Friday, 8 March 2019
Who do you think of on International Women’s Day? I always remember my mother.
Sadly she is no longer with us, but she has always been my inspiration and I owe her a lot. She grew up in significant poverty. Her father died when she was just three in an era that consigned families without a male breadwinner to hardship and even bullying, the stories of which still bring tears to my eyes.
She lived through World War 2 and was widowed in her forties, while I was still at primary school. As a child, if I ever felt sorry for myself, she would tell me to look around as I could always find someone worse off to focus my sorrow on.
I learned tenacity and diligence from her and the values she taught me still define how I try to live. My mother grew up in a traditional time and yet witnessed the shift in female roles that the war brought about. Her own circumstances meant that overthrowing conventional gender roles was a necessity for survival. She valued independence highly, but always looked out for others, and taught her children (five girls, one boy) to stand on their own, to speak for themselves, and find the resilience needed to get through life’s difficulties.
We are all influenced by how we grew of course and so, given my mother’s example, it is perhaps not surprising I have had a strong determination to succeed. I have sought out opportunities and made my way in the world. It is also why I have such a strong reaction to the presumption of male that I still encounter far too often.
I often sit in meetings where people, with otherwise laudable value systems, assume the male tense. On recruiting a new management accountant and I hear people slip into saying, ‘when he is appointed,’ even though we have an excellent female accountant working with us now. I have attended training sessions where, when talking about managers, the male tense creeps in. We often assume the pilot, the plumber and the footballer will be a man. We talk about the taxman, even during all the years when the CEO of HMRC was a woman. And in housing, the ‘landlord’ is a phrase with unmistakably male roots.
When asked the question – what would I do if I had the power – on my list I would change the way the law has historically always been written in the male tense. The legal system is a bedrock in any society, it proscribes our freedoms and sets the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – all the time we accept the small print ‘he refers to mankind’ this presumption of male remains.
There will be some that argue that semantics don’t matter, but they do. Language is how we define thoughts and communicate them. Think of the words once used, but that are no longer acceptable, especially in the history of disability services. Words that literally make my heart go a little cold. Because language matters. In fact, a 2018 study by the World Bank showed that when gendered pronouns are part of a country’s language structure, educational achievements and labour market entry were correspondingly impacted. (Jakiela and Ozier 2018)
We have much more work to do to achieve gender equality, but also much to celebrate on this International Women’s Day. Women are now occupying roles they could not have held historically, so let’s celebrate the female CEOs, campaigners and leaders. But let’s not also forget to honour the women who have traditionally undertaken roles which have been confined to a lower status. The women who work in social care for the minimum wage, who care for the most vulnerable in society and receive little accolade must also be celebrated. Recruitment to these roles is in crisis; we must learn to value them much more highly.
This year’s IWD theme is #balanceforbetter, and it’s clear that working towards achieving that balance must continue; more equality within our language and more fairness in the esteem given to womenkind. We owe it to the legions of strong women who have gone before us that we continue to strive for a more equal world.