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I'm not a feminist but...

The word feminism is replete with stereotypes. In the 60s and 70s, it described angry bra-burning women with a casual disregard for depilation.

In the 80s, a feminist was a shoulder-pad- wearing, ball-breaking femi-Nazi. The 90s gave us ladettism: a brand of feminism that equated equality with matching men pint for pint. Then we had Girl Power; quite how a pair of breasts spilling out of a Union Jack dress and the lyrics "I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha" liberates women is anyone's guess. Today, we have the Tyra Banks' 'you go girl' brand of female solidarity, which the former model uses to fine effect when ridiculing young women over their physical appearance on America's Next Top Model.

Feminism has been branded and rebranded, defined and redefined, but the connotations of the word are still overwhelmingly negative. The movement has been vilified and the tag reduced to a casual slur. Some dare not even utter it, preparing to use the seemingly less offensive 'f-word' instead. When I describe myself as a feminist, I use the same tone as when I admit that I quite like Lionel Richie.

Women don't want to define themselves as feminists lest they be thought of as seething, man-hating anarcha-bitches. Some think we don't need a movement any more: we can vote; we can work; we can use contraception. In fact, we can brag about our one-night stands and buy Rampant Rabbits on the high street. We have stay-at-home dads, boyfriends who partake in cooking courses and a male contraceptive injection, for heaven's sake.

Yet for all this Sex and the City pseudo-liberation, women still don't have equal pay or equal representation in industry and politics. Meanwhile, with the pornification of mainstream culture, women are more objectified then ever ... and worse, we are doing it to ourselves.

Glamour modelling has become a laywoman's pursuit, with male magazines receiving a deluge of provocative photos from female readers on a daily basis. Brazilian waxing has filtered down from the porn industry and into our local beauty salons. Girls as young as eight can be seen wearing the ubiquitous Playboy bunny on their pink tracksuits. They aspire to look like the Pussycat Dolls (a girl band who began their careers as strippers). They play with Bratz Dolls, which, for the uninitiated, look like high-class prostitutes

We have women pressing their breasts together on magazine covers (read: pandering to the male lipstick lesbianism fantasy) on the top shelf in the newsagents, while hardcore pornographic content is becoming increasingly misogynistic. Is this really liberation?

This new form of sexism -- the hypersexualisation of women -- has inspired a coterie of feminist writers to take it to task. Ariel Levy argues in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture that women are objectifying themselves and other women. "I first noticed it several years ago," she said. "I would turn on the television and find strippers in pasties explaining how best to lap dance a man to orgasm. I would flip the channel and see babes in tight, tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines."

More recently, author Natasha Walter has tackled the subject in Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism. She interviewed prostitutes, men's magazine editors, strippers and topless models, and argues the case that women "seem to believe sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having". She said: "While many women relaxed and believed most arguments around equality had been won, and that there were no significant barriers to further progress, the dolls were on the march again."

She found an unlikely ally in Dublin glamour model Claire Tully. Tully came to public attention for having both PhD brains (and a first-class science degree from Trinity College) and a Page 3 body. "I agreed with a lot of what that book had to say," she said. "What's happened in the industry lately is that there are so many girls sending in work for free. They've ruined the business for professional models. Especially at the moment, with times being so tough, editors use free pictures rather than pay girls for shoots."

Why, I ask, are women willing to publish provocative photos of themselves for free? "It's a huge void in women's self-confidence. There are girls who spend hundreds on getting professional portfolios done and they put them up for free because they want men to comment on them. When I do glamour modelling, I don't do it because I think it is liberating me. I do it because it's my job and I'm looked after. The day I'm not looked after is the day I turn around and say I won't do this."

While Tully realises the implicit exploitation of the glamour modelling industry, she is quick to point out that sexism is rife in many other professions. "If I went into science, how many guys that graduated at the same time as me with poorer marks would be in a higher paid job than me by now?" she asked. "Probably all of them.

"With employers, it's probably always at the back of their minds when they are interviewing a woman in her mid-20s to mid-30s: is she going to get pregnant and walk out on the job?"

Motherhood is certainly one of the major contributing factors to the widening gender pay gap in Ireland. A report by the Economic and Social Research Institute states that men, on average, earn 8% more than women.

Seamus McGuinness, co-author of the report, said maternity breaks can impact on a woman's overall earning potential. "Her skills get degraded while she's out of the labour market, and then when she re-enters after a number of years, she tends not to go back in at the level she left."

When the early childcare supplement is cut in May, women will be under even greater pressure to pay ever-mounting childcare bills. Some will be forced to leave the workplace altogether rather than try to get by on the paltry childcare donation of €83 per month.

"One wonders whether there is an agenda at work here to disincentivise women in particular from re-entering the workforce, now that the economy is in such dire straits," said Labour's spokesman on children, Senator Alex White.

The pay isn't just down to child-rearing, though, argues Rosemary Delaney, editor of Women Mean Business magazine. "For some, it's down to negotiation skills -- how you sell yourself at the initial interview," she said. "Perhaps this is a confidence issue and, let's face it, men traditionally have been able to sell themselves better. Another issue challenging women is not having enough role models and female mentors. If you see a woman in a key position in your company, you are more likely to believe you can rise to such a position. If you only see men at the top, it certainly sends a negative message."

Yet even with strong female role-models, would we follow them? Consider the dearth of such role-models in the media. Michelle Obama was her husband's mentor when they worked together at a Chicago law firm. She earned more than him before he was inaugurated as the US president. Yet female journalists preferred to analyse her keen fashion sense and penchant for arm-baring attire.

The prolific female idols of today are Carrie Bradshaw, with her tired double entendres and designer shoe fetish, and Jordan and her surgically inflated front. "But she's a businesswoman," her fans argue. Indeed she is. Her business is her surgically inflated front. Worse, there's the rise of WAG culture, which has validated the Cinderella complex. The message is: look like a conveyor-belt blow-up doll and you'll bag yourself a rich man and never have to work a day in your life.

The fight for gender equality isn't just being impeded by men, but by ourselves. There's a rash of female executives in the pornography industry. Women's magazines objectify women's bodies, too: by sneering at pictures of celebrities with cellulite and increasing the bust size of their cover models. In fact, many men's mags are edited by women.

The film industry has long been criticised for its cookie-cutter portrayal of women, but many of these films have been written by women. The single, desperate, cat-owning character played by Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth was created by three female screenwriters.

It's no longer just men who are misogynists, and the ripple effect -- less pay and unequal opportunity -- can only continue as a result. HQ