Wednesday 24 May 2017

Why issue of gender equality still looms large

Non-fiction: Attack of the 50ft Women, Catherine Mayer, Harper Collins, hdbk, 352 pages, €21

A torrent of information: Catherine Mayer is not only rigorous as a journalist but a dynamo in her thinking
A torrent of information: Catherine Mayer is not only rigorous as a journalist but a dynamo in her thinking
Catherine Mayer

Tanya Sweeney

A compelling feminist call to arms lays bare the systems that hold women back and transports us to a fictional utopia where parity exists.

Did you know that in the US, fewer companies are run by women than are run by men named John? In a book positively packed to the rafters with eye-opening - and occasionally infuriating - findings, this is just one grim fact that Catherine Mayer lays bare in her feminist call to arms. 

For this, and for many other reasons, she says, the glass ceiling is very much still in place. As is the glass cliff - an instance where women only get promoted into positions of power at times of crisis, to fight fires and to limit damage until stability is restored.

Just when you think you've read every fact relating to gender inequality, from boardrooms to Hollywood, from sex work to the Icelandic parliament, Mayer throws another one into the mix. Taking the reader on journeys as near as Northern Ireland and as far as Saudi Arabia and China, Attack of the 50ft Women is as current, exhaustive and comprehensive as they come.

And on Mayer's watch, we are in extremely capable hands. She has spent years working as a journalist, latterly as TIME magazine's editor-at large. She also created, with her pal Sandi Toksvig, the Women's Equality Party in 2015: a party that she hopes will address government policy from the gender wage gap to domestic violence.

Occasionally, they hit roadblocks, and Mayer's recollection of getting a political party up on wheels, both in the face of hostility from other politicians and in the face of sheer expenditure, is an eye-opener. It's worth noting that in the London elections in May 2016, the Women's Equality Party polled a 5.2pc share of the vote, despite having existed for just over a year.

One thing's for sure: in the fight for gender equality, Mayer is putting her money where her mouth is. In a world full of thinkers, Mayer is clearly a doer.

Mayer went to a school that proudly counted among its alumnae the three daughters of Emmeline Pankhurst. "We learned that the Suffragettes' achievements marked the beginning of the end of the gender wars," writes Mayer.

Yet one of the more galling aspects of gender equality, says Mayer, is the insistence that feminism is now surplus to requirements, that the war against inequality has already been won. Even more dispiriting are the hordes of women who have turned their back on parity.

"The anti-feminist female is as persistent a breed as the clothes moth," writes Mayer. "Typically white and middle-class, she either doesn't believe in gender equality or else she doesn't believe in gender inequality, because she's too cocooned and myopic to see it. She declares that she has never experienced sexism or discriminatory behaviour that she couldn't handle. She is thriving."

Yet in Attack of the 50ft Woman, Mayer presents an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that their experience is the exception, and not the rule. In one passage, she recalls a speech made by Halla Gunnarsdottir, who served as special advisor in the Icelandic coalition. According to her: "The typical reaction of a state to a crisis is to cut services because they're seen as expenses. This affects women more adversely than men; states put money into construction because it's seen as an investment, while cutting services (like the caring professions) and replacing them with women's unpaid labour. They create jobs for men so that they can continue working."

From Lindy West and Marisa Bate to Jessica Valenti and Emer O'Toole, feminist tomes are certainly having a moment. And rightly so: as issues go, gender inequality doesn't get more compelling or complex than right now. Trolling, fat-shaming, street harassment, everyday sexism… their findings and stories, though compelling and impassioned, paint a gloomy, occasionally despairing picture.

Mayer has opted for a slightly different tack. Instead of merely shining a light on the interlocking systems that hold women back and letting those findings create the main horsepower of the book, she transports the reader to a fictional utopia where gender parity already exists: Equalia.

As one might imagine, Equalia is a rather agreeable place to be a woman. There's a Women's Day Off, for a start, where there are rallies, street parties and entertainment. But, crucially, it's also a lovely place to be a man, too.

Equality, Mayer writes, is also of huge benefit to men, as it frees them from their own set of gender constraints. They get to spend more time with their children. They don't feel the pressure to be breadwinners. They don't struggle so much at school. In short, a more equal society is a happier and much gentler place to be. And, factoring in the research from various studies linking female executives with profitability, Mayer also notes that Equalia is a very rich place indeed. One report has forecast a boost of £8.3 trillion to global GDP by 2025 if the gender gap narrows.

When it comes to creating Equalia, Mayer has thought of everything: whether people will be happier, who will look after the children and do the housework, what the environment will be like, and even what Equalia's denizens get to watch on TV. Attack of the 50ft Women, essentially, is the road map to Equalia.

There's no doubting it: we are living in a place far, far away from Equalia right now. And the disparities between here and there will frustrate most.

Mayer has clearly done her research, and there is so much of it laid bare here that she could easily have rested on her laurels and presented nothing but rhetoric. But it's clear that Mayer is not only rigorous as a journalist, but a dynamo in her thinking. Clocking in at over 300 pages, there is serious eating, drinking and chewing in this tome.

Occasionally mixing a dry humour with a torrent of information, Attack Of The 50ft Women is best described as a very pleasant, if steep, learning curve.

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