A new report from the Fawcett Society has revealed the state of the nation's attitudes towards gender equality and feminism.
The report, which summarises the first stage of a poll of 8,000 people, reveals some perhaps surprising results, such as the fact that support for equality of opportunity increases with age: 78 per cent of those aged 18-34 support it, while 87 per cent of over 55s do.
Despite a decade of higher profile feminist activism and an explosion in feminist consciousness among young people, the poll found that those under 35 are most likely to have negative ideas about equality. 17 per cent of men aged 24-35 said they felt they would 'lose out' if men and women were more equal, compared to just 7 per cent of men overall. And 20 per cent of men in this age group feel that 'women's equality has gone too far' compared to 13 per cent of men overall.
Younger people are also less likely to agree that more work is needed to bring about equality – something that could perhaps be down to the increased inequalities experienced by older women in the home, the workplace and in society. It might also have something to do with the increased visibility of feminist campaigns and some of their successes, which may well have helped to give the impression that 'the work is done'. It could have also helped fuel negative reactions, too, from those less sympathetic towards equality who have witnessed feminism receiving more attention.
Worryingly, the survey revealed that there is stronger resistance to women's equality among those who make recruitment and interviewing decisions. This group are more than twice as likely (16 per cent) as the overall population (7 per cent) to be against equality of opportunity for the sexes. Within this group, men were most likely to be opposed, with 17 per cent of male recruitment decision makers being against equality of opportunity.
Interestingly, women responsible for recruitment decisions were more likely than the general population to identify as feminists but also more likely to say they were opposed to feminism.
67 per cent of people surveyed were sympathetic towards feminism but only 9 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men said they would describe themselves as a feminist (rising to 19 per cent of women aged 18-24 and 13 per cent of women aged 25-34, showing that while this age group may be more sceptical about equality, they also identify more with feminism). The negative connotations of the word are still a huge barrier for many people: 26 per cent of those polled, when asked for the first word that came to mind when they heard the word 'feminist', volunteered a negative word, although a further 22 per cent used a positive word.
While the Church has not always been a natural ally of the feminist movement, a commitment to equality and egalitarian theology remains important for some churches, campaigning groups and many Christian organisations. However it could be said that in some churches, an outward commitment to equality isn't necessarily reflected in appointments and attitudes – something that needs work if, as 68 per cent of women polled believe, that more needs to be done to bring about equality.
Bearing this in mind, here are some changes that can be made – right now – in the Church, to 'do more' and truly live out a commitment to equality.
1. Don't make gender equality a taboo subject
While equality has been a hot topic in some denominations and groups of churches in recent years, it's still something that's pushed under the carpet by many others – often never being discussed. This has a range of effects, from women feeling they can't voice concerns about inequality for fear they'll be seen as aggressive and unreasonable, to churches being ill-equipped to deal with issues like domestic abuse. My time at Christian events attended by young people has also taught me that when equality is hushed up, young women doubt their giftings and can seem more likely to defer to their male peers, often having been socialised into 'keeping quiet', not wanting to seem domineering or pushy.
2. Stamp out 'battle of the sexes' myths
It's fascinating when people think that equality has 'gone too far'. Our attitude to power has given many people the idea that when women become more equal, men 'lose out' or have something 'taken away' from them. Of course, equality does mean ending problematic forms of male power – so in a sense the idea of 'losing out' is true. But our job should be to paint a picture of world where equal value and opportunity is beneficial, not a slight against those who may be starting to notice a sudden lack of automatic advantage. Helpful teaching about power and an absence of reinforcing gender stereotypes is vital.
3. If you make decisions, check your attitudes
Fawcett's research shows a resistance to equality among recruiters and decision-makers. We know that those in power are more likely to identify with and 'choose' those who are more like them, hence the enduring power of 'old boy networks'. We need to work to make sure that the situation in the Church is not the same, with people being valued for their skills regardless of whether or not they fit a particular mould or what gender they are – and that decisions that promote inequality are not made simply in the interests of 'not rocking the boat'.
'Checking your attitude' is as much something to be considered for women in high profile positions too. Despite the gains of the feminist movement, not every woman in a position of power is a friend to other women. A key characteristic of a woman who is benefiting from equality must be that she's willing to help empower other women too.
4. Don't fuel unnecessary negativity about feminism
A lot of people get really uncomfortable when the f-word is mentioned because they know what judgements others make. Don't be that person who makes jokes about feminists and sneers at their activism without taking time to understand what it's all about. Feminists have heard the tired jibes about ugly man-haters so many times that the most we can usually muster is an eye roll. But for other women, these words can stop them from identifying with any sort of need for equality, when it's something that most of them will come up against at some point in their lives.
5. Provide positive and empowering spaces for women
Are your women's events reinforcing stereotypes or focusing on a narrow range of topics and 'issues' that might make women feel as if their place in the Church and society is limited? If so, it might be time for a rethink. The past few years have seen a bit of a backlash against women's ministries and events that feel as if they're reinforcing inequality, with some exciting initiatives springing up in response. Promote a culture of sisterhood, supporting each other, and celebrating people's gifts no matter what stage of life they're in.