eyes stare back, unabashed and fired by curiosity. They laugh out loud. Their intensity could run the world’s power supply, and their emotional intelligence sees through the soul of any man. These are the stares of gender equality.
Would their equal social and political status guarantee a better world, lived more responsibly and sustainably? Maybe, maybe not. But if women are to get past first base on gender equality, and before men programme A.I. to once again start making decisions for all of us, then men, especially good men, must be willing to cede their monopoly on power.