March 12, 2012 Off

A new approach to sexism in the UK, dear?

By Dónal Kearney in Equality

The triumph of Meryl Streep at the 2012 Golden Globes may have seemed predictable to many. This woman from New Jersey has come to dominate the film industry, attracting critical acclaim with every role she accepts. Her working life is regarded as an example of success surpassing almost all of her colleagues, male and female alike. It is apt that her latest character is arguably the United Kingdom’s most famous woman herself. Margaret Thatcher, powerful though she was, was admired and despised in equal measure both within the United Kingdom and across the globe. As modern women, are these two worth celebrating as good role models?

Thursday 8th March was International Women’s Day (IWD), and was celebrated by women’s charities and supported widely by rights organisations and by progressive governments across the world. David Cameron acknowledged the occasion with his own pledge to live up to the Council of Europe’s commitment to target violence against women. It is unhelpful to focus too closely on global problems on a day such as this. Of course, the world’s wrongs must be righted, but gender equality in the UK is often overlooked in favour of international causes.

The UK government has taken positive steps towards an improvement in the plight of women. Its Girls Education Challenge is one example. However, the most important aspect of IWD is the circulation of statistics, facts and figures describing the gravity of the status quo. Where women earn 15.5% less than men, it is concerning, and even more so when the loss of public sector employment (more women work in public than private sector) will further widen the pay gap in future.

Attention on feminism’s attitude to equality is divisive. The SlutWalk campaign was confrontational to many, due to its aggressive terminology and the sensitivity of the issue. As Polly Toynbee highlights, however, “[y]oung women are indignant at backsliding public imagery, the airbrushing, pornification, lap-dancing and unchecked laddishness driving girls to anorexia and self-loathing.” The problem, it would seem, is to be found in men’s approach to femininity. In the 2011 short film, “Equals”, the facts – as read by Dame Judi Dench (who plays Q) – are alarming. Among them, we are told that at least one in four women is a victim of domestic violence and that women own only 1% of property worldwide. These are juxtaposed with images of Agent 007 (Daniel Craig), a character whose womanising attitude contributes to the objectification of women. He is a popular symbol of masculine virility native to the UK of today. To combat the threat to gender equality, perhaps we need to overcome this attachment of the values of a former generation as portrayed in our worship of such franchises.

In this vein, Cameron’s new law will criminalise “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment“. This broad scope ensures that a new approach to sexism will prevail in the UK. The enforcement of this law will be a challenge for police forces across the country, with the definition of “unwanted” sure to stir debate in case law flowing from this new legislation.

Margaret Thatcher was notoriously unhelpful to women in politics. Her power represented a very particular symbol of female achievement. In 2012, thirty three years since she became the first female Prime Minister of the UK, there is no doubt that she continues to inspire women across the world. The aspirations of women will come under attack in years to come, however, due to the decisions of men, and women, in the Tory-led government. One wonders whether this irony would be lost on the Iron Lady herself. Cameron’s attempts to achieve gender equality by providing a criminal remedy may protect women from undignified treatment in the UK. However, the values of patriarchal society change slowly and vary vastly throughout the world. International Women’s Day, as a concept, has an overwhelmingly difficult task in campaigning for women’s rights. Gender inequality within the UK merits real attention. It must not be overlooked.

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