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Gender equity and intersectionality - BASW England blog

Promoting the rights of all women in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, by Rebekah Pierre, Professional Officer for BASW England

When I first read that women face a wait of around 257 years to achieve equal pay, I was saddened, but not surprised.

As a finite being, it is difficult to comprehend this amount of time. It works out as 3,084 months. If we live to be a third of this number, we are considered to have enjoyed a long life. If we subtract this number from where we are today, that takes us back to the year 1763. Electricity would not be invented for another 116 years.

The fact is, no one on this planet will live to see economic gender parity.

Yet in the wake of the coronavirus, 257 years seems rather modest. This figure was devised prior to the pandemic in December 2019, but. since then, major institutions, including the United Nations and World Economic Forum, estimate that COVID-19 could set women’s economic progress back by half a century.

The coronavirus has had devastating impacts on women’s rights across almost every sphere of life – and there is no escape from additional burdens or stress at home, within diverse communities or in the workplace.

A new study found that women have been forced to perform more unpaid labour, with their collective lost earnings or productivity equating to over £15m a day in Scotland. Mothers have been 47% more likely to lose their jobs than fathers, according to another study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

UN Women report that whilst it is too early for comprehensive data, violence against women has increased by upwards of 25% in countries with reporting systems in place – and have almost doubled in some. Black women are 4.3 times more likely to die from a COVID-19 related death than White ethnicity males and females (black males are 4.2 times more likely).

This is no time to be a woman; as social workers, we feel it. Not only on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of the women, children and families we work with.  

Statistics within social work

In social work, a profession rooted in human rights and social justice, we may like to think of ourselves as being ahead of the cool, corporate world when it comes to equality. But statistics speak otherwise; in fact, things are getting worse.

The average male social worker now earns 3.4% more than average female, despite there being no gap in 2016. As McPhail famously said, ‘social work is more correctly described as a female majority, male dominated profession’ (McPhail, 2004b: 325) – 16 years after this quote was written, the glass ceiling is still, ironically, visible as ever.

The Equality Act 2010 has never looked more redundant. In the wake of the coronavirus, gender pay gap reporting has been suspended for 2019/2020. For gender equity to be achieved, transparency is, and must always be, non-negotiable – sadly, society falls far from the mark, but social work must and should do better.

Intersectionality

It goes without saying that, whilst all women face discrimination operating in a patriarchal society, no woman’s experience is identical. If what we are aiming for is feminism, we must adopt an inclusive approach. Sadly, feminism has a bad rep – but despite misconceptions, this simply refers to equality between men and women, rather than the oppression of men for the benefit women. The Cambridge dictionary defines feminism as follows:

“The belief that women should be allowed the same rightspower, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state”.

In the wake of the black lives matter movement, however, approaching feminism from an intersectional lens is non-negotiable. Historically, feminism has been criticised for being dominated by white women – for any movement to be successful and truly representative, inclusivity should be central, rather than a superfluous after-thought.

The life outcomes for women of colour in the UK are deeply impacted by a ‘double jeopardy’ of racism and sexism; for example, Black and Minority Ethnic women comprise 11.9% of the women’s general population in England and Wales, but 20% of the women’s prison population.

Fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are black. Yes, 1% - you read that right. But when it comes to black women, research has identified that UK universities employed just 25 black women as professors. And black mothers were five times more likely to die in pregnancy than white mothers between 2014-2016 according to the UK Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths.

Gender discrimination is ubiquitous for all women – but clearly, not all of our experiences are equal.

We need intersectional feminism more than ever – so, what is it?

Kimerblé Crenshaw, an American law professor, describes intersectional feminism as ‘a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each-other’.

These various forms can take many shapes depending on context. Such factors can include, but are not limited to, ethnicity, class, age, disability, sexuality, geography, mental health and poverty.

To try to illustrate this concept, my experiences as a woman have been informed by:

Ethnicity –I am from a dual-heritage background (White British and Caribbean), yet I am ‘white passing’. I have witnessed racism directed at family members for as long as I can remember, yet I have been shielded from this due to my skin-tone. I have some small insight into what life is like for women of colour, but I can in no way fully relate to this because this has not been my lived experience. I know that women of colour face additional layers of discrimination, every single hour of every day that I will never, ever truly understand.

Age –Being in my late 20’s, I often feel exposed due to my age; I’m not ashamed to admit that I often dress more formally than is required in work settings, because throughout my twenties, I have found that people tend to infantilise younger women. So being taken seriously is honestly my first aim before I even get to the point of speaking. I do not receive the constant stream of media representation (and therefore validation) enjoyed by other demographics– it is the exception, not the norm, to hear the voice of young women in political debate.

Geography – The place we are born has an enormous impact on our opportunities. My hometown is Blackpool – for many, this conjures up images of sandy beaches, illuminations and candyfloss. Yet despite such seaside charms, research shows it is the toughest place to grow up as a girl. Social mobility is just one of a long-list of issues amongst many such as high teenage pregnancy and low youth employment; perhaps the most concerning is life-expectancy, which is the lowest in the UK.

Historical contexts

An intersectional lens asks us goes beyond the present, too. It means making a commitment to better understanding the historical contexts around gender inequality. Historical contexts which can include, but are not limited to, women’s experiences during slavery, institutionalised sexism, misogynistic practices such as FGM or child marriage, LGBT+ persecution or political movements.

This is a hefty task. But it is important to rewind, and take a step back, to fully understand the gravity of gender inequity. Further reading can be found below.

It is easy to feel hopeless when it comes to tackling injustice of this scale. Here’s how to be an ally to women in the workplace:

1. We all have internalised misogyny – take time to acknowledge this. In a world where we have been conditioned to think of men as superior, each of us has gender bias. Outdated tropes and stereotypes rule supreme, and women are grossly under-represented in positions of power; only 1 in 4 parliamentary seats are held by women, despite the fact that we account for 51% of the population. Shockingly, only 31% of speaking roles in films are held by women, with just 23% featuring female protagonists. Anti-gender bias training can be found here: https://www.genderportal.eu/blog/11-recommended-resources-anti-gender-bias-training. Undertaking reflective social work exercises such as the social graces can help us all to reflect on our privilege and prejudice.

2. Equality starts at home. Right now, women are taking on enormous caring burdens, juggling impossible demands both at home and work, with many taking on childcare and adult caring responsibilities whilst also trying to provide for their family financially. According to the National Carers Association, there are many as 8.8 million adult carers in the UK, with 58% being women. It is important to try to model change in the quotidian, day-to-day tasks before trying to change the world. On average, working women currently spend an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labour than men. The best way to enact change is to model it to those closest to you.

3. Be mindful of the language you use. I once heard a senior member of staff (who happened to be a woman) say ‘There are far too many “young girls” in some social work teams.’ A cutting comment, which only served to increase societies disdain toward young women. Should we not, as women, be encouraging others? The word ‘girls’ is used so often to describe women that we are desensitised to it. Can you imagine men in your team being referred to as ‘boys’? Language matters, and using empowering language can make a world of difference. Ask what pronouns people wish to use, do not assume that all women have a partner or that they are in heterosexual relationships by default.

4. Education. Read books written by and for women about how best to be an ally, with a diverse authorship. Some suggestions include the chapter on intersectionality in ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge ‘Bad feminism’ by Roxane Gay, ‘Hood feminism – Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot’ by Mikki Kendall, ‘Difficult Women: A history of feminism in 11 fights’ Helen Lewis, and ‘We should all be feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

5. Acknowledge the need for diversity of gender in decision making. Not all women think in the same way – concepts such as ‘feminine thought’ are flimsy and reductionist. However, archetypal qualities held by women, such as compassion and risk-aversion, are critical in leadership; some of the globe’s strongest and most successful responses to the coronavirus have been led by inspirational women such as Silveria Jacobs, Jacinda Ardern, and Angela Merkel. We do ourselves a disservice by failing to capture half of the world’s talent.

6. Support young women. If we want future generations to reap the benefits of gender equality, that means investing in tomorrow’s leaders. Praise young women publicly, acknowledge their brilliant contributions, and encourage them to continue if they are cut-off mid-sentence, holding others accountable if they interrupt. I am sure others have experienced the phenomena of making a point in a meeting, only for it to be ignored – but later applauded when the same comment is made by an older male, for instance.

Society is triggered by powerful young women; within the past week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29 year old US congress woman, was called ‘a fucking bitch’ on the steps of the US capitol by Republican Ted Yoho. In front of the press. Ted’s flagrant display of misogyny speaks volumes of the value society places on women. Especially, applying an intersectional lens, young women. And women of colour. I almost thought about censoring Ted’s use of language – not wanting to offend readers. However, the truth speaks plainly for itself, and, diluting the misogynistic behaviour of powerful, privileged men is a path- a well-trodden path - I reject to tread. So thinks AOC herself, and her deeply moving rebuttal can be found here.

Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate activist, is another example; her unapologetic quest to hold world leaders to account has left powerful men reeling, from Vladmir Putin to Donald Trump, who have been nothing short of vociferous in their disapproval. Sickeningly, a powerful Canadian oil company depicted her rape (when she was just a child) in an abusive online cartoon. Sharing sexually abusive images of children is literally the depths of depravity that the powerful will go to in order to discredit women and girls. Applying an intersectional lens, we see that Greta faces discrimination due to her gender, age, and diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, for which she has been heavily mocked online.

7. Aim for gender equity, not equality. This means clarifying the difference. According to Social Change UK, although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need.

8. Focus on wellbeing. Check-in on colleagues. Ask gently if they are taking breaks, eating well, sleeping properly, taking time to exercise, and if they have opportunities to express themselves creatively. Offer mentorship programmes, led and run by women for women. If women need flexible working arrangements due to childcare needs, try to be as understanding as possible. It is equally as important to support women who do not have children, too, and to ensure that they are not expected to take on additional work. Time is precious for everyone.

9. Take time to listen and make time for feedback from female colleagues. This may mean confronting uncomfortable truths, being willing to accept constructive criticism and reflecting on your own subconscious misogyny (as said in point 1, we all internalise this to some degree). Invite women to share their experiences, offering anonymous options to promote an inclusive approach. Encourage women to create safe-spaces in which to discuss gender-based issues.  

10. Create an action plan to address female under-representation in senior roles. Actions speak louder than words. Creating a plan with goals and timescales to boost diverse female representation in senior roles is just one of the many ways you can make a tangible difference.

Ask yourself what type of world you want to leave behind. Let this begin today – because we do not have 257 years to wait.

Written by Rebekah Pierre, BASW England Professional Officer