Sunday, 22 May 2016

Gender Equality: How Much Progress Has There Really Been?

This essay by Charlotte Phillips was commended by the judges of the prestigious Woolf  Essay Prize. 



“In a hundred years, I thought…women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.”                                                                                                                                                     
Do you believe that modern European society lives up to Woolf’s expectations, ninety-three years on?

If we are to look at the world through the eyes of legislature and law, acts and resolutions passed, then women are indeed free and at liberty to pursue any of the “activities and exertions” that Woolf so equivocally mentions, and many more besides. However, the world which women experience is not simply made up of what they are allowed to do on paper: as Woolf so clearly demonstrates through much of her wider literature, the world is a storm of perceptions, feelings, judgements, thoughts, effects, memories and attitudes. And as soon as we take these social factors into consideration, it is clear to see that women are in many ways no less constrained than ninety three years ago.
There is a significant ambiguity to the lexical choice of “protected”- taken literally, it could be assumed that Woolf means simply that women are ‘defended from attack’1. This suggests an innate physical weakness, a need to be rescued or saved- but isn’t this, some would argue, justified? 

Biologically, women are on average shorter and weaker than men2. This is a difference that cannot be disputed. Indeed, today when a family walks onto any medium of public transport, they will be told women and children should be rescued first in the case of an emergency. However, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf considers that “knowledge, adventure, art…she reaches out for it”. If we take “she” to be the entirety of the female population, we see a whole people reaching out for the intellectual stimulation they are being denied, who have been “protected” from a whole way of life. This leads us to our second interpretation of protection- that of prevention, denial, restriction.
 In Woolf’s time, women were still explicitly banned from any area which required cognitive function beyond cooking, cleaning and childcare. Women of literary and scientific significance were hard to come by and hard done by: “Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper…there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice”. Jane Austen, a much discussed author in A Room of One’s Own, seemed to protect herself from the social judgement she knew would ensue if she was caught carrying out the distinctly male activity of writing a novel, or indeed writing at all. In 1929 when A Room of One’s Own was published, women over 21 had just been given the vote3, but that was about as much influence as they could exert over an area so dominated by men as politics. Of course in modern European society, new laws regarding women are generally made to encourage them to enter those professions and areas that they were protected from for so long. The explicit rules have changed; they do live up to Woolf’s (entirely reasonable) requests for an equal society. But implicitly, those underlying social attitudes towards women sticking to their roles as daughter, wife and mother still cause significant barriers. The psychological impacts that result in these barriers will be discussed shortly.

Yet another reading of “protected” is that women are confined to certain “activities and exertions” by the social structure they live in, essentially their marriage. Especially in higher classes, women had a distinct role as socialite and charming wife- a cultural norm that Woolf openly criticises in her literature, most notably in Mrs Dalloway4. Today, gender roles and stereotypes are still very much in existence: father as the breadwinner, mother as the carer of children, cooker of food, cleaner of clothes, and hostess of social gatherings. Even women who earn more than their husbands and work more hours still, on average, perform vastly more housework and childcare than their husbands. IN fact, beyond the point at which income is equal between the two partners, the more women earn the more housework and childcare they do. This demonstrates that even when the traditional role of main breadwinner is subverted, the traditional role of ‘domestic goddess’ remains static. Additionally, there is a reinforcement of the ‘separate spheres’ of the two genders6.

By restricting a woman’s movements to activities that are carried out in the domestic arena- the home- she is automatically a more private figure than the husband, who’s role is significantly more public-at work, socialising. This could certainly be considered a protection of sorts: protection from maintaining a reasonable public sphere, and a protection from situations occurring beyond the home environment. The exhaustion and demoralisation of performing both traditional gender roles must limit a women’s creative and mental output, and her ability to carry out aforementioned activities and exertions. Logically, Woolf would assume that a swap, or share, of gender norms in the home would be normal practise by the 21st century.  Unfortunately, this is not yet the case, and is even worse in many countries outside of Europe where gender equality movements are yet to make an impact on social policy.


Those who question whether inequality between the genders still exists are blind to the deep psychological impact of attitudes and of perception. Not just the attitudes and perception of women themselves; but the attitudes and perceptions of the entire social world, of men, women, children, the media, politicians, strangers on the street, celebrities…the list is perpetual. Now that there are no legal barriers to entry into male dominated areas, particularly ‘masculine’ professions, many place the lingering disparity between proportion of men and women in an area such as, for example, politics (although this is applicable to any area in which there is still a huge ratio of men to women) to the convenient notion of ‘biological essentialism’. Biological essentialism proposes that the nature of an individual is down to genes and biology7, and by extension, the traits of an entire gender-female- are biologically pre-determined to be inferior for certain roles or at certain tasks.  

Many see this idea as the politically correct explanation for the higher percentage of males in areas which require a high level of cerebral functioning. In fact, one could misinterpret Woolf herself as an advocate of this theory, with her insistence that women’s “creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men.” However, these differences in creative power are not written to suggest that women are inferior in any way. In fact, given Woolf’s consistent criticism of a significant proportion of the male canon, it is more likely that she thinks this difference in creative power an advantage. Furthermore, it is clear that she sees the true impact of socialisation as far more important than any (yet unsubstantiated) biological differences.  For as she points out in chapter 3, “it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.”.  Here Woolf points out that the girl has a natural talent for poetry- there is no biological block to her intellect- and yet it is “other people” who prevent her from fulfilling her potential. The “contrary instincts” are, no doubt, a reference to the basic human instinct to want to be accepted, and not mocked or “thwarted”. The other human instinct is to pursue the passions and talents with which we have been bestowed. The fact that these two needs cannot co-exist no doubt causes psychological conflict, and is a real obstacle for women both in Woolf’s time and now: this passage is infuriatingly relatable to life in 21st century Europe. All we need to do is replace the word “poetry” with ‘politics’, and the word “girl” with ‘woman’.

The significant psychological effects of societal expectations are reinforced by much scientific research. Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, attacks the idea of biological essentialism, claiming that it undermines the psychological influence of culture and society. She argues that our self-concept (how we perceive ourselves) is heavily influenced by gender stereotypes- we “see our own selves through the lens of an activated sterotype.”8.  In a society where gender stereotypes are, as already established, rife, Fine suggests that we implicitly apply these assumptions to our own self-identity. This has substantial effects on behaviour, attitudes, and feelings. We can use this idea to explain a barrier for women who are entering the world of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. One of the most common gender assumptions- and indeed a ‘fact’ most relied on by biological essentialists- is that men are innately superior in the fields of mathematics and spatial awareness. A 2008 study exposes the damaging effect on female performance this assumption has. 

A group of high-performing mathematics students, of both genders, who were selected from a variety of American universities, undertook a notoriously difficult mathematics test. In one group, the students were told that “the test was designed to measure their maths ability, to try to better understand what makes some people better at maths than others.”. Having corroborated the prevalence of the stereotype that men have a higher mathematical ability, a statement of this sort reminds women of their supposed inferiority in the area, and this primes them to incorporate this into their own self-concept. The results reflected this chain of reasoning: women performed far worse than in the alternative group. In the alternative condition of the experiment, students were presented with the information that no gender difference had ever been found in the results of previous students undertaking the test. The women performed substantially better in this test: 30% better in fact9

Although this study was undertaken in America, there is no logical reason why the results cannot be applied to the similar Western society of Europe. This study demonstrates a dangerous cycle of cognition: women perceive stereotypes about their abilities in certain areas, subconsciously adopt these into their own self-concepts, which negatively affects their achievement in said areas- this in turn perpetuates the stereotype of poor performance, starting the process again. This can provide reasoning to the limited number of females progressing through the areas traditionally associated with high mathematical ability. The social prejudices and stereotypes enforce a protection to women from the professional applications of maths and logic. Without these stereotypes, women would be far freer to pursue their interests no matter the traditional gender associations.

This discrimination, these negative perceptions are not exclusive to the fields of politics or scientific and mathematical professions, nor are they exclusive to the female sex: people of colour, disabled people, and other minority groups all experience the same limitations and prejudices, often combined with other forms of oppression to give a horrific double discrimination. But with the focus on women, half of the world’s population, the experiences they go through in the arena of politics make it unsurprising that there are just 7 female prime ministers and 10 female presidents internationally (out of a total of 196 countries)10

Politics is almost a textbook example of an “activity” that was “once denied” women. Although there are many strong, successful and competent female politicians throughout the UK and Europe, numbers are still very low. 450 women have been elected as members of the United Kingdom House of Commons in total since 1918- this is lower than the number of men (459) in the current UK parliament8. It is not that women lack the skills to be successful politicians: it is the previously established psychological effects of negative perceptions of women in politics that is the problem. In July 2012, the minister for housing in the French parliament, Cécile Duflot, was openly mocked, catcalled and hooted at during an address to her fellow politicians11. It was her male counterparts who were the perpetrators of what could easily be considered a form of sexual harassment. The reason? She was wearing a dress. This directly shows the result of showing a typical form of femininity in such a male dominated environment. She had every right to wear a dress, and every right to be listened to with the same respect seemingly reserved for her male counterparts. The claim that this is a one-off incident starts to diminish when we look at just a snapshot of similar incidents. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State for America, is interviewed and asked “Which designers do you prefer?” rather than questions regarding her important, political, and non-clothes related job. There is no doubt that male politicians would never be asked such questions. From the infantilisation of female MPs in the UK media- being dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’ and ‘Cameron’s Cuties’- to the blatant objectification in the Sun newspaper’s ‘Best of Breastminster’ (rating female politicians on the abundance of their cleavage)11, there are simply not many positive interpretations of female politicians at all. When male politicians construct and implement a successful policy, they are praised for just that. When females do the same, they are subjected to a painstaking analysis of every fashion choice of the past six months. As Laura Bates logically points out in her novel Everyday Sexism, this is just a tiny part of a “catalogue of prejudice” that has an “enormous” impact. “Even when it doesn’t outright prevent women from achieving political success, it doesn’t mean they are able to operate free of ongoing and pernicious discrimination.”11.

There can be no doubt that ongoing discrimination is a huge obstacle for women with very negative psychological effects. And these psychological effects are known to everyone through the form of the media, creating a self-perpetuating circle in which females are subjected to sexism in politics, which prevents females from entering into politics, which furthers the issue of under-representation. This in turn extenuates the idea that politics is a male domain, sparking the cycle of sexism to start again. This is a pattern that resembles the vicious circle of prevention of women entering into mathematical professions. This is a form of “protection”, preventing women from freely expressing their “creative power” and intellect. This is an “activity and exertion” that is certainly not free for women to access and take part in. This is an area in which modern European society, almost without saying, does not live up to Woolf’s expectations in the slightest.


Having established the variety of interpretations and meanings of the word “interpretation”, and the variety of modern day and 20th century applications of these, the oppressed liberties of women become increasingly clear. The complex and damaging psychological impact of media and societal perceptions of women and their abilities has been outlined to demonstrate the difficulties of subverting the stereotypical roles of women and men in private, public and professional fields. Virginia Woolf’s desire for women to be free to carry out whichever activities and exertions they choose has not been realised. 

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