I spent last Thursday evening in a room with 80 angry women. They weren’t angry at me, I hasten to add, or at least if they were it was only in my role as a token representative of my gender.
Wearing my Reform Scotland think tank hat, I had brought the brilliant New Statesman journalist and author Helen Lewis to Edinburgh to talk about feminism in the 21st century, #metoo, the transgender debate, and where we’ve got to in relation to equality between the sexes. With Kezia Dugdale in the chair, the discussion was by turns hilarious, righteously angry, eye-opening and, if I’m honest, quite often shaming.
It is tempting as a bloke – and I know this because I’ve done it and written about it – to take a look around modern Scotland and see only success on the feminist front. After all we have a woman first minister, a woman leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and until relatively recently, had Dugdale as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. The chief civil servant in the Scottish Government is a woman. Our international women’s football team is considerably more successful than then men’s (although I’m not sure that counts as much of an achievement…). Our most famous author – this works on an interplanetary level, too – is JK Rowling. The UK’s most prominent political journalist is Laura Kuenssberg. Most if not all of us have our lives shaped on a daily basis by amazing women – bosses, colleagues, mothers, partners, children etc.
But the deeper truth – and we should really have to think for no more than a second to accept this – is that the battle for equality of the sexes is far from won. We should also appreciate the effort it has taken brave campaigners over many, many years even to get us to this stage, and how each shift of the dial towards fairness has been ferociously opposed and often bought at great personal cost.
Lewis has written a book titled Difficult Women: An Imperfect History of Feminism, which will be published next February. She points out that every concession from the male-dominated establishment has come after a scrap: nice women don’t make history, as she puts it. Among the issues explored in Difficult Women’s chapters are divorce, sex, work, safety (in the form of the refuge movement), education and abortion.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For example, until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women had the same legal status as children. They were banned from qualifying as doctors until the late 19th century. Lewis tells the tale of the Edinburgh Seven, the first undergraduate female students to matriculate at any British university. They studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 – leading to a riot in Surgeons’ Hall – and although they were prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors, legislation in 1876 ensured women could do so in future. Now, a majority of medical students in the UK are female. This week, the university announced it would finally award the Seven their degrees.
It is only a century since women aged above 30 gained the vote. It was 100 years ago this year that women in the UK were first allowed to become lawyers and accountants. Yet even today, according to the Law Society, while 63% of newly-qualified solicitors are women, and 50% of all solicitors, only 25% of partners are women. It was as recently as 1982 that El Vinos, a famous journalists’ pub in Fleet Street, began allowing women to stand at the bar with their male colleagues, and only then after losing a court case.
We also know that even where women have equal representation in the workforce, or in fact dominate, pay levels in most professions remain skewed in the direction of men. There was a huge outcry when evidence of the BBC’s gender pay gap emerged in 2017. Pregnancy and maternity leave very often have an impact on women’s careers and income that is both cataclysmic and permanent.
Which brings us to another book that is currently making waves. Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed for Men is one of those works that is probably going to bring about real and lasting change.
Criado Perez exposes a data minefield. Car safety is based on the male body, so women are more likely to be hurt in a crash; blind auditions have increased the proportion of female players hired by orchestras to nearly 50%; most offices are five degrees too cold for women, because the recommended temperature is based on the metabolic resting rate of a 40-year-old, 70kg man; British women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack because their symptoms present differently; the average smartphone is too big for most women’s hands.
It’s not just for women to notice and correct these imbalances. Men, too, need to saddle up. So whatever your gender, buy a copy of Criado Perez’s book and, when it comes out, Lewis’s too, and understand not just how far we’ve come, but, shamingly, how far we’ve still to go.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland