“…these inequalities, whilst varying in severity and geography, are symptoms of the same disease”

WCIA’s Global Learning Manager, Amber Demetrius, explores her experiences of gender and fairness

It often surprises my students that, outside of work, I am a powerlifter. Where some people watch TV or see friends after a bad day, I go and I lift heavy weights. Give me a barbell, give me a dumbell, give me a challenge! I love the sense of power that it gives me. Lately though, I’ve noticed something. It’s an obvious something really. We all live it. It’s that the world I exercise in isn’t fair. We pretend it is. We don’t make a fuss about it. Only I’ve noticed that the experience of being there is rather more comfortable if you’re male.

I hasten to add that there are plenty of great men in my gym who are super helpful and very supportive. Which leads me to ask why the experience is different between the genders? I could say it’s that there is a gender imbalance in when it comes to lifting – less role models and voices for women, especially over a certain age. I could also point out the design of the gym is with a slightly larger, taller frame in mind. Truth is though, the inequalities come from the attitudes of the participants and I include myself in that statement. Let me give you some examples of those attitudes in action.

One is the attitude when it comes to taking up space. The women in my group will typically  position themselves on the outskirts of the classes at the corners of the room so that, if they’re last to finish a workout, nobody will see them. This trend is born out by a recent study by Women’s Health that found 28% of women avoid the weights area of their gym altogether for fear of judgement and intimidation. (10 Women’s Only Gyms In The UK: All The Details + Why We Need Them (womenshealthmag.com))

Another is the attitude to feedback.  With the men, there are often intensive conversations, demonstrations and sometimes even getting cameras out. With the women, feedback is almost always met with giggles, apologies and excuses; as though we don’t feel we should take up the teacher’s time. This is the same attitude seen in gender studies (Biederman, 2013; (Beaman, Wheldall, & Kemp, 2006), where girls simply expected less time and attention to their learning despite typically outperforming their male peers in primary and secondary education.

Finally and most depressingly, I want to mention the attitude to aspiration. Where men will often go too heavy, I frequently see women either lingering on the same weight so they can be like their friends; or women who are perfectly capable, not trying for the heavier weights because (direct quote here) “ I’d hate to embarrass myself”. It’s a frightening demonstration of Reshma Sujami’s Ted Talk “We are raising our boys to be brave and our girls to be perfect.”( Teach girls bravery, not perfection | TED-Ed, this one is also good Caroline Paul: To raise brave girls, encourage adventure | TED Talk)

I’m so aware in writing this that my viewpoint is one of privilege. Compare me to the women in Texas fighting abortion rights or the women of Afghanistan who are fearing for their jobs and lives, and my viewpoint is from an Ivory Tower. I also do not want to suggest that my position is more or less important than the rights of other groups in society who suffer inequalities. If you’re going to talk about being fair, you have to commit to being fair to everyone.

 What I do want to get at is that these inequalities, whilst varying in severity and geography, are symptoms of the same disease.  The roll back of women’s rights is happening everywhere yet it is only when we look at the global picture that the trend becomes starkly apparent .  The continuing issues that this world faces with discrimination not only against women, but against all kinds of identities, are so structural and so lived, they often feel hard to see. We don’t see how our privileges affect us, we don’t see how our attitudes come with consequences and if we can’t see it, how can we do something about it?

This term, WCIA has developed some resources on fairness in your locality that we would love our schools and partners to get involved with. They are designed to enable you to consider your own role and privilege but they also support young people to reflect on how we can make our world fairer for everyone by listening to stakeholder experiences, acting on feedback and reflecting on the results.   They are available here. We would also love to hear from you about your experiences of fairness in your community so if you click below, you will find a Newsletter which we will upload to our website and a link to some “Making Change Happen”  resources which you can use to try and address some of these issues in your local area. Our Global Learning Manager is always on the look out for schools who would like to help make positive changes so you can also drop her a line on amberdemetrius@wcia.org.uk

 In my last piece, I mentioned that people expect bad things from the future – it’s part of our survivalist brain to see the absolute worst case scenario looking back at you. However,  when you look back over the last hundred years, you can see how systems and societies can and have improved. Therapist Carl Rogers suggested that all any of us need to really change is empathy for our experience, authentic and honest responses to our growth and an ongoing positive regard for us. In other words, a space where we are heard, understood and safe to be ourselves.  If we were able to work together and create that kind of world for everyone, what kind of growth might be possible?

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