Today has been designated International Women’s Day and for the past week, there have been stories popping up in the media here, in the UK, as women from different walks of life, nationalities, centuries and accomplishment are celebrated for their achievements – usually belatedly and often posthumously. I applaud the celebration but at the same time, I have been wondering why it is necessary to have one special day to consider the contribution of women to this planet.
Two things spring to mind. First is the invisibility of our contribution, apart from our role as childbearers and the ongoing work of parenthood. Is this because the many systems of the world – religion, finance, medical, political, education, commerce, cultural tradition, architecture, entertainment, sport, agriculture, the arts and literature for example – were not co-created by men and women together? When a woman enters government or becomes a chief executive or a church minister, she is entering a system with a long inherited history which she had no part in constructing. We have challenged these systems sometimes, colluded with them often and propped them up with our loyalty and commitment. But we haven’t co-created them.
However, there’s another more important issue here which relates to the present and future instead of the past. My first book – A Woman in Your Own Right – has been republished this week, 40 years after its original publication and I have been asked many times why I think the material is still relevant after four decades in which so much has changed for women – in this part of the world anyway. One of the reasons for its continuing relevance is that sexism doesn’t disappear when you enact laws to impose sanctions on sexist behaviour. So much of sexist belief and assumptions are subconscious so even if overt behaviour changes, interior attitudes remain and emerge in other ways.
This applies to men and women. A highflying professional woman, outwardly confident and successful, can still feel intimidated when she has to confront a male superior or colleague. It is not unusual for her to feel a psychological constraint caused by deep conditioning about her lack of self-worth or the need to be pleasing in a work environment whereas her male colleague is unlikely to have ever experienced the slightest doubt about his own right to be up there among the top echelons.
Equality may now be enshrined in some policies and in expressed principles but our actual lived experience is unequal. This goes back to the lack of co-creation of the systems which govern the world in which we live. Whether we like them or not.
Some women embrace the competitive cut and thrust, the desire to win at all costs, the need to establish superiority and use aggression to achieve what they want. We play the same game, by the same rules, for the same goals. Yet, there are many women who are tired of conflict. There are many women who do not see aggression as the answer to every question.
What I have been teaching for many years is how to communicate assertively – that is without aggression. Many of us do not want to get into a fight so instead, the only alternative seems to be silence. We hold back, we swallow our feelings, we pretend to agree, we turn a blind eye. The consequence is that our voices are unheard. Assertive skills teach us how to voice our feelings, our needs, our disagreement, our criticisms, our challenges, our ideas – clearly and without generating conflict.
The image of the strollers at the Polish railway station has been shared many times because it struck a deep chord. What a beautiful gesture in this time of war. An instinctive and simple idea from this group of mothers, no fanfare, no funding, no fuss, just a spontaneous and perfectly practical idea to help in the midst of tragedy.
Our creativity and generosity and intelligence are much needed in our world. It is way past time that women spoke out for alternatives to the principles governing our world today. We need to speak out for equality, for compassion and above all, peace.
Photo credit Associated Press.