I’m late to the party on feminism. Obviously I’ve never believed in inequality. Of course I’ve always nominally been a feminist. Yet only this week have I realised that by being born a woman I’m on the losing side of life. (Yes, I know I have other privileges.)
It’s taken me thirty-eight years. I simply haven’t seen it till now.
Largely because I avoided the issue.
In my teens I was apart from the crowd, too deep in depression to be part of the feminine stereotypes that went with being sixteen. And academically I was way ahead of both girls and boys; there was no sense that boys had it easier.
At university I kept my academic nose out in front so still saw no female disadvantage. Where women around me mentioned sexism in my male-dominated college I assumed it was sour grapes and distanced myself. I had absorbed that women were weak, overly obsessed with beauty, weight, clothes and other trivial silly feminine things. Most of my closest friends were men. They saw no problem either.
In my late twenties I started a male-dominated alpha career. I went mountaineering and endurance running in my holidays. My peers didn’t patronise me; they admired me. I took the hardcore projects with the longest hours and most pressure. I was through pure luck young and naturally slim so passed the basic looks threshold without much effort. Still no obvious disadvantage.
Sure, there was the time a senior man who didn’t even know me said to me in the lift, ‘You look like the sort of girl who doesn’t read women’s magazines’; there were the men who were meant to be apprenticing me into the job who squashed up against me in rooms that were full of space, and who moved to touch me again when I moved away; there was the senior man who told me I needed to start wearing tights to work to cover my legs, who declared that at least my thighs must be good for mountaineering, who bullied me into singing for him in a taxi.
Yes, I felt uncomfortable, shamed, unacceptable, but I put that down to me being shameful and not to my being a woman. I didn’t ask other women whether their experiences matched mine. I blamed myself, and reinforced internally how important it was to distance myself from these brainless feminine creatures by whom I might be contaminated.
Still nothing about structural inequality and me being on the losing side.
Then I had the breakdown. I did a lot of therapy which involved starting to hate myself a bit less. I got to know some women well and heard about their experiences of life. My shiny career trajectory stalled. Suddenly the world seemed different.
I looked around the office. Nearly all the senior people were men. And yet I now knew the other women weren’t pathetic for not having got there as well. It started to bother me that men were making the decisions, making the money, had the power.
Next #metoo came along. It reminded me of what I’d put up with without even questioning it. I started to call out bad behaviour around me. Loudly.
I also made some progress with the remnants of my teenage eating disorder. (It had gone away for years but came back in the wake of my breakdown). I read about body positivity. I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Believe it or not, this was my first exposure to feminist theory. (Remember, I was doing fine – so why would I have searched it out before?)
Last week my office gave us information on our gender pay gap. I’ve known the UK-wide numbers for years, but they were abstract. These numbers applied to people I knew. It hurt to see them.
Simultaneously my therapy has got to the stage of me having more emotions. A feature of my depression was never having felt anger. Suddenly I have anger at my disposal.
Take all those things together and I’m hit with the realisation that there is a losing side and that I, with other women, am on it. It doesn’t feel good.
So what the hell do I now do?
Should I note the reality and pragmatically do most I can to overcome the disadvantages of the culture I find myself in? Should I change the way I dress to fit the elegant female model, continue to deepen my voice in meetings though obviously not too much, work harder to get the same effect as the men around me? Should I lean in? There’s a lot to be said for it. It’s the most likely route to my success. Success would allow me to be a role model for others.
The problem is the pragmatic route requires extra energy beyond what a man would need to put in in my role, and I don’t even have a normal amount energy to start with.
So should I instead try to change the culture rather than working within it? Should I find a work uniform that takes up no more morning effort than a man’s suit and is equally comfortable during the day? (Bin the heels; I believe Sandberg has done just that.) Should I shout over and patronise others as some I work with consistently do to me? That would express my current anger, be easier, and, as all the research shows, be far less likely to succeed.
Probably it will be a mixture of the two. God knows whether being assertive and noisy will serve me any better than being good and quiet has done for all these years. I’ll start to work it out. And in the meantime I apologise for having dismissed the issue for so long.