In recognition of International Women’s Day this week, I felt it would be appropriate to present some perspective concerning gender equality.
We are all aware that it is illegal to discriminate against an individual based on sex. What many are not aware of is that it continues to occur at every level of human interaction. Despite the illegality of overt sexism, women continue to be oppressed in all levels of society, but especially in the workplace.
In several respects, the women’s movement began in response to gross inequality and sexism towards female workers.
At the turn of the 20th century, women throughout the United States and Europe demanded higher pay and reasonable/safe working conditions. It was not until 1911, when more than 140 workers, all of whom were women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that the government began to recognize the need for labor regulations.
Unfortunately, we still have not yet achieved gender equality in the workplace. We are closer than we were 100 or 50 years ago, but we still are not there. A very recent exemplification of this was of a British woman whose experience with workplace discrimination prompted her to take action.
Nicole Thorp’s effort began in 2015 when she was sent home without pay for wearing a pair of ‘sensible’ flats instead of high heels to her temp receptionist job. The company stated that the dress-code for women requires heels that are between two and four inches in height, and Thorp was in violation of this code by wearing flats.
In response to this experience, Thorp began a petition to the British government for stricter enforcement of the 2010 Equality Act, in an effort to prevent companies from holding sexist and demeaning dress code policies that discriminated against women.
Thorp’s petition received more than 150,000 signatures, many of which came from other women who reported being coerced by their employers to wear revealing clothing, unbutton their blouses, wear excessive amounts of makeup and even dye their hair blonde.
The movement became so powerful it incited a Parliamentary investigation, which revealed that this and similar dress code policies are, in fact, illegal. Many members of Parliament are now demanding stricter laws to ensure this and other injustices do not continue.
Most institutions are smart; they disguise their prejudices in policy technicalities or loopholes, in the language that they use, or in the intangible culture of the setting.
Consequently, the institutional oppression of women occurs at low levels that are less likely to be challenged. From childhood, women are taught to be submissive, which is often presented with the more pleasant-sounding labels of “adaptable” or “flexible.”
Women are expected to conform to the preexisting structure instead of being equipped with the skills and tools to question and alter the status quo.
However, it only takes one woman, one persistent and powerful voice to begin a call for action: and with enough support, that call can grow into a roar. Anyone can possess that initial voice, any woman (or man) who recognizes inequality and refuses to allow it to continue.
We have the legislation in place, but comprehensive change does not happen without passionate individuals to facilitate the process. These foot soldiers of equality are the ones who will rewrite the policies, alter the language and shift the culture of their workplaces.
There is still a lot of work to be done, and I implore women and men everywhere to lace up your boots, slip on your sensible flats or rock it in your high heels (if you so choose) and refuse to stop marching until we reach our goal of true equality.
By doing so, you are standing up for so much more than just yourself: you are representing and speaking for the thousands of women whose voices have been and are being silenced. So if you have the ability, get out, raise your voice and #BeBoldForChange.
A special thank you to graduate occupational therapy student and JKWC Bystander Engagement Coordinator Abbey Kennedy for her insight and assistance in the writing of this article.