Women and society, the gender equality myth and everyone’s confusion

27 November 2017
Women and society, the gender equality myth and everyone’s confusion

Growing up in socialist (or communist) Bulgaria, I was brought up to think that men and women were equal. The phrase that was most commonly used at that time to describe women’s ‘liberated’ status was ‘women are emancipated’. Emancipated in the sense that they had the same capabilities as men and could do the same jobs. I would often see posters of women driving tractors and exerting themselves with hard manual work.

This rhetoric happily, but confusingly, cohabited with widespread views that placed women below men when it came to specific tasks such as driving. When I learned to drive, I often heard statements such as:
“You are a good driver… for a woman.”
The truth accepted by both men and women was that men were naturally better drivers. Another wisdom that prevailed and that I was taught early in my life was that men did not like opinionated and intelligent women, so it would be best to let opinions trickle out modestly and dumb down any intelligent thoughts when meeting boys for the first time. On the positive side, men were real gentlemen and carried women’s bags or held their hand when they got off public transport. So, I eventually learned that the rhetoric that women and men were equal in Bulgaria (and in the Eastern bloc) was just that - rhetoric.

I then came to Britain and fell in love with the equal opportunities policies upheld in the workplace. Whilst I reminisced over the gentlemanly nature of Bulgarian men holding women’s hands when they stepped off a train, I realised that equality meant that women were fully capable of looking after themselves without a man’s help. And so I accepted this and embraced the culture of equality. I devoted myself to proving myself as a ‘results-driven’, ‘value-adding‘ (to use the jargon) market researcher. I never felt discriminated against for being female.

The recent revelations in the media, triggered by the multiple reports of Harvey Weinstein’s atrocious behaviour, have come as a shock to me. Even though I realised that women were under-represented and often undervalued in senior management/leadership roles, less well paid for the same jobs and were still the main engines of cooking and housework at home, I hadn’t realised how widespread their oppression was in Anglo-Saxon societies. The penny, as had been the case for tenacious feminists around the world for decades, finally dropped: men and women do not have equal opportunities and probably do not hold equal power anywhere in the world. Gender equality is a myth!

Over the next few months AKAS will be exploring the issue of women and society in a series of articles. In this article we focus on a recent YouGov survey of 2,775 British adults who agreed to answer questions on sexual harassment between 18th and 20th October 2017. The survey revealed that 53% of female respondents had been sexually harassed by men at some point in their lives. 1 in 5 women (18%) stated that they had been sexually harassed in the last 5 years. The figure was as high as 41% for women aged 18-24. The actual figures are likely to be higher than reported in this survey because it doesn’t capture the views of those who declined to take part. Women who are particularly bruised by sexual harassment or sexual abuse may have found it too painful to delve into the topic in a survey.

When asked about 12 potentially sexually harassing behaviours, as many as 80% of women stated that they had experienced at least one (as indicated in Table 1 below). This represents a gap of 27% between those who stated that they had been harassed in general (53%) and those who selected one of the 12 behaviours, which could be defined as sexually harassing (80%). Is this gap an indicator of how fuzzy the boundaries of what constitutes sexual harassment in our society are? Or is it a symptom of women accepting sexual harassment to such an extent that they may not even define it as such at times? Or a recognition that some behaviours do not constitute sexual harassment in certain contexts but do in others?

Table 1 - YouGov Survey Results. Sample Size: 2775 GB Adults who agreed to answer questions on sexual harassment. Fieldwork: 18th - 20th October 2017

Perhaps surprisingly, there are two behaviours that women are more tolerant of than men: wolf whistling and a man placing their hand on a woman’s lower back. 45% of men consider wolf whistling at a woman a form of sexual harassment vs. 33% of women. Similarly, 41% of men think that placing a hand on a woman’s lower back constitutes sexual harassment vs. 34% of women.

Twice as many women do not consider a man wolf whistling at them to be sexual harassment (64%) compared to those who do (33%). Slightly more than 1 in 4 women (27%) do not consider a sexual joke directed at them by someone (who was not a partner or a friend) as sexual harassment. 7% do not consider a man pinching or grabbing their bum to constitute sexual harassment.

This data points to the urgent need for women to clarify the boundaries of what they believe is acceptable and respectable behaviour towards them and what constitutes sexual harassment. Without such clarity, the danger of real or perceived sexual harassment will continue to occur frequently, making it difficult for men and women to navigate relationships healthily.

If you would like to follow up on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Luba Kassova or Richard Addy on contact@akas.london

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