The notion of women or men being inherently better at some things rather than others purely because of their gender is not something that’s ever sat comfortably with me. The idea that men are more powerful, or women more nurturing; that men are better leaders whilst women are more compliant; that a man should be out earning money whilst a woman should focus on bringing up the babies.
When I was growing up, I was surrounded by boys most of the time. I have three (very different) brothers who were my constant childhood playmates, and during my teenage years I often found myself feeling intimidated by female company – the vast majority of my friends were male.
As I got older I became increasingly aware of the stereotypes concerning gender, both latent and overt, but I could never take them seriously because I knew too many people who didn’t fit them. I didn’t feel that there was anything I could not do just because I was a girl, and whilst I was aware of the history of the fight for women’s rights for me it had already achieved what it needed to. I heard the voices of feminists, but I did not understand why they were still complaining: surely women had the choice, now, of what they wanted to do with their lives? And besides, in every feminist argument I heard a message that I just could not tally with the reality of my life and the people in it: that it was men that were in fact inferior, and that it was only by hating them that women could promote their cause.
Fast-forward more than a decade later and I know I was wrong. Not just about the message underpinning feminism, but about how far from gender equality we as a society are.
The stereotypes I rejected in my youth are more pervasive than ever, with campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys highlighting the part the toy industry is playing in limiting children’s aspirations with products and marketing now that is more gender specific than it was in the 1970s. I’ve watched as this gender bias has invaded my classroom: teenage girls playing down their intellect to fit the ideal of being beautiful and submissive or attacking each other in fits of bitchiness as they struggled to reconcile the roles they felt they were destined for with their ambitions; teenage boys playing the joker to avoid being seen to show an interest in studying or exploding in aggression because they couldn’t see any other avenue open to them to express their feelings. And these anecdotes of course barely scratch the surface of the injustices faced by women in our world today – and the damage that outdated and inaccurate notions of masculinity do to men.
Now that I have a child the challenges facing us in our quest for gender equality have become even more clear. I have watched friends, old and new, battling with the expectations society puts on them as parents – and the gulf that still exists in the expectations we have of women and men. Of course on one level the reason for this gulf is obvious: the physical impact that motherhood has on women, from pregnancy to childbirth to breastfeeding cannot be underestimated. But women do not become weaker when they bring a new life into the world: if anything they become more powerful, more capable. So why is it that their value diminishes? Is it because we put so little importance on growing our future generations that we still champion a model of work and careers that refuses to make significant concessions to the vital role parents play?
I have, on the surface at least, fallen into this trap myself. Unable to see a way of being the mother I want to be whilst remaining in teaching, I have left the career I dedicated myself to for over ten years to bring up my child. With every spare second that I have, I am attempting to forge a new career, something that will allow me to work more flexibly, to acknowledge my role as a parent rather than handing it over to someone else. I know that I’m in the minority in that I have a myriad of options: an education and career path to fall back on, the financial security to be able to take time out to try something new, a husband who wants to take an active role in parenting our son whenever he can.
But like many, many other women in the world – and men too, though they are less visible and less vocal – I can’t imagine a much more important job than raising a human being, than helping to build the next generation. One of the most vital aspects of this for me is to nurture a child who believes in equality, who does not feel constrained by his gender – nor expect undue privilege merely for the fact that he is a boy.
I only hope that he can grow up in a world where this might begin to be true. And this is why I believe the HeForShe movement is so important: why feminism needs to be embraced by everybody, not just the women who have historically fought its corner, and why we need to accept that men are held back by the myths and stereotypes that will continue to be perpetuated if we do not all insist on gender equality.
Emma Watson put this far better than me in her speech to the United Nations this weekend. She has inspired me to finally shake off any residual antagonism I might have felt towards the feminist movement, and to encourage the men I am lucky to count amongst my family and friends to stand up and do the same.