A Battle Half Won?

first_imgOf course women are in the minority still, I can’t quibble with that; it’s a statement of fact. But surely numbers make no difference if we argue that we need gender-related representation. Isn’t it glaringly obvious that any other approach is sexist on a level which is only vindicated by a totally counter-productive ‘payback mentality’? Germaine Greer, who is about as subtle as a spear through the head, underlines how far the gender feminist discussion is often steeped in sexist rhetoric. She writes most lucidly about the female orgasm and the obsession women nowadays have with it, suggesting that this obsession is the means by which the patriarchal society allows us to avoid ‘real’ challenges (I believe she refers to climbing Everest but I may have switched off around that point…). For amusement purposes, I feel I ought to mention the fact she argues that ‘crying is to women what masturbation is to men’. If that’s true then we definitely have drawn the short straw. Now I’m not using Greer as a representative individual of the entire feminist movement as it stands. It’s also worth saying that having read her most recent book – ‘polemical bomb’ as the Guardian described it – ‘The Whole Woman’ isn’t all bad. But the manner in which she writes highlights a sentiment that has survived positive the move towards greater equality. She both extols the virtues of the woman while embarking upon a step by step demolition of what it is to be a ‘man’, presenting us to be in endless and draining opposition. This kind of gender-feminism is obsolete in a society which is institutionalising gender equality. Pitching women against men only propounds the sense of divide and of ‘otherness’ which De Beauvoir wrote of, a ‘them or us but not both’ mentality which ignores a fundamental synergy between the sexes. Demonizing the male race was critical in mobilising support for Women’s Lib. But a lot of the sexism that remains is the bitter-after taste of the movement. It helps no one now but is too readily justified by those who feel that to reject antagonism towards men would be to deny the feminist battle. A movement that has run its course? Laura Connell  questions the need for feminism in an increasingly equal society According to the Equal Opportunities Commission’s most recent publication on Gender Equality in the UK, over half of students enrolling in higher education in the UK are now women. The workforce in wholesale and retail is almost equally split between women and men, as is that in public administration and defence. Two-thirds of mothers with dependent children work and women hold two-fifths of all professional jobs, compared to about 10% in the 1970s. Change is still needed, but a lot of it is in the legislative pipeline. In April of this year, the biggest change to sex equality legislation since the Sex Discrimination Act came into force: the Gender Equality Duty. The duty affects public bodies such as the police, local government, the NHS amongst a number of other organisations. It also impacts on private companies fulfilling “public functions”. Under previous laws, action could only be taken against public bodies after they discriminated on grounds of sex. Now they must take steps to proactively promote equality between women and men. Public bodies must now take account of their different needs when making policies and providing services. The duty is changing the nature of the battle against inequality: it is no longer simply a reactive matter. At this university, there is currently a Gender Equality Scheme running from 2007-2010 which does pretty much what it says on the tin: it aims to increase the number of women in academic posts and to continue research into the causes of the gender gap in final examination results in certain subjects. Other initiatives run by the University such as the ‘Women in Science’ summer course are encouraging more female applications in male-dominated subjects. We have women’s reps in each college and on most committees. The need for change has been recognised and is coming.These facts aren’t intended to show that the battle has been ‘won’ but that adjustments necessary to obtaining women’s equality are being institutionalised in the UK. Change has been set in motion. The impact of the Women’s Liberation movement and third wave feminism are securing greater equality of opportunity for women in this country, in every area of the public sphere. It would be ridiculous for me to even attempt to deny the importance of feminism, but it is patently obvious that it no longer needs to be the benchmark of gender relations. We must now recognise the fact that society has changed and is continuing to change in favour of greater equality for women. These changes are of course, positive, but they are also calling both gender roles back into question. The female experience is crucial to this conversation but the kind of gender-feminism which denies relevance to the male experience, is no longer contextually justified. There’s far too much fraternizing with the enemy for this to be a long term solution.  Melissa Wright  looks at the considerable challenges and prejudices Oxford women still face On paper, Oxford University seems to be doing a lot of things right for its female students. A comprehensive Gender Equality Scheme and numerous student organisations (think ‘Oxford Women in Politics’ or the ‘Women in Science’ initiative) have increased the number of female students at Oxford considerably over the years. The problems, it seems, begin once they get here.On a day-to-day level within the student realm, in which the University as an authority seems to have pitifully little influence, it seems that female students, especially those particularly prominent in student politics or societies, still constantly come into contact with negative attitudes, sexism and even unashamed insolence. Such experiences are difficult to prove, and obtaining figures to gauge how widespread they are is next to impossible. Moreover, that almost all of the women I talked to requested to remain anonymous in talking to me strongly suggests a communal fear of being judged for questioning the offensive behaviour of others, and an environment in which women do not feel safe or sufficiently supported to speak out. As the OUSU VP for Women Hannah Roe puts it, “Women don’t feel safe to confront other students or the student newspapers when they feel that they are being treated badly. In my time in Oxford several of my female friends have told me about behaviour or treatment which has really upset and shaken them. They’ve wanted to raise the matter with the individuals concerned, or report it to the University, but have been too scared of possible retribution…The University Code of Harassment doesn’t allow victimisation like that obviously, but women know how unwise it is in our society to be labelled a ‘complainer’ by their peers. It’s very easy for this to be used as a tacit reason to isolate you. One can’t help but feel more than a little sorry for the boyfriend or date when the weight of expectation is against them. A lot of us are asking for camaraderie and pick-and-mixing in terms of old gender roles as we see fit. Is it any wonder there’s often an awkward pause when the bill comes? There is a very strong case for taking what political scientists call masculism seriously. Now before you laugh me off as some deluded post-feminist or brand me naïve, it seems perfectly sensible to start looking at how young men, adult men, working men and fathers see themselves in this new society. Feminism was about awakening society to the female perspective. Given the changing roles of both genders, it’s time we start taking the new male experience more seriously. The status quo in this respect, is untenable. It makes no sense for the female experience to continue to monopolise discussion surrounding gender relations, treating our primacy in the conversation as a god-given right. We need to start dealing with some of spill-over effects of the gender-feminist movement- namely this residual sexist tone which infuses pretty much all, even the most light hearted of, conversations on the topic. In recent debate over the position of OUSU VP for women, I couldn’t help but wonder: if there needs to be a woman on the committee to represent my interests, and another woman, in a position not dedicated solely to representing women, can’t do this, then it’s totally sensible, indeed necessary, for there to be a male representative irrespective of the number of other men on the committee. Given the fact we started by arguing that if the position wasn’t solely dedicated to representing gender, then that gender wasn’t being represented at all, clearly such a suggestion is justified? Either have both positions or have neither.  center_img The student press in Oxford, and indeed in universities across the country, proves no more forgiving than student societies and institutions. Student publications are, undeniably, supposed to be a source of entertainment for their over-worked, under-nourished readership, and gossip and speculation on well-known figures in the public eye must feature heavily in this ‘entertainment’. And yet despite being publications of near-professional standard, one still finds printed thinly veiled gossip focusing on individuals within the university, with student journalists even on occasion resorting to Facebook to ‘dig up dirt’ on their targets. Whilst gossip tends to be relatively harmless, and to target both men and women, there are numerous examples of gossip columns crossing the line between harmless and downright cruel, especially when targeting a female victim. Felicity Burch, president of OxWip, found herself targeted when running for a position in her college – “I experienced sexual slurs in the gossip columns when I had the ‘audacity’ to run for JCR President. They’d never talked about me before and certainly had no reason to then.” Detailed descriptions of female students’ sex lives, or malicious comments on their weight and general appearance are published without hesitation. Given that a recent Cherwell survey suggested over 30% of students have suffered from eating disorders of some kind, the seriousness of such victimization cannot be underestimated. The constant use of images of nude or semi-naked female bodies to accompany articles is further proof of the insensitivity of Oxford student publications when it comes to its female readers. The student press, like any other, must consider the impact it will have on the lives of the individuals it targets.Given the level of scrutiny and potentially vicious criticism prominent women within Oxford University expose themselves to, is it any real surprise that the number of women who run for, and are elected to, prominent positions is significantly lower than the number of men? The constant lack of female students in positions such JCR or GCR president can perhaps be attributed to the unsupportive atmosphere they are often confronted with, or to a fear of being on the receiving end of mockery or gossip. OUSU is a case in point. Despite its inclusive stance and constant emphasis on student welfare and equal opportunities, the student union still fails to produce an equal number of male and female students standing for elections. Last year’s elections, for example, saw 30 men standing for positions, compared to 14 women, and even then this included 3 female students standing in women-only elections.But the most worrying statistic of all remains, as ever, the number of female JCR Presidents, with last year producing a mere 9 female presidents out of a total 36 colleges. The number of female presidents rarely rises above 20% which, of course, includes St Hilda’s where, until 2008 at least, the chances of the elected president being a female were absolute. Incidentally, the number of female GCR presidents is no more encouraging.Oxford University cannot possibly hope to see more women in prominent positions until there is a significant shift in the way that female students are treated, within JCRs, student societies and student publications. As long as explicitly personal criticism and thinly veiled sexist attitudes are tolerated, with a ‘look the other way’ approach, a considerable number of female students will, understandably, remain reluctant to put themselves in the public eye. And, in all honesty, who can blame them? Sad as it may be, almost all female students will probably have experienced some form of unwelcome, inappropriate male attention at some point during their teenage years, be it a drunken comment at a bar or a wholly unamusing sexist joke. What is infinitely more worrying is when these attitudes emerge openly at JCR level, with female undergraduates being subjected to embarrassing scrutiny or inappropriate comments from within their own college. Consider, for example, that at one Oxford college this year the college family trees, which included a snapshot of each arriving fresher, were ‘altered’ to provide each female student with a mark out of ten, based on their anonymous adjudicator’s assessment of each girl’s attractiveness. In another college, undergraduates were treated to a JCR email which included a highly offensive sexual joke as an amusing post-script. That such behaviour should be viewed as light-hearted and inoffensive enough to be acceptable enough is highly disturbing, given the lengths to which the University as an organisation seems to put itself to eradicate such anachronistic attitudes.Moving from colleges to external student societies or institutions, it seems that the situation simply goes from bad to worse. Whilst sexism within JCRs might take a more general form, once women undergraduates begin to hold positions within well known student bodies they seem to become a target for far more personal abuse. “Women are a presence everywhere in Oxford, but often find themselves singled out both within institutions and within the student press”, said one female undergraduate. “I’ve had my body and my love-life discussed. It’s the ultimate way of picking on a girl”.  Perhaps most disturbing was the discovery that one female student last year found a photo of herself posted on an Internet site by fellow students, with an invitation underneath the image for all those interested to comment on her figure. Disappointingly, a considerable number of people felt compelled to post their thoughts on the photo, with over 200 comments in total.last_img

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