It’s International Women’s Day.
I’ve been reading twitter and there’s an outpouring of (mostly) celebration and mutual recognition, and lots of posts about brilliant friends and colleagues and inspirations. Lots of celebrations of supportive women, women who have held out helping hands to others, who’ve been there, who’ve listened, who’ve encouraged, who’ve given. And lots of poignant posts, too. @thewomensquilt is the account recording the making of a quilt to commemorate the hundreds of women killed by their partners in the UK. It’s beautiful, but very sad.
I can understand why the celebratory posts need to be there, to counterbalance the sadness and to give some sense of hope. I can see why they’re part of the same issue. Women who do support other women are the ones who raise awareness of femicide, who open and run refuges, who lend an ear to friends struggling in abusive relationships, who educate young women in what a healthy relationship looks like, who provide opportunities. It’s necessary work.
But the juxtaposition also makes me uneasy. Women are constantly taught to give, to listen, to support, to encourage – and to do so voluntarily, silently and selflessly. This rhetoric is very much part of the culture of victim-blaming of women in abusive relationships, and it is very much part of the culture of reporting on femicide (and, indeed, reporting on other forms of misogyny). Women are encouraged to do invisible labour, and we all, men and women, are encouraged to interpret it in the traditional terms that reinforce misogynistic ideal of femininity. We’re encouraged to call it kind, generous, and nurturing. Occasionally, we’ll come across men who say, thinking they’re being flattering, that this is a wonderful female thing that men just don’t get.
And that’s a problem. All of this de-professionalises women’s support networks, and implicates them in a well-established set of social expectations relating to guilt.
I’ll concentrate on the workplace, for a minute, to explain what I mean. Women have been trying to build networks of support in male-dominated industries for decades (centuries, actually), and it’s easy to look to initiatives like Athena Swan in academia and to feel there’s a real solution to the problem. But then this, like other networks, requires someone to be there. And if you only have one woman at the top, or perhaps two senior women in a faculty of a hundred, then that someone is always going to be Dr X. I have several friends who are Dr X. Dr X is on the Athena Swan committee, because it was important to have a woman lead. She’s also on the big grant proposal with Professor A, because Professor A needs a woman there. And she’s running the women’s forum for the postgraduates, because Drs B, C and D agreed it should be a woman. Chances are, she’s also writing references and reading papers and mentoring ECR Drs E, F and G while listening to colleague Dr H figure out how to get to senior lecturer level. Meanwhile, the male members of the department are enthusiastic and fair-minded and understood completely the need to have women taking the lead in gender equality work. And they have rather more time for research than Dr X, somehow.
There’s a burden of guilt here – guilt piled on by well-meaning people and guilt arising from the fact that women are taught it’s particularly their job to support other women.
The other end of the scale is my own experience. I’m a woman early career academic, and I am acutely aware of the demands on my senior colleagues’ time. I know that when I email that fantastic professor who’s asked me to show her my book proposal, I am taking her away from other things. I know that when I ask my colleague, again, if she could read this chapter draft, I am giving her one more email to deal with in a heap of requests. Of course, these requests are part of normal academic life, and everyone – men and women – expects to make them and expects to receive them. So, why do I feel guilty? It’s because women asking for help, even professional support that is entirely appropriate, are interpreted as ‘needy’. That has been the conditioning I have received all my life – like other women – and so, like other women, it presses in on me when I’m trying to do my job.There’s a burden of guilt I have, because I know I’m asking colleagues who typically do not have as much free time as their male peers, who’ve had a harder time getting where they are than their male peers. And I try very hard to do without that support and that help, because I have internalised the idea that this is what I should do.
The more women’s networks of support are written off as ‘generosity,’ the more they are represented as optional extras, nice things to make women’s lives easier, rather than necessities.
So when I see these outpourings of celebration on International Women’s Day, I’m torn. Yes, we need to celebrate and thank other women who support us, and we need to shine spotlights on each other’s work and give each other recognition. But we also need to stop characterising this work as an informal outflowing of generosity. We need to stop celebrating friends for ‘going above and beyond’ or ‘doing so much more than I could have deserved’. We need to start saying, ‘I know women who work hard for me. I recognise these women who put time and effort into building a better world for women. I see that the work is time-consuming and effortful and often invisible.
Supporting other women is great, but it’s also taking its toll on us. Professionally – in my line of work, and I’m sure in others – it is quite literally taking us out of the business. It is taking away the time and the energy and the effort that we should be entitled to put into our lives and our work, and using these as sticking-plasters on wounds we didn’t cause. We should be angry about that.
I want to put time and effort into building a better world for women. I’m not doing it out of generosity or a nurturing instinct: I’m doing it because I am still furious that Karen Ingala Smith needs to run the Counting Dead Women project. I’m furious that I need to find a female colleague who’ll understand the pressures on women, instead of knowing all my colleagues face the same opportunities. I’m furious that there needs to be an International Women’s Day. Yes, I’ll celebrate, but I won’t forget.