June 26, 2017

The Lives Of 20th Century Women

I watched 20th Century Women on a flight back home from California last month. It shows the optimistic late-70s state of mind and the lives of three women living in this era. It got me thinking, how far have we actually moved on in the 21st century?

It is within our parents lifetimes that a man needed to sign off on their wife getting their own bank account. Our grandparents remember a time when the women in their family couldn’t vote, and you think to yourself: all of this wasn’t even that long ago.

In the 70s, women couldn’t report workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, could not own their own credit cards, couldn’t get abortions, couldn’t sit on a jury or go to military academies.

Two films I’ve watched recently that gave me that shock factor of how recent this treatment of 20th century women was, were the films Hidden Figures (the treatment of the main characters feels totally shocking and alien to a modern liberal audience and yet the themes are still prevalent today) and 20th Century Women (there’s a scene where saying “menstruation” is still seen as taboo).

I grew up in a school environment where it was drilled into me that I could be anything I want. I went to an all-girls school in the country-side – I realise this is a safe secluded environment where you have the privilege to dream big. The teacher’s pep-talked us daily and made us feel invincible. I never ever felt like I was going to held back and I was defensive to the current workplace statistics because it jarred with my fantasy of an equal world. The never-ending pep talks were a good thing in terms of building ambition, but meant the world was a slightly disappointing once I’d entered the workplace realising that once you strip back a shallow layer, there is still structural gender inequality lurking all around us. You leave your bubble and your safety net, and you wake up.

I got into a fight with an acquaintance once who claimed gender inequality “didn’t really exist anymore at work” and that all this modern day feminism stuff was a bit attention-seeking. “Women make this stuff up — everything is fixed now, I don’t see what the drama is about; we are in the 21st century.”

“It’s the 21st century, duh” is often used as a dig at someone who is a bit behind the times, but is the 21st century really that perfect yet?

I read some interesting pieces (mainly from the Monthly Review) that go into the differences between 20th and 21st century women, and of course some big strides have been made over that time, but not big enough.

During the 1960s through 1980s saw major changes in the status of working women because the legal barriers to gender pay discrimination were eliminated. By 1970, men and women could sit near each other (woah). The gender wage gap narrowed down, with women earning 59 cents an hour to every dollar earned by a man in 1964. This rose to 77 cents per hour in 2004 (still no where near equal). The percentage of women at work with a University degree went up from 11.2% in 1970 to 32.6% in 2004, rising twice the rate for men, which was great.

Although all this improvement sounds promising, it seemed there things that didn’t increase so much during the 1990s. Occupational segregation between white women and black women increased in the 1990s, and wage inequality between women with school grades and women with advanced education began to rise. An employment gap between young white and black women began to appear.

So where are we now in the 21st century? We’re still going on Women’s Marches, we are still fighting against people who want to defund Planned Parenthood in the US, we are still seeing gender and race inequality in the workplace and especially in senior roles, but on the plus side, the Internet has also given us a voice and a change to campaign in new ways. Things haven’t changed hugely in terms of women as the primary carers: they continued to carry the major responsibility for home, raising children child rearing and all sort of care work for the family.

So I wanted to mention one of the campaigns I’m loving and supporting at the moment in terms of cracking down on 21st century workplace stigma.

I’m a big fan of Anna Whitehouse’s #FLEXAPPEAL which aims to eliminate the strict and retro limitations of a 9-5 and allow flexibility into people’s lives. It’s about autonomy, the modern day workplace, equality and freedom. The ideal scenario is we get to a place where the workplace is set up to allow women (and men) to thrive in whatever way they want to. (I enjoyed India Knight’s column this weekend, it doesn’t matter how ambitious you want to be, it should be your choice, whether you want to be a CEO or not.) In Anna’s words: “Flexible working doesn’t mean working less or slacking off, it means finding hours that suit your life and how you best work. If that happens to be sitting below strip lighting, so be it. But if you’re most productive working from bed/a park/the local library, employers should have the imagination to allow that to happen.”

20th Century Women is out now on DVD and Digital Download.

This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Entertainment One.

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