As one of three daughters, I was raised in an atmosphere of equality, and branched out into my adolescent years entirely complacent with my birthright to a free and fair marketplace.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” It took me many years — growing up, joining the workforce, getting married, having children of my own — to understand how privileged I was to be grounded in a culture of equality and that this was my daily normalcy. Such privilege made me guilty of underestimating and at times even dismissing the very real gender inequities that existed for those not so fortunate around me. Ultimately, these were things I learned later in life.
Most of the girls I grew up with were and remain strong, independent and well-educated women. Today they are a diverse group scattered all over the world: some leading in the C-suite, some juggling careers, children and caregiving, some married or partnered, some single, some divorced, some stay at home. Without exception, all at one point have found their noses pressed up against the constraints of a socially constructed gender box.
It is worth reflecting on this since we often look at education as the panacea for improving women’s lot, as if women can quite literally pull themselves through society entirely independently of the cultural contexts within which they live. At times we are so preoccupied with the idea of women liberating themselves from the inhibiting forces within (we must free ourselves from accreted layers of acquired learning and be self-respecting and strong), we overlook the very real and practical impediments that restrict them from realizing their full potential. It is a tired eulogy to celebrate a woman’s success relative to a defiance of prevailing norms, without an equal amount of attention paid in deconstructing the barriers that made her success so prominent in the first place. Today, an independent woman is almost synonymous with individualism, as if authenticity for one sex is now only possible through a repudiation of society’s rules.
To be female in the modern world is to occupy a strange contradiction: on the one hand, to be free, empowered and self-reliant but on the other hand to be acutely aware that this freedom continues to exist largely in a gender binary social context that persists in subjecting men and women to different standards and expectations.
As I reflect on International Women’s Day, it is clear that despite all progress made, we still have a long way to go. While gender equality is the fifth of 17 sustainable development goals set by the UN to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” the sobering reality remains that more than 130 million girls worldwide continue to be denied the basic right to education. On a global scale, women continue to suffer less access to capital, financial resources, training, equal pay and employment (in some countries earning between 60 and 75 per cent of men’s wages for the same work.) They are far less likely than men to be politically active and far more likely to be victims of domestic violence. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in three women worldwide has experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Of adults and children forced into sexual exploitation, 99 per cent are female.
Despite this, something I’ve always recoiled against is the idea of gender equality as a female struggle, with men as passive bystanders or at best allies. This is in no way intended to undermine female-led campaigns like the #MeToo movement, which marked a catalytic moment of breaking silence on sexual harassment, demonstrating both scale and solidarity against a catalogue of gender aggressions all too often brushed under the carpet. However, any long-term strategy must bring men into the conversation. A gender struggle that is exclusive to women is doomed from the start and risks undermining the very essence of the level playing field that women aspire to achieve.
Having heard a male CEO confide his worries that his two young sons might not have jobs when they grow up, and observed how often gender equality is conflated with male-oppression and misandry (“we can’t even compliment a woman now”), it is clear that public conversations need to address underlying fears. Ultimately, gender equality aspires for better social cohesion that is as much in the interests of men, as it is for women.
Often we have a tendency to anesthetize the pain of gender discrimination, be it the woman working in the sugar cane fields of rural India forced to remove her uterus to avoid wage loss during menstruation, or the single mother in New York denied an opportunity for self-betterment on assumptions around her responsibilities as a primary caregiver. For the victim, it is more than academic polemics. It is the hard-hitting reality of confronting a system that is so overwhelmingly stacked up against them. The same applies with biases against men, with the feminizing of emotion from an early age shaming boys out of their natural tenderness (lads don’t cry) and conventional ideals of manliness often resulting in men not being open about their well-being, especially mental health. How often, after all, do we empathize with a father’s ability to juggle his professional and personal life? Pared back from its innumerable disguises, gender inequality is our inability to embrace the full humanity of one another.
Creating a world of real equality demands more than lip service. Increasingly, it calls for strong leadership, particularly in environments where there is a palpable absence (and we need only look at the misogyny flaunted by some of the most powerful leaders in our world today). Above all, it calls for humility and the ability to consider how inequalities manifest in the lives of others who may be different to us. This is no easy feat. This is about creating the sort of society that can treat a stay-at-home dad with the same respect as a CEO. A society that sees it as business as usual when a 34 year-old female prime minister is sworn into cabinet. It is a society where kindness and love can be leadership traits, and bravery is not masculinized. It is a society where men are willing to step up and recognize their role in gender equality advocacy — be it attitudes to patriarchy, androcentrism, discrimination and exclusion in the work place, unpaid care work or sexual health rights. But by the same token, it requires women to acknowledge their responsibility in raising awareness of fathers’ equally important parental rights, countering destructive ideas of manhood as well as self-objectification and being just as mindful of how traditional gender norms are reinforced to children through messaging.
It took me many years to realize that equality was never something I truly inherited. Part of that may have been social conditioning, but part was also a willful blindness to the lives of those around me and a failure to hold myself to account. Gender inequality is not something that happened long ago. It is not a tale of saviourism unfolding in a country far away. It doesn’t happen just because you didn’t work hard enough or dream big enough. It happens because, all over the world, at every level — structurally, culturally, politically and even individually — we tolerate it. For some, the truth may be deeply uncomfortable. But, as many of us well know, so too are the walls of our boxes.
Shama Naqushbandi is a writer, lawyer and executive based in Toronto. Her first novel, The White House, won best novel at the Brit Writers’ Awards.
Image: Liz Lemon/Flickr