Speaking in her now famous address at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, actress Emma Watson defined feminism as, “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Watson felt the need to provide this definition after noticing a trend in research she had conducted in her new role as Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women. Her findings demonstrated, as many other recent investigations have, that fewer and fewer women are choosing to define themselves as ‘feminist.’ Fewer and fewer women, it seems, are therefore taking an active role in promoting equal rights for both genders.
Why has ‘feminism’ become something of a dirty word? The answer is not clear. Over the summer a social media trend entitled #womenagainstfeminism gained notoriety and media attention after ballooning across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. As of early October, the Facebook page alone has amassed more than 24500 likes. Women who do not identify as feminists can use these platforms to post pictures of themselves holding written explanations of why they reject the label. The reasons shared have been diverse, yet there have been some notable patterns.
Firstly, a number of women have posted about how they no longer perceive feminism to be necessary and consider the society they live in as one in which there is equality between the sexes. Despite this, statistics tell a very different story and suggest we still have a long way to go. As Emma Watson made clear in her speech, “there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these [equal] rights. No country in the world can yet say that they have achieved gender equality.”
Women are still not equal to men – politically, economically or socially. According to findings from the World Bank, women’s participation in the global labour force actually fell two percentage points from 57% in 1990 to 55% in 2012. Once in the workplace, women can expect between 70-90% of men’s pay on average. According to the World Bank, only 18.3% of top-level managers are female. These statistics are far lower in developing countries, but the problem is not exclusive to them. As recently as August, a Chartered Management Institute survey conducted here in the UK found that on average female managers earn 23% less than their counterparts.
Politically, the number of women in Parliamentary positions may have increased in recent years but still stands at only 21.8%. Globally, there are 38 states in which women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians. Women are also underrepresented in comparison to men in primary, secondary and tertiary education. In Sub-Sahara Africa there are on average 92 girls for every 100 boys in primary school, 84 for every 100 in secondary school and 61 for every 100 in tertiary education.
Moreover, a 2013 World Health Organisation global survey found that a minimum of 35% of women have experienced physical or sexual abuse, with national surveys placing the figure as high as 70%. The ILO also estimated that women and girls make up 55% of those trafficked for forced labour and 98% of those trafficked for sexual exploitation.
These statistics demonstrate that, while many in developed countries may not notice gender inequality in their daily lives, it is still a very real issue on a global scale. As Watson stated in her speech, “if we do nothing, it will take 75 years or for me, to be nearly 100, before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work—15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won't be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education."
All of this demonstrates that the fight against gender inequality is still to be won. Many, #womenagainstfeminism supporters, however, argue that feminism is not the way to achieve victory. They, and others, have rejected the concept because they feel it does not stand for ‘real equality’. They see feminism as an aggressive anti-men stance. In other words, their notion of feminism is not in line with Watson’s definition of, “The theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” For all intents and purposes these women hold dear the same values as Watson and the majority of feminists today. They promote equality and freedom of expression for both men and women; they simply do not associate this belief with feminism.
This is what needs to change, it seems. Feminism needs a rebrand; stripping away negative connotations that might isolate ‘feminists’ from men, and indeed from other women. The purpose of Watson’s UN address was to promote a new online petition known as HeForShe. The initiative could be a step in the right direction towards just such a rebrand. The premise of the scheme is to encourage men from across the world to sign the petition, confirming when they do so that they will work side by side with women to fight for gender equality.
As Watson pointed out in her speech, it is in men’s interest to promote feminism too. Not only will giving men and women equal opportunities result in a stronger workforce, which the World Bank predicts could be up to 40% more productive, but it will mean greater social opportunities for men. Acknowledging the equal role of mothers and fathers within the family setting, giving men the opportunity to express emotions and vulnerability and seeing gender as a spectrum are all part and parcel of feminism too. As Watson said, “It's about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human, too and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves."
Some have seen the HeForShe campaign as naive. It can be argued that much more is needed to tackle feminism then a few thousand signatures on an online petition and the media attention afforded to a child actor at the UN. Furthermore, some have perceived the movement as placing the power back in men’s control when feminism is a woman’s problem for women to tackle. It is perhaps this thinking, though, which alienated some men from the feminist cause in the first place.
What the feminist movement needs in the 21st Century is some solidarity. Unbeknownst to them, many #womenagainstfeminism supporters are inadvertent feminists, striving for the same goals despite a hatred for the word. Unbeknownst to them, many modern men are also feminists, simply because they believe the same rights and opportunities should be afforded to their mothers, sisters and partners as to themselves. Over 170 000 men have now signed the HeForShe petition. With any luck these numbers will grow, as we work together to achieve basic and equal human rights for all people, regardless of gender. If you are a man reading this, I urge you to act now by signing at www.heforshe.org. I will leave you with Watson’s closing words, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”