1) Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do – whatever practicalities you’re willing to share with readers. Could you share with us what inspires to work tirelessly for social justice.
I’m aiming for somewhere between professional enthusiast and polymath! Working in the creative industries and the legal sector is a fascinating mix – you get to use different sides of your brain and get to throw a lot of influences, inspirations and analysis into things. Synthesising a lot of complex information and data into something accessible to people is generally what I do, whether it’s a creative project or a quasi-legal one.
Inspiration comes from many places; drive comes from within. I think George Bernard Shaw has already said it better than me: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” I can imagine a world different to the one we live in now – one where being ‘other’ is not a dangerous place. One where our basic humanity is the starting point and our differences are cause for celebration and the basis of our positive contribution to the world.
2) What is an accomplishment that you are proud of? Why are you proud of this particular accomplishment?
In some ways, my upbringing was a terrifying place of domestic violence, substance abuse (by my parents and their friends), mental illness of family members and the sorts of problems that come from severe financial hardship. At the same time, my upbringing was full of contradictory messages – that I was no less than anyone else, that it didn’t matter what I did as long as I gave it 100%, that I should question the media and society because a lot of its collective messages were of benefit to a few and not the many. I was raised to be an individual, despite the surroundings, and to think for myself.
My greatest achievement is overcoming the negatives of that background and making myself an educated, well-travelled person who can turn adversity into learning, hardship into resilience and fear into kindness and compassion. I have taken my experiences and sought to understand the structures of power and the grounds for transformative action; I am able to determine success, on my own terms, and understand that I am not in competition with anyone because no one else is me, and I am not them. I want to work with people, not be in competition with them, because we’re going to want different things, bring different things to an experience, and there is more to be gained by negotiations built on mutual respect rather than ‘winning’ and finding solutions that address what people really want rather than what they think they ‘should’ be aiming for.
My biggest accomplishment is not becoming bitter or closed off to the world and all there is to experience; to maintain wonder and curiosity, and to keep going and growing, no matter what.
3) Do you feel that your gender (however you self-identify) has contributed positively, negatively, or neutrally to your current life situation?
I’m keenly aware I’m answering this from a first world, white perspective that automatically gives me greater privilege than a lot of people. In America, for example, more than 57% of college graduates are women but fewer women are hired in entry level roles than men; when it comes to the C-suite, 1 in 5 people are women but fewer than 1 in 30 are women of colour – even though statistically they are more interested in becoming top executives than white women.
When I was about 10 years old, the Equalities Act was passed and news media covered it widely and vocally. The messages I was hearing at that age were that I could do anything, that gender was irrelevant and that women deserved equal pay, equal treatment, and had equal abilities. At a time when I wanted to be on the soccer team but none of my girl friends wanted to change out of their skirts, I didn’t realise that being the only girl on the inter-school team was a big deal; I was just busy having fun and playing ball with my friends, who happened to be boys.
I didn’t entirely understand the big deal about the legislation or why it was so important but I’m grateful the message clearly stuck – and that gender did not become a thing of weakness or victimhood for me, or a role I play. It taught me how important the law can be – and how important talking about it is.
I think that gender is misunderstood – or seen through a particular prism that is more about connotation than definition. I did a piece of work for an organisation on retention of transgender peoples’ records; I learned that there are five different genders and it’s just that three of them are statistically the most common – male, female and intersex (intersex people make up around 1% of the UK population – that might not sound like a lot but when you multiply that out, this is a significant number of people; transgender people also make up around 1% of the population but this statistic is older and less easy to verify).
4) Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of gender-based violence? What does that term (and what is describes) mean to you? Has it affected you and your life in any way?
Well, I think the answer to that is in the answer to the first question! But it’s not just the domestic violence I grew up with that I’ve experienced.
I think the parameters we place on all genders are constricting and unrealistic – men, for example, are just as much ‘victims’ of patriarchy as women; they are expected to act a certain way, within designated expectations as much as women. Deviation sees them shunned or victimised in a similar way to women, sometimes also facing violence. The problem is the embedded norm of maleness as strength, leadership, the founding fathers, the force of progress, the strong silent type – who is more likely to commit suicide in this country than his female counterpart. Men visiting violence upon themselves is an uncomfortable conversation because it shakes the very foundation of our immovable point of reference – the point from which all else becomes ‘other’.
We have language and behaviour that starts from the ‘not male’. Or perhaps that should be not stereotypically male. If you are not male, you are ‘other’. If you are other, you are not ‘us’. If you are not ‘us’, it’s okay to ignore you, to silence you, to obstruct your entry to university, to vote, to own property without your husband’s consent, to not allow you to change documents relating to your non-binary gender or gender fluidity. You are not a citizen with full rights because you are not equal to us. We are men. You are not.
This inheritance is still built into our systems, our attitudes, our reactions. We have social structures that negate or deny intersex, non-binary and gender fluid people, that pressure both women and men into particular models of behaviour – and deviation from that, depending on the degree, can be shocking, taboo, morphing in popular press into something not human.
And, once someone is no longer human, you can do all manner of horrific things – a person can become an ‘it’, a ‘thing’ to which you lose any concept of commonality. Once you strip someone of their humanity, you can take away their voice, you can silence them, intimidate them, degrade them, torture them, treat them in ways you would never want to be treated; and you take the first steps on a dangerous, negative trajectory.
A conversation can only happen between equals; if we are not equal, if different voices have less or more value in a society, the conversation is a monologue of perpetuating cultures and societies that do not include all of us.
And if we continue to be an ‘us’ and ‘them’, we will allow violence to percolate, whether psychological or physical, individual or on a mass scale.
5) Can you also tell us a bit about your understanding of gender equality? What does this term mean to you?
I have spent most of my life reading about and observing gendered behaviour, perceptions of gender, gender politics. I am bemused by Maureen Reagan’s (daughter of Ronald Reagan) quote about women achieving equality when “we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there” but encouraged by comments of the UN Secretary General about women’s rights being human rights and that women already have what it takes to succeed – the need is to address the structural barriers and historic injustices.
When it comes down to it, I think that none of us is as smart as all of us; and if all voices in a culture were equal, it would make us a much more intelligent civilisation – we might actually start being civilised! (I say this in reference to men and women of colour being abused on the street, hate crimes increasing, racially-motivated attacks as well as sexual discrimination and sexual assault, and the high percentage of LGBTIQ people who have suffered discrimination, abuse and exclusion.)
Some statistics suggest women’s equality has improved in the UK over the last couple of decades – for example, there is a record high 208 female MPs (with 35% of members of the Scottish Parliament and 42% of the Welsh Assembly being women). Women still make up over 50% of the UK population – so we have to continue to ask ourselves how representative that truly is. What reaction do we have to the idea of 70% of parliament being women? If we are uncomfortable in any way with that idea, why do we not have the same reaction when nearly 70% of MPs are men?
We need to keep working on those areas where there is a dearth of diversity (which is wider than ‘women’) – for example, the EU Gender Equality league table published this year that suggests the UK haven’t made much progress in some areas, the recent focus on gender pay, diversity on boards, the trauma rape victims suffer at the hands of the trial process, statistics on reporting of rape, domestic violence and the endless systemic issues that point to the lack of inclusion or lack of ability to make women equal.
And if men see this as a taking away from them, you have to stop and ask why they feel that way – if those facilities, changes etc. were being made for other men, would they feel that way? If men feel that they are losing something because they are ‘making way’ for women (or non-binary or gender-fluid people), that in itself goes some way to the validity of what I’m trying to say. If there was no embedded advantage, there would be nothing to ‘lose’. There wouldn’t be anything to ‘take away’ – because the playing field would have been equal at the outset and there would be no need for any sense of loss.
The question is how to be part of positive change. How to think about what power is, what our structures are, really start to recognise and claim the truth that our societies have built in, over centuries, that women are not equal in terms of power structures, language, validity in the world.
This was highlighted to me recently by a conversation where a truly good man said to me that he assumed that being a woman was very difficult. He thought he was being compassionate, understanding, demonstrating he was indeed one of the good guys. But this statement really brought home to me that thing that feels so hard to describe: if we were equal, he wouldn’t assume. He’d ask me what it’s like to be a woman. And he’d listen to the answer on the basis it was valid, just because I’d said it.
5a) Do you think gender equality exists? If not, what are a few ways that you think your life might change by the existence of gender equality?
Generally speaking, I don’t believe gender equality exists. But that is a general statement and there are pockets of gender equality. There are some amazing people – men, women, non-binary and gender-fluid people doing great work and starting organisations and businesses that, over time, will change perceptions and attitudes.
If there was gender equality, I wouldn’t be writing this piece; more importantly, I wouldn’t be worrying about whether writing it was going to jeopardise my future employment prospects. Whether I was going to be painted as a ‘ball-buster’ or a ‘hysterical female’ or any of the other caricatures that women are painted with if they speak up or are strong or don’t choose to conform to society’s expectations. The law may have changed but now we need examples of how society and the institutions who govern it are willing to put that law into action to achieve cultural change and make those laws social reality.
6) If you answered ‘No’ to question 5a, what is something you could do to contribute to a society that is more equal for all genders?
Be enthusiastic and become adept at fighting your corner and managing your own potential and power. Educate yourself. Be willing to learn.
And then act. Build resilience through failure. Learn and grow and refuse to give up. Don’t be broken by it. Keep moving in a positive direction. Love and care for yourself enough that nothing anyone else can do to you moves that core centre of strength within you. Remember that you did not ask for this – you were born into a world that needs to hear your voice as a positive force for change. We need your talents as a contribution to the world’s diversity and growth. You are more powerful than you know – use your talents wisely, not to take away from others but to add something positive to the world.
And that goes for men as well as women, gender fluid and non-binary people.
7) Ending on a lighter note, do you have a role model who has been an on-going inspiration? If so, why do you look up to this person?
I have a few people who inspire me – I judge myself by the company I keep and I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by kind, intelligent people doing good work in the world. If I had to pick one person, it would be my friend Rachel, who is one of the best women I know and who has been a friend, mentor, inspiration and sister to me for a long time now. Her intelligence, diligence, sense of humour and desire to leave the world a better place than when she found it makes me grateful, humble and strong all at the same time. Her support and faith in me is invaluable. More conceptually, it’s people like Maya Angelou for her grace and wisdom, or the folk who set up organisations like MenCanStopRape.org, or HerJustice.org with their passion and action, the people at Scottish Transgender Alliance and Changing Perceptions who give so much of their time, knowledge and resources, and to the people who artfully craft communications that might gradually change the way we see the world.