Every little helps

I’m a feminist, but… 

gf quote 3.png“I’m a feminist, but…” starts each episode of the Guilty Feminist comedy podcast, hosted by Deborah Frances-White. The sentence is then completed by the host, or one of the guests, and describes a moment that occurred for them in the week where their thoughts or actions were contrary to those of a ‘good’ feminist. This could be anything from not objecting when on the receiving end of a sexist comment, to feeling flattered by the same, to worrying more about how she looks than what she says, to fantasising about not having to ‘have it all’ and be a role model in the modern world. It is introduced as ‘the podcast in which we explore our noble goals as twenty-first-century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them’.

I actually can’t remember who first recommended the Guilty Feminist to me, and it’s a good thing, because there is simply no way I could possibly thank them enough. Not only does it make me regularly laugh out loud, it has educated and influenced me and provided much needed support and validation at critical moments along the way.

Feminism? We don’t need no stinkin’ feminism!

Not so long ago, I was one of those women that didn’t think we needed an international women’s day. It wasn’t that I was actively against the concept, I just didn’t feel like it was something that applied to me. If I ever did engage in thinking about it, I guess I just had a passing expectation that ‘feminists’ were likely to be angry women who thought they deserved more than they did, just because they wanted someone or something to blame for their lack of success. I didn’t feel part of it, or like I understood what ‘they’ were on about. I thought, consciously or unconsciously, that if any person would just work hard enough, they could achieve their goals/make enough money/be successful, etc. So, making it about being a woman was a bit misleading. I also remember feeling uncomfortable about the idea of affirmative action for anyone, let alone women (i.e. me), where I personally might get something I hadn’t ‘earned’.

But then in a career coaching session one day, when I was observing the lack of female role models in my industry (fisheries/seafood), my coach suggested I listen to Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. If I’m honest, I initially balked at the idea of listening to a programme that was just about or by or for women. Would they just be talking about ‘women’s issues’ (whatever those are)? And since I, in my mind, hadn’t been affected by sexism, or women’s issues for that matter, what did I stand to gain from that?

But I trusted my coach and gave it a go and was surprised to find that I heard much of the same news as on mainstream channels, but presented through a slightly different lens. And I did come across those female role models I was looking for. Some really amazing women, doing amazing things. And not just about ‘feminist’ issues. Instead, I encountered women starting their own social enterprises, launching comedy awards, academics, inventors and more. The show was not just about ‘women’s issues’ though these were included too, and, unsurprising with hindsight…they were relevant for me too. Concepts such as the impact of career breaks to raise children, the education system, impostor syndrome, everyday sexism, art exhibitions I never would have heard of (I went and saw the Magna Carta at the British Library – how cool!), sustainability and development issues. It felt like I could see a community that I had not known I was missing out on, but could now see, and wanted to be a part of.

Then I discovered the Best of the Left podcast, on the recommendation of an old friend. This is a podcast that “aggregates and amplifies the best of progressive media”, “coming to you from inside the belt, but outside the conventional wisdom of Washington”. It compiles various media sources on a topic, and is focussed on American political issues, though many of these are broadly applicable in the UK and other western countries. And it was here (I think?), that I began to properly engage in thinking about the gender pay gap. And I’m a feminist, but…it has only been in the last few years that I’ve started to question our whole capitalist system that penalises women for going on maternity leave. For propagating the human race. Remember…I used to be sceptical of the need to focus on women’s issues, or of getting something I hadn’t earned.

But through the Best of the Left the thought that…hmm…maybe it’s not exactly a level playing field…started to emerge. And then someone sent me the link of the All Male Panels blog where people post pictures of all male panels and David Hasselhoff gives them the thumbs up. This brilliant blog simply has people send in photos of panels at conferences and events that are exclusively male. And the prevalence of these groups of men, in every industry and every setting, demonstrates in a very visual way how the ones with the voice in our society are in fact almost entirely men, despite the fact that we can point to some leading females. The most striking of these are the panels talking about female issues such as maternal health, or infant care. I know childcare is not an exclusively female concern, however in the majority of families in the world, the primary care giver is the mother. The photo of Trump and his men signing away women’s abortion rights is similar – though not a panel at a presentation, still just completely absurd to have these men deciding on the rights of women. The picture says it all.

And a bit of reading finds mixed messages about the performance of boards with higher levels of gender diversity – some say there’s a clear correlation, and others say there is not a strong correlation either way (they don’t perform better or worse than more male dominated boards) (good summary of the literature here). Male board members do report a positive change in dynamics and energy when women are present. But the average balance in Fortune 1000 companies was still only around 20%, though it seems to be slowly increasing. There are some…interesting…explanations from various companies with particularly high gender pay gap figures – but most often it comes down to saying that the high quality candidates are not available at that level. Must be something wrong with women – they can’t get the top jobs.

And then I read ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran, and it had been coming, but suddenly the feminist goggles were well and truly on and as she brilliantly describes “they burn” because you see it everywhere. We see products sold using ‘dead’ models. Women are headless in a disturbing number of Hollywood movie posters. Commentary on female politician’s wardrobes rather than policy positions. Mansplaining. The sole woman being the one to tidy up the meeting room, or offer the drinks. And once you notice it, you can’t not see it. It’s like you’ve taken the red pill and suddenly everything looks different and you can begin to see the power structures and dynamics and how women and minorities are just not beginning from the same starting line and…gosh…it can feel a bit overwhelming.

And then I discovered the Guilty Feminist. And that community I hadn’t realised I had been seeking, but had been observing from the periphery, was suddenly there, and I felt I was a part of it.

Feminism? We need…feminism?

What I love most about The Guilty Feminist is how much it makes me laugh. What I appreciate about the ‘Guilty’ concept is that it acknowledges that, regardless of our principles, there are going to be times that we don’t live up to them, or we can’t be activists about them. And that’s okay. And we’re not bad people. Perfectionism is on the rise, especially for young people, and it’s damaging. So it’s healthy to admit mistakes, or even just admit that you didn’t have the strength to stand up to ‘the patriarchy’ on that occasion. And it doesn’t mean we’ve given up, or think women don’t deserve better or that nothing needs to change. But The Guilty Feminist also brings awareness to the issue of gender discrimination and bias, and encourages each listener to be that much more aware of everyday occurrences that actually reveal the sexist paradigm. And from this, creates a community of support that means women will feel empowered to sometimes call it out, or to change their behaviour a little bit to nudge the conversation forward.

And let’s be real. We need this community. Consider that Trump, a proven misogynist with no experience in diplomacy won the US election, over a supremely qualified, stable woman with a formidable track record of improving women’s rights. And women voted for Trump. The underlying messages in our society that tolerate bad behaviour from men whilst going on a witch hunt for women caused women themselves to vote for someone who has publicly displayed his distain for any woman who doesn’t look right, for goodness sakes. I think Patton Oswalt’s tweet following the election result best summed it up: “What I’ve learned so far tonight: America is WAAAAAAAAY more sexist than it is racist. And it’s pretty fucking racist. #ElectionNight”. We need this community more than ever.

The #metoo movement is another demonstration of the power of community. To have such a simple concept catch on so quickly and easily shows how prevalent these issues are. Most women just instantly understand the concept, and this hashtag is an easy way of connecting. The Women of the World (WOW) Festival is a brilliant way to access this community in-person, and now has events in many countries around the world.

I’m a feminist, but…

One of my most recent ‘I’m a feminist, but’s was sent to my amazing support network of other mothers from my daughter’s school – ostensibly a book club but so much more than that. Most of us were at our own homes watching England’s semi-final match in the World Cup, separate from each other but connected by the magic of our WhatsApp group. I had to confess to the group that “I’m a feminist, but…I may have accidentally just taught my daughter the term ‘drama queen’ “ (after watching the players dive and roll around after no actual contact). So, on one hand, me saying this is not okay. Drama queen is a derogatory term not just to women who are tagged with it when they react or overreact to an event. But to use it for a man is the ultimate insult – I wasn’t just calling him overly dramatic, but was referring to him as a female – and what could be worse. But on the other hand, a group of women were sitting with their children, connected to each other, and watching sport – something normally thought of as a predominantly male pastime. And the irony made us laugh.

So…that personal leadership challenge…

With everything else that’s been going on (new job, restarting my group project, travel, etc), I’ve not been able to prioritise doing any more work directly and intentionally on the gender topic with my daughter’s school (described in a previous post).

But this course has made me reflect that personal leadership is not just about projects. It’s about everyday actions and little, regular prompts and reminders that things could be better, and we can make that happen.

And this is supported by evidence (hurray!). The 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics was recently awarded to Richard Thaler for his work on ‘nudge theory’. This theory suggests that by making certain choices and behaviours more obvious or accessible, people are more likely to make them. For example, putting fruit closer to the checkout till makes it more likely that people will make a healthy choice for a snack. So, if the retailer’s intention is to help customers eat more healthily, but they do not want to limit choice by removing unhealthy options altogether, the retailer can position the healthy snacks to support their customer’s healthy choice. The less savoury but particularly memorable example often cited is the experiment that showed that putting an image of a housefly in men’s urinals improved ‘accuracy’ of use.

It’s like the first time someone points out to you that you should turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. I remember seeing this featured in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks’ character is brushing his teeth with his son. For me, this mainstream nudge was so exciting! And imagine the societal impact of all the Sex in the City characters bringing takeaway cups or refillable water bottles when they went for coffee!! Instead we normally see our favourite characters on TV regularly taking bottled water out of their fridges…which are right next to their perfectly good taps. Sigh.

The power of the nudge

The power of the nudge is very encouraging when we consider each of our roles in moving towards greater social justice and environmental sustainability. I’ve tried to share examples of where I was nudged, and how these nudges have changed my awareness of various topics and ultimately my whole viewpoint on many issues. This encourages me to keep sharing the Guilty Feminist podcast with new and old friends. Not only will they appreciate receiving something that makes them laugh (I hope!), it’s also a chance to raise awareness of really important issues, and maybe begin to nudge some behaviour change too.

The power of community

One of the most notable sentiments on the Best of the Left call-in section, and throughout the Guilty Feminist podcasts, is how people celebrate feeling part of a community. There is such strength in coming together as feminists, and nudging, and opening the door to more members. Because we all benefit when equality increases. It is not a zero-sum game. We have to be careful to not become tribal, and our social media bubbles can tend towards that at times. Which is why I like both of these ‘leftist’ podcasts – because they both promote tolerance, and seeing other viewpoints, and remembering that people on ‘the other side’ are not stupid – they just have different perspectives.

And I’ll reassure myself that even if I feel guilty for taking an evening off of course work and going to a friend’s barbeque, if I bring a delicious and filling vegetarian side dish, or convincing-enough-for-me-to-mistrust-them veggie sausages (reducing meat consumption is one of the most significant contributions we can personally make to climate change), I’m doing a little positive sustainability nudging within this particular community while I’m there. And each time someone exclaims about the unusual heat, and if I speak the words ‘climate change’, it may be more likely that the person I’m talking to will start saying them too. The comms team at Tesco that came up with ‘every little helps’ deserves an honorary mention in that Nobel prize award…

I’m off to prepare ‘the best lentil salad, ever’ for a barbeque now. Try it, bring it to a party, and join me in the nudging. And please do leave a comment – what little nudges do you try in your day to day? What will you try tomorrow? Have you seen any changes as a result?

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6 Replies to “Every little helps”

  1. I am also a regular listener of The Guilty Feminist, and I love how funny it is while, at the same time, covering important issues both for women and people in general. Especially relevant is, in my opinion, that the podcast gives voice to minorities and people that do not conform to what mainstream society signals as “normal” lifestyles. Also, I greatly appreciated the chapters focused on the fate of refugees who, unfortunately, seem to have disappeared from the media. It seems to me that combining humour and gender politics is a great combination in order to turn listeners into conscious citizens while, at the same time, having a good time. For me, it has meant engaging in more conversations with my boyfriend, friends and colleagues on some of the topics they raise every Monday. I also have to admit that there are episodes where I feel I am being lectured by Deborah Francis-White and I am not the biggest fan of the musical episodes. However, I think it is great that she and her co-hosts bring up the challenges we face daily.
    The podcast, along with other lectures, has also made me realize that there were also unconscious biases in my own mind and everyday situations and language expressions that I thought were “gender-neutral” but weren’t. It is heart-warming to see the “sisterhood” becoming stronger but we still have many challenges ahead. Many are work-related: glass-ceiling, gender pay gap, work-life balance… Others are self-imposed: how common is it that we try to be perfect in every single aspect of our life! It is important for us to have referents. Another strong voice is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Have you read her books? It is not so overtly political as the Guilty Feminist or Caitlin Moran, but I do like her novels.

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  2. I loved this piece, not least because it reminded me of all the ways I have been nudged, and have tried to nudge on. Since reading it, I have forwarded a number of the referred-to podcasts to friends and colleagues with strong recommendations to listen. Guilty feminist has been an eye-opener. I was once shown how much energy a kettle uses when boiling an how it should therefore only be filled with as much water as needed for the specific purpose (cup of tea, pot of coffee etc.) I remember that every time I use it, and tell anyone and everyone the same thing. And they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on….A miniscule thing, but like the title says…

    One tangential curiosity. It would be interesting to examine the history or evolution of International Women’s Day, which seems to have taken on different meanings and resonances over time and across geography. I have spent a lot of time in and around the Former Soviet Union, where March 8 was very prominently celebrated. But I never witnessed it as a day of empowerment or feminism. It was a day of chocolates and flowers and champagne, and marginally better behaved male drunkenness, where maybe the men cleared the table and it was ok for women not to wash up until the next day. A slightly cynical view, granted, but certainly a very long way from the sensibility I have felt (or projected?) these last couple of years living in the UK where Women’s Day seems to have [re-]captured a sense of power.

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  3. Firstly, I have to say that I love your witty and relatable tone – I can almost hear you speaking these words! Thanks for all the great links, as always, and for stretching the dialogue across multiple facets of not just feminism, but what it feels like to experience the world as an imperfect one. In particular, I appreciated the realism you applied to being ‘faithful’ to the label. There have been many instances I’ve had to catch myself on the verge of uttering similar phrases to ‘drama queen’, or making generalising statements about our sex, and each time I ask myself – do I actually think that, or is this just something I’ve habitually come to say? Most of the time it’s the latter, and I find that challenging myself on the behaviour helps me to undo it somewhat.

    Recently, I’ve found myself challenging other people similarly – not to antagonise, rather to create awareness. Sometimes they are surprised, sometimes annoyed, but occasionally they are thankful because they too hadn’t realised just how ingrained the behaviours were. But not everyone is ready to hear it, and some are actually eager to challenge back, calling me out for being overly sensitive or lacking humour.

    My sisters and I recently found ourselves in a heated debate with some of the men in our family when we discovered them exchanging laughs about ‘rating’ women at a bar during a trip – needless to say we were highly unimpressed with their cavalier attitude to the ‘sport’. Somewhere toward the end of the conversation, it was mentioned that our generation had lost the ability to have fun and make jokes because it was no longer acceptable to be politically incorrect and every topic was in danger of a hashtag backlash. I have to admit that for a moment I truly empathised with his frustration.

    I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there is so much that is wrong with our world, with painful amounts of injustice and inequality everywhere we look. Humour is sometimes the best – sometimes the only – way to cope with all of that, so I’m always grateful when people can tease out the light side. But it does take a certain maturity to know the difference between good humour and flippancy and that’s where we lose a lot of people across that very fine, very fragile line.

    Looking forward to listening to my first Guilty Feminist podcast this week – thanks for the recommendation, and I’ll be sure to pass it along!

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