The status of working women is getting better in some ways. There is equality of opportunity in education. There are more choices for working women and far greater equality for women with children. This makes many young women think the fight is won. Not all agree. In The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy, authors Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers set out their research suggesting that there’s still considerable inequality shown to women in the workplace. It's just less obvious than it once was.
While there have been substantial improvements in the last 100 years for women who want to work, the consequences of equality has put huge pressure on women to do and have it all. Going back to feminist roots, equality was about the right to have equal choice and equal opportunities. The reality is that nobody ever has it all, no matter how rich or male they are. Different groups just have to make different choices; there is always compromise. Facebook and Apple’s offer to freeze eggs for women so they can continue their careers for longer seemed to me to be wholly inappropriate and potentially puts greater pressure on the safety and happiness of female workers. Most women will want to have their children naturally, not go through all the risks and dangers of conception with the intervention of a laboratory in 20 years’ time.
Most young women today cannot imagine a time when their prospects were limited to marriage, hearth and home. Many feel that a discussion about feminism has no real relevance in 2014. In fact, feminism seems to be making a rod for women in a wholly unintended way. In research carried out in 2013, 1300 women were surveyed for their views on feminism and the workplace. 70 per cent of younger women said that they feel far too much is expected of them. They are under huge pressure to look wonderful, have a high flying career, be a super-cook and all round domestic goddess, and still have time for tender but athletic love making. The majority of the respondents felt feminism should be about ensuring women have ‘real choice over their family, career and lives’, and to reinstate the value of motherhood – points that were overlooked by the more militant feminist advocates of the 70s and 80s.
While more women are able to compete equally with men, far too many young women are taking a step backwards. Hard-won educational opportunities are on offer, but so many girls and young women are opting for unskilled and low-paid jobs. The Young Women’s Trust carried out research which shows that the work and career prospects of women who are not in employment, education or training has a significant and long lasting impact. The authors claim that many young women take jobs in the hairdressing and beauty industries, whereas young men are more likely to study subjects like engineering. The report also shows that once in employment, women who were unemployed in their youth can expect to earn an average of just £10,000 a year in their early thirties. Men who were in a similar situation will average £21,000. This is a really worrying trend.
The early pioneers of the Suffragette movement, which helped obtain universal franchise for women in 1928 might be tempted to wonder why, after all they’d gone through, women are still making life-limiting choices. It seems to me that in part because of considerable confusion about the aims and desired outcomes of feminism. We should of course strive to achieve the best workplace equality we can, but it’s got to be achievable and liveable with, for all parties. It also has to take account of what women want for themselves – not necessarily what society seems to say they should want. This isn’t the same for everyone, but equality of opportunity is about choice.
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