How do you challenge gender inequality in your organisation? That’s not for me to answer – it’s for you to lead and own. What we do need is non-tokenistic action and meaningful self-reflection and analysis in order to move forward. We need to be honest with ourselves. And to answer the question ‘are we there yet?’. No, we’re not there yet, not even near. But need to start with ourselves before tackling the rest of the world.
I am a member of Woodcraft Folk, IFM-SEI’s member organisation in the UK. I work with Pioneers, the 10–12 age group, in London. This week my Pioneers discussed the suffragettes and the women’s vote in celebration of the approaching International Women’s Day and tying in with our term’s theme of democracy. When we asked the group what is the significance International Women’s Day, one of the young people said she thought the day hasn’t worked. When asked what she meant by her comment, she simply responded saying that there is still not gender equality. Yet I hear adults in Woodcraft, in IFM-SEI and the general populace saying that gender equality has been achieved, certainly in Western Europe. So how come a 10-year-old doesn’t think so?
Many people seem to put Woodcraft Folk (and IFM-SEI) on a pedestal for gender equality and that the struggle is finished, wrapped up, done. I do think Woodcraft Folk is many steps ahead of general society in lots of ways – our young women are offered safe spaces on events, they are encouraged to discuss body confidence and the image myth openly with their peers and they can stand for election to sit on decision-making bodies – however there is still some way to go.
When talking about gender equality it’s easy to quote the statistics – the gender pay gap, the proportion of women who are CEOs and the number of girls forced into marriage or who are victim to FGM. It’s easy to reel off the statistics. Statistics lose their meaning and impact after first struck with them – they are not anecdotal, they don’t reflect the individual suffering and they become somewhat detached from our realities. After a while, they become just a number.
When I say statistics are easy, they are easier than self-reflecting on our own behaviour and how we manifest sexism. That’s not to say explicit sexism – catcalling, sexual harassment, domestic violence – but perpetuating the structural inequality within our own lives. What we need to do is self-reflect on the patriarchy within our own organisations and what we label as gender equality truly is that. And within IFM-SEI too. We often talk about IFM-SEI, particularly on events, living out a socialist utopia based on a solid left-wing ethos but are we really? Do we really practice what we preach? I’m not sure we do.
I’d like you to think about your grassroots group leaders on the ground. What proportion of them are women? Now think about your district, area or region committee or coordinating group. What proportion of them are women? Then think about your national board. What proportion of them are women? If there is an equal or higher proportion of women as you move up through the structures then well done – you’re in the minority.
From anecdotal evidence, the higher up you get in IFM-SEI organisations the higher the proportion are men. The men hold the majority of the powerful positions with the women leading the grassroots work on ground. This is where we see a parallel with the statistics – the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, work-based discrimination, the expectation drummed into girls that they should go down ‘female-orientated’ career paths. Looking at IFM-SEI, participation in meetings and elections for the decision-making bodies need to have gender quota – I long for a day when this is not necessary and it happens organically.
So why do we reenact patriarchal structures of society within our organisations? Is it because the men in our organisations feel their masculinity will be threatened if we give women an equal voice in our decision-making? Maybe, but I doubt it in most cases. I think it is because patriarchy is so entrenched deep within us – women as well as men – and self-reflecting is tough, it takes guts. It’s not easy to look at yourself or your organisation and say ‘I am/we are doing something wrong here’. It also takes time and effort to challenge patriarchy and there are always people who will contest you and try to argue that it isn’t a real, relevant issue. Women in particular are often described as hysterical or overreacting when challenging inequality. We all need to work together, within our organisations and within IFM-SEI, to take a critical look at ourselves. Now is the time – take it by the horns.
So how do you challenge gender inequality in your organisation? That’s not for me to answer – it’s for you to lead and own. What we do need is non-tokenistic action and meaningful self-reflection and analysis in order to move forward. We need to be honest with ourselves. And to answer the question ‘are we there yet?’. No, we’re not there yet, not even near. But need to start with ourselves before tackling the rest of the world.
Carly Walker-Dawson for IWD