Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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What Can Professional Women Learn from Suffragettes?

“We work a third longer hours for a third less pay” Maud Watts — played by Carey Mulligan — explained to a baffled parliamentarian in Suffragette.

As the film’s end credits rolled, I would have liked to breathe a sigh of relief that this sort of thing has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Instead, leaving the cinema I recalled a recent Guardian article that showed just how, in 2015, the gender pay gap is still alive and well, thank you very much.

The film’s success proves there is an appetite for recognizing both the historical context and the on-going issues around gender inequality. The (eventual) triumph of the suffrage movement in the face of overwhelming odds is certainly inspiring. We would do well, though, to not only remember and celebrate their struggles, but also to look at how those principles and tactics can still apply in the modern world, and to professional women as they pursue their careers.

Deeds, not words

Long before Mad Men, suffragettes used catchy slogans and impactful imagery to get their message across to a broader audience. That message only worked once it was backed up by direct and concrete action, however. It wasn’t that words failed them entirely, but without direct and disruptive deeds, those in power felt able to ignore those arguments, however eloquent. There has been a long and proud tradition in the Gender Equality arena of offering platitudes, empty words, and broken promises to appease those who demand change. The rise of the “Freedom Fighting Suffragette” put a stop to that, forcing an uncomfortable debate. Sometimes, it seems, radical action is the only way to keep an important cause from stagnating.

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

The status quo is incredibly efficient at one thing: wearing down those who resist it. The Suffragettes, however, were absolutely unwavering in their resolve. Which is fortunate, since it took many decades of persistence for women to eventually get the vote in England, and even longer elsewhere. In fact, Switzerland only got there in 1971 (!?!) just ahead of Nigeria.

Sacrifice

Achieving change is never about choosing the easy path. Suffragettes endured horrendous violence, ridicule, imprisonment and humiliation. They were force-fed when on hunger strike, shunned by their families, and many even lost access to their children. Some, like Emily Davidson — who famously threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby — saw no other way forward than to sacrifice their own lives.

In pursuing their careers, women today are still faced with tough choices on family life, or about speaking up against bias in workplace, hiring and promotion practices. It is up to each individual to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to make things better for those that follow. We’re reaping the benefits of last century’s monumental struggles, and can only hope to contribute something to the next generation of girls growing up now.

Never Forget

The very least we can do, however, is ensure that we do honour that sacrifice by not squandering rights that were so dearly paid for. That’s why I make a point of voting, even when faced with a desperately uninspired choice of candidates. Not to do so would be an insult to those who suffered and died to gain me that right.

Remembering what was fought for, what has been achieved, and what is yet left to do can be empowering for today’s women, whether they call themselves feminists or not. Revisiting those past struggles leads to taking a closer look at where we stand now, and that is also crucial.

They say the Devil’s greatest trick is to convince you that he does not exist. By that logic the greatest challenge to equality nowadays (at least in the developed world) is not outright opposition, but the idea that the battle has been “won” and that there is nothing left to fight for. That attitude leads to complacency and fosters unconscious bias that is very difficult to address. The battles are still there to be fought, however, from equal pay to domestic violence, the cultural acceptability of rape and the lack of encouragement for girls looking to pursue STEM subjects, to the crass gendering of toys and the fact that female entrepreneurs have a much harder time raising investment. There is so much left to do. Women today certainly enjoy much better prospects than the suffragettes did, but do they have full equality? Not yet they don’t.

However, if we remember what has come before, and hold steady in our resolve to move forward, we will achieve that equality eventually, however long that takes. Because as history proves, you underestimate women at your own peril.

Have you experienced gender discrimination or bias at work? Share your experience and views in the comments below.