Ages ago (well, here, actually), I posted about successful women who reject feminism because they think they don’t need it any more. Social changes have helped them to get to where they are, and they become blind to the problems that other women encounter. They buy in to the idea of a true meritocracy, where we are 100% responsible for our own successes and failures, and that your background, education, connections, wealth, etc. have nothing to do with it.
I’ve been in this situation myself, I grew up in a family that I hesitate to even call working-class (because they didn’t actually work), I left the dead-end town I grew up in, and went to University (against my parents wishes). I now have a great job, I’m comfortably well-off, and my life is completely different (and better) to what I would have had if I’d followed in my family’s footsteps. It feels like everything I’ve done, I did for myself. But that’s not quite true. I was very lucky to have received such a good education (my teachers were way better role models than my parents), and the drive to get more people attending Uni from lower social classes meant that my study was subsidised. I wouldn’t have been able to access the same opportunities if steps hadn’t been made in the name of equality.
Which brings me back to one example of rampant internalised misogyny, so blatant it sounds like I must have made it up. But no. This was no satire or Poe, these were genuine actual successful women, lording it over the rest of us, as follows:
I was invited to attend a Women in Engineering event (it wasn’t run by one of the big engineering institutions, and I’m not telling you which one it is anyway, for self-preservation reasons), and I expected it to be fairly similar to most other evening do’s I attend professionally: a talk, networking, fancy canapés. Well, it did have those three things, but some extra bonus items too!
A presentation on how women can become more successful and ascend the career ladder more easily, with literally no advice on answering that question. It did, however, have plenty of snarky in-jokes about how men get all uppity if women start promoting themselves or demand recognition.
The networking post-presentation was part-good, part-bad. There were some people there who were involved with Engineers Without Borders (like Medecins Sans Frontiers, but with bricks and steel beams), who talked about their work overseas, and how it can be a good way to advance your career (Yes! Solid, specific and useful career advice! At last!). Those individuals were all women under 30, and they saw two important challenges that they could overcome with their projects:
1. There are places around the world that not only need investment and innovation, but they are also full of opportunities on a personal, industrial and political level;
2. Women and young people are under-represented in our sector, and they have found a niche to get around this problem.
|Good work guys! This was definitely the most inspiring part of the evening (excluding the free wine). And then there were some other people, at director-level, who basically talked like a bunch of old, white men straight out of the 70’s. When I spoke about feeling limited and underestimated, they said that this was impossible, because they’d never experienced it. If we spoke about the problem of women being viewed as aggressive when they are assertive, that was a myth too, because they’d been doing fine for the last 30-odd years. Us silly girls must be over-sensitive or something.
And all of this hurts, not just me, but all of us. Because sexism and other prejudices and biases are very real. While my school education was genderless, I encountered a few strange attitudes when I arrived at university. Generally my tutors were 100% normal human beings with no discernible biases, but one in particular used to “compliment” me (repeatedly) for being a woman studying the subject. Yes, I was probably a bit of a novelty (er, twenty years previously, even then), but it wasn’t the only thing that defined me.
In the workplace it got even weirder, like some of my colleagues had been brought up in another epoch or something. Things have come a l-o-n-g way over my short time in the industry (15 years). And this is in part due to huge effort by the government, engineering institutions, and individual firms, to attract a more diverse workforce into the profession.
When we say that we’ve outgrown the support systems, or that they are no longer important because some individuals have achieved success against the odds, we are dismissing the needs of those who aren’t as fortunate as us. Because there are still real barriers in the way, for all sorts of reasons. Empathy is important here, because in order to effect social change, you have to understand things from another’s perspective, and acknowledge that not everyone achieves success purely on merit.
Is it a protective mechanism? Like if we admit that the system helped us to get over hurdles, we’ll reveal that we didn’t do it all by ourselves and are some sort of fraud? We need to be more honest about this, and not begrudge those who have been luckier in life, but accept and understand that their life took a different path to that of many others. And that it’s ok to make up for it in other respects if you started off with less. And that it’s our duty to support and advance each other for the success of humanity.
As an aside, the next event I was invited to by this group was a shoe-shopping trip. No, I’m not making that up. No matter how much I love shoes, I somehow don’t think I would have fitted in. I declined their invitation.