Feminism Across the Globe: A Cross-Continental Conversation
Historically, there has been widespread dissent over the precise definition of “feminism”. However, what is most powerful about the concept’s lack of a precise definition is that it is broad enough to encompass the hopes and ambitions of a plethora of different women around the world. International Women’s Day capitalizes on the different needs of women across the globe, presenting the opportunity for these vast and deviating needs to converge around a central theme, to demonstrate that despite our differences, despite our diverging needs, women are still—always—stronger when they are united. This is particularly important in an age where borders are becoming vapider, and people are migrating to different countries to pursue their ambitions. It is critical, therefore, on this momentous day, to understand what women in different places think and feel about feminism, about their country’s progress, and about their hopes for the future.
This past Fall, I had the distinct privilege to study law at the London School of Economics. I sat down recently with two female student-leaders from LSE to talk about feminism, how the movement has changed to adapt to the 21st century, and to hear their thoughts on entering the legal profession as young women. What is most interesting about this conversation is that, though all three of us come from different countries and backgrounds– Carlotta is from Italy, Rachael from New Zealand, and I am from New York– we all see ourselves as actors that are part of the larger societal fabric, intricately benefitting from, and contributing to the feminist movement. All three of us were touched by Hillary Clinton’s avowal that women’s rights are indeed human rights: with these words echoing across oceans and deserts and reverberating across the metaphoric wild west of the internet, this conversation is proof that 108 years later, women are still united and driven to achieve not only equality but parity in every community and professional field.
Shane: You’re both from different countries, and have spent significant times living overseas. Do you think women face different issues in different countries? What have been your experiences at home, and how have they varied being in London?
Carlotta: Italy, where I’m from, despite its more brazen cultural developments, has always been more myopic on social and cultural issues– especially in the economic and professional arenas– than their European neighbors. I’ve been living in London for several years now and I have found that London is much more progressive in regard to feminism and gender equality. Italy, perhaps a reflection of their leadership, which is primarily comprised of older white men, remains very traditionalist. The issues that women face there are, therefore, quite vast. Although figures show that the pay gap is at a minimum of 5%, when analyzing this figure closely it is clear that the justification for this number is due to Italy being one of the countries with fewest women in the workforce. Notwithstanding more than half of undergraduate students being women, this figure is not reflected in the workforce. Women struggle daily to find, as well as maintain, jobs. This is also reflected in the leadership figures: Italy has never had a female Prime Minister, and women are missing from other political leadership positions. This can be clearly contrasted with England: though they still struggle with gender inequality, they appear more progressive. London is an incredibly liberal, open-minded city and in many respects, England has capitalized on London’s culture using the city as an incubator for most social initiatives. Throughout my search for a job at a law firm, I have come across various several schemes directed solely at fighting gender inequality. Although these initiatives clearly do not resolve a long history of gender discrimination, I have found that they do begin to raise awareness and deal with the problem at the entrance-level. The fact that many law firms now pride themselves on their female-male employee ratios demonstrates that this cultural change is heading in the right direction.
Rachael: In terms of my personal experience, I have found that gender issues in New Zealand and London are similar.
Some fields remain male-dominated despite a significant increase in the proportion of female undergraduate students. It had previously been assumed that a higher proportion of female students would correct gender imbalances generationally, and translate into more female representation in senior roles, but this has not generally been the case. In the legal field specifically, the total proportion of female judges and female partners in law firms in New Zealand both still only sit at around 30%. In London, a friend of mine told me that in her office there were more people named David than there were women. Although it is not an empirical study of the industry, I think it is illustrative of a gender balance problem here too.
Sexual harassment is also a big issue that was brought to light recently in New Zealand when a large law firm announced an investigation into its workplace culture after serious allegations of sexual misconduct. While it is not something I have experienced personally, anecdotally the discussions I’ve had with my peers suggests that it is a pervasive problem, both in New Zealand and here in London.
However, there has also been some significant progress. In 2017 for the first time there was a higher proportion of female permanent members of the New Zealand Supreme Court. There are also similar initiatives in New Zealand to those that Carlotta mentioned which promote gender equality, such as associations for women lawyers, scholarship programs and the New Zealand Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter.
Shane: International Women’s Day was launched in 1911, why do you think it still resonates so prominently with women across the globe?
Carlotta: I find that the reason that International Women’s Day, and the feminist movement more generally, still resonates with women across the globe today is that we still have not reached a point of satisfaction. The fact that discrimination and inequality are frequently experienced by women daily, for instance through the gender pay gap, demonstrates that the movement still has a long way to go. The hurdles present in overcoming a long-standing history of gender discrimination depict the importance of continuing the progress. From my personal experience, the concern I have had is whether companies are now hiring female graduates for reputational reasons, in the sense that they can use it to prove that they are moving towards gender equality. It is vital that societal views progress so that corporate policies reflect the underpinning gender equality principles on the basis of its importance, rather than just for figures.
Rachael: International Women’s Day celebrates the progress that has been made and serves as a platform to promote the issues that women continue to face. I think that it continues to resonate with women because, in reflecting on the past achievements of suffragette, feminists, and human rights movements, it reinforces the significance of the changes that have already been made and renews our commitment to address current issues.
Shane: What does #BalanceforBetter, the 2019 International Women’s Day slogan, mean to you in the legal field?
Carlotta: This slogan reiterates that gender equality is a societal issue. Gender inequality does not only concern women being treated differently, but it also refers to a greater idea that both men and women are to be treated equally. Without gender balance, the world is not maximizing its potential. This balance is especially quintessential in the legal field, as society is meant to be represented and judged by a group that realistically reflects it. It is flawed to argue that a legal field dominated by men are realistically representing society. Women judges and lawyers are necessary for the creation of justice, firstly, because a panel comprised exclusively of men will not be able to fully understand cases involving female-related issues, but more broadly, because society itself is not homogenous and our representation in the legal field must represent the heterogeneous world we inhabit.
Rachael: In a broad sense, #BalanceforBetter reflects that women’s economic empowerment improves productivity, a claim which is supported by recent research. The slogan’s gender-neutral positioning is important because gender equality is not just a women’s issue.
In the context of the legal profession, a business that recruits based on merits, and not gender (or other irrelevant characteristics) is logically more likely to thrive. A major challenge in achieving this, however, is overcoming two pervasive and self-perpetuating subconscious biases about meritocracy and gender: first, that characteristics that are stereotyped as associated with the male gender, such as aggressiveness, are desirable in a lawyer and second, that men are (at least initially) assumed to be more competent than their female colleagues.
That said, it is important to remember that women deserve equal treatment because it is our human right, and not just because of our value to a business case.
Shane: A dominant theme driving International Women’s Day is the value women bring to every industry. Why do you think diversity is so important, specifically in the legal field?
Carlotta: The difference in the thinking of women should not be seen as a disadvantage, but rather as an advantage that enables a diverse group of employees to achieve new heights of success. The problem-solving nature of the legal field evidently benefits from people with different experiences and mindsets, enabling a gender-balanced team to solve issues in better ways. Having a room filled with like-minded men will not generate the innovative and creative solutions that a woman could bring to the table.
Rachael: As Carlotta has mentioned, a diverse workforce is enriched by a wider range of views, ideas, experiences and skills. In the legal field in particular, diversity is important because of the role legal professionals have in providing representation and shaping the development of the law. At an institutional level, the legal field is responsible for the fair administration of justice and so it is important that legal professionals who comprise the field are representative of the society that they serve.
Shane: What do you think makes the campaign for women’s equality different today from past decades? Specifically, how do you think social media and technology have impacted the women’s movement?
Carlotta: Campaigning for women’s equality today is different than what it was in the past decades because so much change has already occurred. This means that part of being a feminist today requires embracing and making the most of the changes that our predecessors have already accomplished, and then subsequently building on this and pushing for more change. Social media and technology have made the process of campaigning much easier for women. It is not only the educated and privileged few that have the opportunity to fight for women’s equality. Rather, any woman can readily access social media and use it as a platform to express her views and beliefs. This facilitates, as well as encourages, expression.
Rachael: Technology and social media provide a global platform for spreading messages, disseminating information and mobilizing movements. I think the Women’s March, and the solidarity marches that it sparked internationally, are a good example of that global reach. Social media also brings those messages into mainstream culture. And I do think that they have resulted in tangible changes. For example, following the #MeToo movement, information about consent was provided as part of the orientation program for my LLM. That kind of education was not offered to me at high school or during my undergraduate degree.
Shane: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing women today?
Carlotta: In fighting female discrimination, solidarity is essential. Many women who have managed to fight against gender inequality and reach higher positions in the workplace believe that to get there you need to ruthlessly compete with all others, even women. However, I believe that this is not the case. In order to achieve overall gender equality, it is imperative that women work together to combat the absurd discrimination that they are faced with daily in the workplace. Since the legal field has always been a male-dominated area, it clearly poses serious challenges for women. This reiterates that in order to overcome these outdated and unjustified situations, women need to form a united front in confronting the matters.
Rachael: I think generally the challenges women face today are the same ongoing issues of freedom from sexual harassment and assault, fair pay and representation in leadership.
Shane: In closing, on International Women’s Day, is there any message you want to give to younger women, graduating high school and starting college?
Carlotta: My advice would be to embrace being a woman. It should not be seen as something that holds you back or allows others to impress the idea on you that it disadvantages you. Being a woman is something that you should utilize to demonstrate your worth and importance. Women are equally as necessary as men in the functioning of society, and should, therefore, be treated as such.
Rachael: While the historic lack of opportunities for women has created competition for limited space, recent activism has demonstrated the power and importance of women working together. The best advice I received was to find mentoring opportunities and join associations that build networks and empower women. I would pass that same advice on to younger women.