Gender Bias: What still needs to be done?

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Gender Bias: what still needs to be done? By Mandy Barker

On Saturday I was invited to speak at the Redeye National Photography Symposium in Salford: ‘Gender bias and the exploitation of women has been embedded in photography for far too long. The industry must be proactive within the global movement. How can we imagine and create a future with women and men on an equal footing?’ I spoke alongside three women doing powerful work: photographer, curator and lecturer Hilary Wood, Open Eye Gallery’s Director of Development and Partnerships Tracy Marshall, and photographer Maryam Wahid. We shared our views and experiences, it was a humbling experience around some inspiring people.

Gender and my career
Gender is a big topic and writing this has made me think even more about it, and how we tackle it, I will share some personal stories and experiences that have shaped my outlook (this blog may be slightly opinionated).

Take the risk
2.5 years ago, I did something brave. At 29, I left a secure and good job with only £800 in the bank, no car, no home, no family money to fall back on, and set up a start up business, Sail Creative.

Sail the longest job I have had, and it feels a natural path for me. But, growing up, when I said I wanted to do something that wasn’t a typical trade or ‘women’s role’ like an architect or journalist, my parents would say ‘you can’t do that it’s too competitive’. Not because they didn’t believe in me, but they were from a very traditional background and we all only know what we experience around us. This isn’t just a gender issue, but a class issue too. They wanted to protect me, and for me to play it safe. Would they have acted differently if I were a boy? I listened to my family and from 16, went into work full time.

It took until I was 24 to go to uni, the first in my family, and 29 to build my own business. If I had continued to listen to to those around me, I wouldn’t have done this, going against my own aspirations. But I knew this was my chance to carve my own path, and I didn’t know where I would end up, but I was curious enough to know I wanted to learn. And it was a good move – design was the first thing I was truly dedicated to. However, 8 months in, I nearly quit because I didn’t feel ‘good enough’, (I wanted instant results) but a female friend and accountant gave me the motivation and reflection time that I needed, and we looked at what I had achieved. I had achieved a lot. So I continued. Sail was the bravest thing I have done.

We must lift each other up
I have been lucky to have many supportive people throughout my journey: lecturers, mentors, peers, friends, family, clients. I have met other people who are doing visible and important work, finding them has been invaluable to my development and confidence. There are some incredible women making change and impact in the world, and we must take it upon ourselves to share our stories to inspire other women. Do not underestimate the power of others: mentorship drives you and holds you accountable.

I regularly do talks in education, and mentor others, to share my story, with an aim to inspire others to do the same. Visibility along with Peer to peer support is important. We must lift each other up, be open about our challenges around work and stop comparing ourselves.

Women must value their skills
Although our mindset and society is still catching up, we must value our skillset. Virginia Woolf’s famous essay A Room of Ones Own argues that Women haven’t had the same space to sit and contemplate that men have traditionally had. We can’t ignore the fact that historically, gender has granted privilege, confidence and opportunity. The higher you go the fewer women there are. Where power is, women are not.

We must change this not just through our work, but outside of work. Challenging conformity around others can be uncomfortable. Sometimes I get worried I sound aggressive, or angry or like a broken record. This is social conditioning. We must not shy away from challenging social conformity through fear of stigma, because positively challenging sends a tiny ripple of hope, which we need for change.

Gender equality must be a collective responsibility
We don’t always see inequalities because we don’t have to, even as progressive, inclusive and forward moving people. Our privileges can be invisible to us, meaning prejudice and divides can be too.

I have many privileges, I am a white, British, millennial-born woman. But as a queer woman raised in the working class, I am also part of minority groups, and this has fuelled my passion for equality. One personal challenge I have is thinking what is obvious to me, must be obvious to others. But it isn’t, which is why things like this are important, to highlight what still needs to be done.

Gender inequality has been highlighted to me through personal recent events. I was brought up on a council estate in Scarborough, My mum and dad separated when I was 14. Fast forward 18 years and my dad is retired with a good pension, in a nice detached house and very financially comfortable. My mum is in a small council flat, still doing laborious, long hour work, living hand to mouth. My mum is now 62 and has missed the recent retirement threshold, she has no financial stability. She brought up her children and a home well, and although she worked full time all her life, she never got to carve a career, an education or opportunities because of domestic pressure, motherhood pressures and gender conditioning.

The working world was crafted by men for men, and it may have made sense, 100 years ago. But the world is changing. A big part of gender equality equal aspirations: for all to be able strive for economic independence and stability. Parents, the media, employers, parliament, public figures, society, institutions are all responsible. Collectively, we must work together.

Raise all genders the same
The gender equality movement is about human justice and equal rights, not because one gender is better than the other. It isn’t about dividing, it’s about unity, it’s about continuing the conversation, even if it is uncomfortable.

“We are raising our girls to be perfect, and we are raising our boys to be brave. We have to socialise girls to be comfortable with imperfection, and to feel loved not for being perfect, but for being courageous.” Reshma Saujani

I, and many other women and girls I have spoken to share similar obstacles of thought that can hold us back: high expectations of self, low confidence, body image pressure, perfectionism and being scared of failure and vulnerability. And on the other side, men feel they have to prove masculinity and mask vulnerability.

Unlearning lessons of gender and society will take a long time, but it is moving, especially with the next generation. We must remove obstacles for young girls and raise aspirations of all young people. The next time you see a little girl, don’t tell her she looks pretty, tell her she’s brave, or ask her opinion on something. 

We need to be angry but we need to be hopeful, and we all need to be part of it. Gender equality will free the stereotypes and pressures of masculinity and femininity, give us less role based expectation, more balance and equal aspirations. We must act and speak together, for things to get better, for equal platforms, opportunity and aspirations, regardless of gender.

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