Things have changed a lot – feminism has become popular and is no longer the ‘f’ word. In March 2016, a group of high profile women spoke on a Canadian Club of Toronto panel to discuss gender barriers in business. When asked if they were feminists each refused to stand up and be counted. One answered evasively, “What does a feminist mean to people here, really? I don’t know what it means.” A mere two years later people are jumping on the bandwagon to be counted as feminists (and I expect these women are as well). Companies are using feminism to sell products, politicians are citing it to garner votes and men are proudly standing up to fly the flag. In fact, for Father’s Day I am giving my husband a t-shirt that reads “This is what a feminist looks like” and I know he’ll wear it willingly.
Yet, because people are actively adopting the advantageous feminist label it means there are some are very loose definitions, and many are using the word to suit their own purposes. The feminist movement has never been monolithic, but it is becoming even more diverse. For example, former first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the United State of Women summit in Los Angeles and criticized the role of women in electing President Donald Trump, suggesting that his victory showed a lack of women’s empowerment. It’s hard to disagree with her but a friend, who is a declared feminist, argued that Trump, in spite of his misogyny has been better for women because he has improved economic conditions. More women are working, and the unemployment rate has dropped.
However, while there may be more jobs, the gap between what men and women are being paid continues to widen. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research in the US the gap for full-time workers grew wider between 2016 and 2017. In Britain the gender pay gap for women in their 20s is now five times greater than it was six years ago. Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation explained the problem, “Lower earning power means women are at a high risk of falling into poverty, are less able to save for their retirement and are sometimes forced to make a choice between safety and staying in abusive relationships.” This isn’t acceptable to a true feminist.
Women are losing ground on the corporate front as well. In the past year, the number of women leading Fortune 500 companies actually dropped 25 percent. In 2017, there were 32 CEOs of the top American companies and now there are only 24. Women are also noticeably absent from the executive positions just below the CEO in the corporate hierarchy and their numbers aren’t improving there either. In Executive Committees of European companies both the number and percentage of women has fallen. Out of 53 senior executives, just 6 are women and all are in traditional staff roles such as HR, Legal and Communications which means they are unlikely to advance to CEO. This isn’t acceptable to a true feminist.
The #MeToo movement aligned women collectively in the fight against sexual harassment and proved the power of the collective. We have seen Harvey Weinstein arrested and Bill Cosby found guilty of sex crimes against women. Meanwhile, many companies have a ‘bro club’ of misbehaving senior male executives closely aligned with the CEO. Such were the circumstances that spurred Nike employees to take control and survey sexual harassment problems within their company. After seeing the results Nike fired half a dozen senior male executives for “conduct inconsistent with Nike’s core values and against our code of conduct.” These situations are far too common and aren’t acceptable to a true feminist.
Clearly there is lots of work to be done and feminists are not a cohesive group. Yet, we need to challenge each person and business that declares themselves feminist as to how they are going to move the needle and create more equality for women. How will they help eliminate gender-based discrimination and subjugation? It’s not enough to say that a woman is better off if her position is dependent upon a man or a system that doesn’t consider her an equal. It is only when she is considered a partner in those areas that until now have been reserved for men, such as monetary freedom, political power, having a valued voice in the media and in religion, that women will have achieved equality.
While it makes great news that women are receiving the justice they deserve on the sexual harassment front and that feminism has become appealing, does that mean women are going to get equal pay for equal work? Are they going to get a seat at the table? Next time you see someone who declares themselves a feminist ask them which of these issues they are working to solve. And consider the advice of Oprah Winfrey when she gave the commencement address at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: “Vote. Vote. Vote. Pay attention to what the people who claim to represent you are doing and saying in your name and on your behalf. They represent you and if they’ve not done right by you or if their policies are at odds with your core beliefs, then you have a responsibility to send them packing.”