In a recent study, it was suggested that 90 percent of men believe that in the UK, males and females are by and large treated equally. In the same study, 20 percent of women agreed. In 2010 the issue of gender equality is as divisive a topic as they come. Yet just as feminism is not a synonym for ‘man-bashing’, so is masculism not a by-word for misogyny. The truth is, discrimination against both men and women is alive and well in our society – perhaps much more than we wish to realise. The problem is, you probably haven’t heard the whole story.
The issue of feminism has enjoyed a healthy public exposure that is both its blessing and its curse. In Britain, it took off at the turn of the twentieth century. Suffragettes marched the streets in search of votes. They rallied and demonstrated, put bricks through windows and generally made an awful lot of fuss. Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1914 – a dramatic and shocking symbol of the extent that females would go to in search of equality. The horse survived the incident. She did not.
The momentous events of the First World War saw women being allowed out of the kitchen and into factories and workplaces for the first time. Men were fighting at the front; there was no alternative but to let their wives take over. They made bombs and stitched bandages, became drivers, cooks and telephonists – played a crucial role in the War Effort. It was a woman’s world. Inevitably however, like all things, the war ended. The men came home and wanted their jobs back. Women had had their go; now it was time to go back to normal. Unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t come quietly. Surely the ladies who would go on and build Waterloo Bridge during the next World War could not be contented with a life of domestic drudgery. So they revolted.
And thus, political and social feminism were born. Clearly it has long been decided that it is far better for women to jaw-jaw than to war-war. The radical elements of second-wave feminism died a death over 30 years ago. And despite that brief hiccup, it is startling to see just how much has changed. In the span of only a couple of generations, women have gone from not having the right to vote to being present in all fields of society. They are leaders in business and entrepreneurs like Karen Brady, vice-chairwoman of West Ham United. They excel at the top levels of politics, like Patricia Scotland, the Attorney General for England and Wales. Now, more than ever, they fight and die in wars in foreign fields, like Cpl Sarah Bryant, killed in action just 2 years ago in Afghanistan.
Yet these exceptions do not prove the rule. If sexism has been overcome as part of the integral makeup of our society then why is there an average salary difference of £15,000 between male and female NHS doctors? More than 30 years after legislation promising equal pay was introduced, there is still a worrying wage gap. Indeed, when female Wimbledon champions were paid £30,000 less than male winners as recently as 2006 and a staggering 96% of boards of directors in the UK are made up by males, it seems incredible that activism for increased gender equality is as low-key and mild-mannered as it is. Even in our time, it is evident that the archaic glass-ceiling of equal opportunity is stubbornly intact. Indeed, faced with statistics like these, one could be forgiven for thinking that rife gender discrimination is exclusive to women. But dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that men fall foul of sexism just as readily as their female counterparts.
Discrimination against men has become an acceptable and prevalent form of bigotry in the UK; so subtle and nuanced in comparison to more ‘mainstream’ discriminations that it is scarcely recognised, let alone condemned. But it is bigotry nevertheless, and what’s more, has been gradually integrated into the fabric of our society, our organisations and institutions.
The maximum period of paternity leave, currently standing at 2 weeks, is woefully lacking. The legal minimum for women is 26, the maximum entitlement being a year’s leave with pay. The Labour Party’s plan to double the existing length for men to 4 if re-elected is a positive step in the way of equality, but when left to consider the ever-changing roles of men and women in the modern family dynamic, it is not nearly enough to repair the damage that continues to be done to the cause of equal opportunity.
Yet since Harriet Harman’s unveiling of plans for the Equality Act, which was passed earlier this month, there has been little discernible or quantifiable effect with regards to “addressing the serious inequalities that still exist in Britain”. Despite abundant ‘landmark’ legislations, including Equal Pay (1970), Sex Discrimination (1975), Race Relations (1976) and Disability Discrimination (1995), another act to supplement previous ones seems unnecessary when in practice, the effect of mounting law upon regulation regarding discrimination is questionable.
Perhaps most recognisably, Fathers 4 Justice, the pressure group seeking reforms on the government’s policies on parental access and fathers’ rights, who infamously hurled a purple flour-bomb at Tony Blair during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2004, continues to lobby for changes in the law, calling for “the complete overhaul of the family law courts” in cases of child custody in the UK. Founded by Matt O’Connor, a father denied access to his children by the family courts in 2000, the group’s front-man is the most vocal critic of the current system. Their publicity stunts including one member’s sit-in on top of Buckingham Palace wearing a Batman costume have earned them their politically marginalised position by politicians and press alike – yet the problems remain. Somewhere in the fog of war, a crucial and valid argument has been left by the wayside. There is still a fundamental inequality in the practice of UK family law. Despite countless high-profile protests, legislation and guidelines continue to be very much geared towards the rights of mothers. In two-thirds of cases, men are at the losing end of custody battles for their children. As if to add insult to injury, this has a devastating knock-on effect regarding the Child Support Agency’s mechanism for calculating payments in the UK, which only takes into account the finances of the absent partner – increasingly men who lose custody of their children. This means that under current guidelines, mothers who earn considerably more than their ex-partner are not legally obliged to provide financial support at the same level as their spouse. Fair?
In cases of domestic violence and battery, a lack of awareness of men as its victims has resulted in a massive shortage of services for men. In 2008, the government agreed to look into funding the first male-only refuge for forced marriage in the UK as it emerged that 15% of people seeking help concerning forced marriage were men or boys – a conservative percentage, not counting the inevitably incalculable number of both sexes that remain unreported. Subsequently, the Next Steps Housing Association set up 100 places in 35 safe houses across Northamptonshire for the partners of abusive women, early last year – a step in the right direction, but dismally late when considering that men are statistically more likely to be killed in instances of domestic violence than women.
And that’s far from all. Men attacked by their female partner before contacting the police are more likely to be arrested than their attacker, in spite of being the innocent victim. Home Office figures show that conviction rates for women are less than half those of men for the same offence. And yet it would be naive to lay the blame at the feet of Feminism. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition stresses the valid point that (like Masculism), equality for both sexes is at the crux of the movement. Yet it is clear that if women are to reap the benefits that have for so long been lacking in a man’s world, society must ensure that men are not alone in suffering its pitfalls. In the first step of what will inevitable be many, more needs to be done to bring these increasingly important issues to light sooner rather than later.