Deciding What Equality Means

By Jenkinson, Sofie | Renewal, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Deciding What Equality Means


Jenkinson, Sofie, Renewal


Great Expectations: Exploring the Promise of Gender Equality

Tess Lanning with Laura Bradley, Richard Darlington and Glenn Gottfried

IPPR, 2013

It will come as a surprise to no one that women are all different and that different groups of women are at different places and want different things. The challenge, as picked up by Tess Lanning and her co-authors in Great Expectations, is to push the mainstream debate about gender equality towards a more radical point in order to address questions of evolving equality for everyone, not just those most capable of making the noise.

Lanning et al. neatly point out that while much of the sweeping societal change that has taken place since the Second World War has impacted on women the most, this progress tends to be mapped in a very linear fashion, turning a blind eye to nuance and looking up to success at the top end of a narrow spectrum while ignoring the lower end of the scale. Great Expectations asks: what kind of equality do we want to see, and what are the collective demands we must prioritise in order to achieve it?

By comparing the experiences of a number of generations of women, through use of the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the 2011 Understanding Society household panel survey, this report sets up a discussion centring around five key elements: access to, and opportunity in, employment; the quality, status and security of that employment; the provision of childcare (including support for the shifting role of fathers); the balance between work and life (time and money); and the cultural representation of gender. It demonstrates that a proper concern with the cultural demands of feminism doesn't have to mean neglect of bread-and-butter questions about work, childcare, and money. Indeed, Great Expectations argues that the two sets of demands should be developed together, not seen as conflicting.

Lanning et al. suggest that instead of focusing on only formal, legal forms of equality, we must place greater emphasis on the ways in which people are seen and treated and also explore how easily people are able to affect and shape their own lives.

Much of the heat in feminist quarters recently has been around the issue of inter-sectionality, with high-profile female commentators and young women clashing on Twitter, across the pages of the broadsheets, and below the line on the web, over who can speak for or represent whom (Williams, 2013). Among feminists, the idea that there is one accepted feminist mouthpiece, capable of speaking for all women, is widely accepted as false. But, as Lanning et al. suggest, this fact needs to be more widely acknowledged in public debate: 'The way in which gender disadvantage interacts with class, race, age and disability generates particular challenges and perspectives that mainstream debates fail to reflect' (p. 50).

And so the familiar charge that feminism often faces, of giving a leg up to those with already sharpened elbows, or even at the expense of some groups of males--as well as the perceived dominance of white, middle-class women and their narratives in the feminist conversation--must be part of a wider and deeper conversation about equality and its nuances. The sort of critique made by Jenny Turner, where the successful feminist movement talks to itself in a 'reflecting bubble' (p. 17), is damaging to the idea of collective action that Lanning et al. insist a new era of gender politics must be built on. Indeed, as Lanning has warned in the past (Lanning, 2012), we must be careful of hoping for trickle-down equality from our boardrooms.

All of this connects to a fundamental point in this equality debate, made by figures such as bell hooks, which picks out the importance of identifying which men it is that women want to be equal to. And so it is clear that we must also identify the women who are a marker point for equality too. …

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