It’s stating the obvious for some, but when Beyoncé recently described gender equality as a myth it was a revelation to many, many others.
Being one of the world’s most successful pop singers tends to lend some extra impact to your views. At the same time, when her statement in The Shriver Report was published a few days ago it met with the usual carping about whether Beyoncé qualifies as a feminist or not (she once called the description ‘extreme’).
All efforts to legitimise and publicise the need for gender equality are fine by me. But we also need to recognise there’s no female consensus about this agenda or the path ahead, nor a set of membership criteria for entry to some feminist club.
One of the themes I notice when speaking to a range of audiences about gender equality is the confusion many women feel about whether they are part of feminism. It’s not unusual to get a few comments which begin with “I’m not a feminist but…”
As they continue, it becomes clear these women are in fact completely aligned with core feminist beliefs – that men and women should have equal rights and the same opportunities. But the allergy to the label remains.
Some of those who happily identify as feminists can also start to get picky about what does or doesn’t qualify for the sisterhood.
The term ‘corporate feminism’ started to enter the conversation more often in recent times and it isn’t a compliment.
It’s a description of a self-serving and elitist approach to women’s workplace rights which focuses on getting women into the C-suite and onto boards while ignoring the pressing needs of those further down the ranks.
Corporate feminists are simply replicating the pale male and stale power group with a female version, according to the sceptics, without trying to open the door to a wider cohort.
There’s no doubt some of this is taking place and certainly needs to be countered, but I have some problems with these terms and distinctions about feminism.
Unfortunately they can play right into the hands of the critics and even help to shut women up, while holding them to higher standards of behaviour than their male peers.
After all, how many career-focused and highly paid men get criticised for not helping the disadvantaged in the workplace?
In her book, Taking on the big boys, US writer Ellen Bravo identified a range of bullying tactics to discredit and silence women: minimize (women have it made), trivialize (that’s a problem?), patronise (you don’t understand the needs of business), demonise (you are the problem), catastrophise (your solution will cause greater problems for the women you want to help) and compartmentalise (if you get what you want it will hurt some other group of women).
The last two will seem sadly familiar to some of the women who stick up for their rights and challenge the status quo in their workplaces – no matter what their job or background, or what they are advocating.
Yet many women in business I have worked with for years certainly don’t believe that fairness or equal rights is a relative concept but something that needs to be applied to all and can be tackled on multiple fronts.
They are usually very aware that once they get a seat at the decision-making table, they have a real responsibility to help address inequality throughout workplaces.
Quite a few have been outstanding advocates. They have flagged a raft of problems at board and executive level (which takes some guts) including the gender pay gap, recruitment and promotion bias and pregnancy discrimination.
Instead of turning more criticism back onto some women’s efforts, shouldn’t we be concentrating on getting far more managers to realise that gender discrimination is a real problem and fairer workplaces more productive and effective?
According to Beyoncé “equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect. We can get there if we work together”.
That doesn’t mean all advocates are tackling these problems in exactly the same way but nor does it mean that pursuing a particular agenda is always at the expense of other women.
It’s about balancing the broader goals of feminism with what can be done right now to help bust the myth and make gender equality a reality.