“This is bigger than a moment.
We are in a movement.”
by Sarah Rose Gregory
The hashtag #metoo not only highlighted sexual misconduct, it exposed the prevalence of a distorted image of women, our role, and how we are viewed, valued and treated in society.
But didn't we get the vote? Didn’t we leave our aprons at home? Can't we now just lean in and have it all? Many believe that history is linear and that women are making their mark and gaining ground, that gender equality is simply a question of time, and women just have to be patient. Others believe that history is cyclical rather than linear, that women will continually need to hold their space and re-fight battles they’ve already won whilst trying to gain more seats at the top table.
The TedxLondonWomen event at London’s Southbank was a marvellous forum to explore the question of how far we have come through discussions and talks with inspirational women who are moving and shaking things up across our society. The discussions were peppered with challenges to societal constructs that continue to hold women back. TedxLondonWomen created a safe space for a well-rounded discussion of challenging questions. What world do we want to live in? How can we design and shape our future? How do we make the shift from passive consumers to active citizens?
It’s clear that science and technology will be an important part of our future and that women’s involvement in those fields is key. The event kicked off with Dr Alice Bunn’s discussion of space science, a subject many of us might find abstract, but which she deftly connected to our everyday lives. She pointed out how often the average person relies on space technology without realising it, but also how important international cooperation in that field will be to combat global problems such as climate change.
Dr Bunn explained that negotiation and cooperation are the valuable skills integral to the process of accessing and exploring space because governments know that isolationism, cultural and identity politics, and nation states don’t exist in space. For example, it was at the height of the Cold War that America, Russia, China and Europe worked together to produce 95 per cent of the weather technology that we use today. Dr Bunn explained that despite the heightened tension and threat of war at this time, these governments sanctioned the use of sensitive technology and data for a communal project that the world benefits from today.
An important indicator of how far we have come is the number of women scientists currently in positions of leadership in their fields. The answer is there are sadly not enough. Physicist Dr Jess Wade explained that the field of science is littered with cultural bias. Even though we can pinpoint where girls drop off the science wagon at school, there is a lack of role models, books and spaces designed to reverse that trend.
Dr Wade demonstrated how activism can translate to getting more girls and women into science. For example, inspired by Angela Saini’s book, Inferior, How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, Dr Wade raised enough money through crowdfunding to buy a copy for each state school in the UK. But she didn’t stop there. Frustrated by the meagre 17 per cent of women featured in Wikipedia, Dr Wade wrote a page every day about wonderful hidden, instrumental women, uploading, educating and informing the world on a platform that has always been male dominated. In the course of this year she has uploaded more than 200 pages. She has also been trolled on social media for unbalancing Wikipedia but that hasn’t kept her silent.
At this event we also learned from Josie Young who designs artificial intelligence products and systems. In looking at how far we have come it was alarming to learn that 50 percent of artificial intelligence is given a gender, and the roles assigned are gendered, with female voices found most commonly aligned with administrative and secretarial roles, whilst male voices are aligned with law and finance roles. Are we wasting our energy challenging the patriarchy if we don’t dismantle it from every facet of our society, especially those that will feature heavily in our future? We have the opportunity to adjust the lens through which we see the world with these new technologies. But instead the old gendered narratives are being reiterated and reinforced so that we see the world through the same prism; the one that turns women away from science, IT and engineering and allows our helpful home assistants to be referred to as ‘sluts’.
In addition to the fascinating scientific discussions there were also accounts of life experiences that helped weave some common threads into the narrative of how far we have come. Dr Clara Barker, a woman and scientist who is transgender, explored her story through the lens of worth and expectation. The rigidity of her profession led her to hide her true identity until she no longer cared whether she lived or died because she could not be who she was.
In order to prove that there was no room in the scientific community for her true self she applied for a post at Oxford University. Clara never envisaged that she would get the post so turned up for her interview in her best Goth attire - black jacket, black dress, black boots, a severe dark red/black bob with her brightest Rainbow Dash/My Little Pony handbag for good measure. Clara was making the valid point that woman who are transgender would never be accepted in this conservative establishment. But to her surprise, she got the position based upon her capabilities and without hiding any part of transgender identity.
The thread continued through an impassioned talk from Amelia Abraham, a journalist who took to the stage to question the acceptance and protection of the LGBTQ+ community and their rights. Through all of our varied experiences of oppression she linked in the one emotion that should bind us all: empathy.
The current narrative of oppression of LGBTQ+ communities gives the impression that it is perpetrated by violent people who want to invade, occupy, rape and inflict pain. While this is often true, many LGBQT+ people are also on the receiving end of aggression in the form of everyday interactions - small homophobias and transphobias. We show them our hostility.*
When the importance of labels trumps our humanity, I truly wonder how far we have come. Amelia left us with the question, is feminism really feminism if it oppresses people?
In another demonstration of how far we have come in terms of self-love and self-acceptance, Sofie Hagen, a stand-up comedian, explained that she refused to hide herself even though she does not conform to societal beauty standards. She called out the shameful wealth of the diet industry and the patriarchy that props it up. She pointed out that the dangerous story propagated by the industry insists that we are never good enough; that we should not love or accept ourselves the way we are; and that we should continually aspire to become someone else. This message leads to bullying on and off line, and violation of our safe spaces. As a result, we are never allowed to just be in the present without fear or judgment.
Baroness Lola Young argued in her talk on fast fashion and its impact on society that we should also consider what legacy we want to leave behind. Our current attitude towards clothes-buying is unstainable. Recent campaigns including #labourbehindthelabel #cleanclothescampaign have been trending and raising awareness but it’s time for us all to explore what we can do within our means to reduce, reuse, and recycle our clothing.
The idea of legacy was also explored by Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, a city and urban place strategist, who took to the stage to discuss our living spaces including our green spaces, and how inclusive cities and places are about 'homes, good growth economics, co-ownership, collaboration and investment that design people in and people not out". She argued that those of us who have a voice should use it when we see something we want to change because muttering, discontentment and silence cannot be heard. It’s important to investigate what you can do, which boards you can join and what decisions you can be a part of, but you have to seek out these opportunities.
In the current climate it is easy to believe that we are passive and powerless, but we have more power than we realise, and we should never underestimate the power of the stories that we tell ourselves. They will always matter because they will eventually become our truth. They permit us to filter and digest the opinions of others and adjust as individuals living side by side. Ultimately, we will be judged on how far we have really come by what we have done and how we have engaged with the problems we face. Our silence and inaction will facilitate a failing education system and National Health Service and allow the sale of our parks and green spaces to create substandard living conditions for our fellow citizens. But we can do more. The choice is ours – do we become active citizens or do we stay social passengers?
*The wording of this paragraph has been altered to better reflect the words of the original speaker.