This probably won’t surprise you, but I get asked to speak at a lot of events about women. Women in education, women in business, women in engineering, women in finance, women in management and women in general. Come question time someone – sadly, always a woman – almost always gets up and asks me a version of the ‘Don’t you think women are their own worst enemies?’ question. It is the question I hate most in the world because it reveals to me instantly just how much work feminism still has to do.
In the probably vain hope that I can avoid ever being asked that question again, let me give you the kind of answer I rarely have the time to make while standing at a podium.
First, the bleeding obvious; of course it isn’t women who are mostly preventing other women from succeeding. Women as a group (more about that later) are massively under-represented in decision-making positions in just about any area you care to mention, including female-dominated sectors like education & health. The majority of people who get to decide who gets the promotion, gig or guernsey are blokes. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be biased towards other blokes.
Next, there’s an easy way to tell whether an assumption (and there are many behind this question) is essentially sexist or not. Just flip the genders or put another group in the place of women. Why do we never ask whether men are their own worst enemies, for example? And can you imagine the sharp intake of justifiably horrified breath if someone ever asked ‘Don’t you think black people are their own worst enemies?” Or Jews, Asians or people with a disability? If we can so clearly see the prejudice & arrogance in that context, what does it reveal about the depth of our unconscious bias against women?
The reason, by the way, that no-one ever asks if men are their own worst enemy is because we don’t actually see men as a group at all — well, white, straight men, anyway. Such men are the norm, the benchmark against which all others are measured. They, and they alone, are automatically assumed to be individuals. What one man does reflects on him, it does not reflect on his entire gender, race or religion. I felt much sympathy when people exhorted ‘moderate Muslims’ to decry the excesses of some of their fellow believers – Muslims, like women, are often seen as a job lot. After all, I don’t remember anyone demanding that ‘moderate Catholics’ decry the appalling theocratic anti-abortion laws in Ireland that resulted in the wholly avoidable yet agonizing death of Savita Halappanavar from septicaemia – Catholics and other Christians, like men, are seen as individuals. Similarly, when some commentators criticise the ‘sisterhood’ for not shouting loud enough about some sexist outrage (always somewhere else in the world, I notice) they do the same thing. There is no sisterhood. There are just women & men with feminist principles.
Another sexist assumption behind my most hated question is that to be deserving of equality, women must actually prove they are worthy of it by being nicer, kinder and more supportive of one another than they supposedly currently are. Hogwash. Women are no better and no worse than men and it is deeply sexist to assume that they ought to be. As my mum has always said, we will only have true equality between the sexes when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men. The assumption here is the only reason women don’t get ahead in the way men do is because they are not very nice to one another, so it’s all their own fault. It is also true that it is safer and easier if you are in the subordinate culture to blame other members of that culture for the unfairness you experience than to take on the dominant group. We see this played out in other hierarchical structures, such as social class, castes and even school playgrounds.
And sexism leads to women being pitted against one another in other ways too. It has become problematic to have no female representation at all but some men still start to feel deeply threatened when women get to as little as 30% of the people at the decision-making table. This means women are forced to compete – not with men – but against one another for the designated chick’s spot on the panel, in the boardroom, on the management committee, at the podium, wherever power and opportunity resides. When you only open the door a crack, only a few can slip through. Given that, it is quite remarkable how supportive women actually are of one another. For which we can thank feminism, by the way, which gave us a name for the obstacles we face.
The “worst enemies” question also assumes that all women have an obligation to think the same way about the world and of course they don’t and never will. Women are just as diverse and individual as men and feminism is not a cult. The fact that there are vigorous disagreements between feminists is actually a sign of a dynamic and healthy philosophy, strong enough to be a broad church.
But the reason that question, always asked by a woman, so dispirits me is that it reveals the questioner has unknowingly accepted a whole lot of negativity about herself and her gender. And that is the power and the terror of sexism. It is not simply something men do to women. It is also something women – products of the same society, after all – do to one another and, most tragically, to themselves.