Kathy Lette on equality in Fifty Shades of Feminism

FIFTY years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the book credited with starting the second wave of feminism, 50 writers contribute to a volume that asks what being a woman today means to them. Have they swapped purity and maternity for careers, sex and shopping? Kathy Lette reckons we still have a long way to go to win equality.

IT’S STILL A MAN’S WORLD OD, apparently as a prank, devised two sexes and called them ‘opposite’. (Ah, if only there were a third sex available to us.) The sex war has raged since the dawn of humanity.

Surely it’s time we called a truce … starting with men negotiating their terms of surrender. Now that women are economically independent and can impregnate ourselves, if only our vibrators could light the barbie and kill the spider in the bathtub, would we need men at all? There is much talk about the future being female, as catalogued in Hanna Rosin’s bestseller The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. Women, the American writer points out, now hold half of the nation’s jobs and in a third of families they are the main breadwinner. In the US, for every two men who receive a BA, three women will achieve the same.

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And yet, misogynists, sexists – whatever you want to call those who don’t treat women as equals – prove that dinosaurs still roam the Earth. Worse, one hundred years since Emmeline Pankhurst chained herself to the railings of the British Prime Minister’s house, women still don’t have equal pay (we’re getting 85p in the pound; in the US, it’s about 75 cents in the dollar).

We’re also concussed from hitting our heads on the glass ceiling. Plus we’re expected to Windolene it while we’re up there (probably for £1.50 less than a man would be paid for doing the exact same task). What’s more, even though females make up just under half of the workforce, we’re still doing 99 per cent of all childcare and housework. The have-it-all Superwoman has turned into the do-it-all drudge.

A report published by British think-tank Demos reveals that women are being held down by a ‘second glass ceiling’ at home. Forty-four per cent of women interviewed said that they would take the day off work if their child was unexpectedly ill and couldn’t go to school, but only three per cent said their husbands would do the same. Which could partly explain why only three per cent of FTSE 100 jobs are held by women. Many husbands seem to think that a woman’s wedding vows read: To love, hoover and obey.

Having raised two children, I’m convinced that the Dunkirk evacuation would be easier to organise than a working mother getting her kids up and out of the house in the mornings. My husband maintains he’d like to help more, only he can’t multitask. This is a biological cop-out; I doubt that any man would have trouble multi-tasking at, say, an orgy.

Then there’s our representation in the media. When Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard used the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s testicles as maracas in her ‘smack-down’, it made global headlines. In Britain, France and the US, she was praised for the most outspoken attack on sexism in political history. (The Sydney Morning Herald, following the release of a new Herald/Nielsen poll, reported a five per cent jump in Gillard’s approval rating after the furore.) Yet much of the mainstream Australian media wrote off her speech as a disaster – something Lenore Taylor from the SMH put down to the male dominance of newspapers.

According to Women in Journalism’s analysis of nine national newspapers in the UK, sexist, humiliating stereotypes of women and male bylines dominate the front pages; during the past month, male journalists wrote 78 per cent of all front-page articles and men accounted for 84 per cent of those mentioned or quoted in lead pieces.

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The only females to be regularly pictured in most newspapers are the Duchess of Cambridge and Pippa Middleton, who are little more than human handbags draped attractively over the arms of important men. When powerful women are featured, the images are often unflattering. There are few pictures in which women look businesslike; whereas men featured in newspapers wear suits and sports gear and are shown as active participants, women are sexualised objects, who are naked or nearly naked.

In other words, it’s still a man’s world.

Still, there’s no doubt that feminism has improved things. When I was young, women climbed the career ladder lad by lad and wrong by wrong. Aged 22, I went for a job interview at a major Australian television station. Four male executives sat across the desk from me. The most high-ranking of them slapped a $10 note on the table. “I bet I can make your tits move without touching them,” he bragged. I shrugged, a little bewildered. He then lunged forward, mauled my breasts and shoved the money at me, guffawing, “You won.” As the men smacked their thighs with matey mirth, I slapped $20 on the table and announced, “I bet you 20 bucks I can make your balls move without touching them,” and kicked the executive who’d manhandled me hard between the legs. Yes, I got the job, but what an initiation.

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According to websites such as the Everyday Sexism Project (everydaysexism.com), where women exchange examples of sexist remarks, chauvinism in the workplace is still rife. So what are my survival tips for working women?

First off, if your boss comes on to you, I suggest you use a woman’s most lethal weapon and shoot from the lip. Simply point at his appendage and say, ‘What do you want me to do, floss?’ Or enquire if he knows why men like intelligent women. Because opposites attract.

Even though women are brought up to be polite, sometimes we need to think like a bloke. The average man keeps fit by doing step aerobics off his own ego. So be confident and assertive. If a man tells sexist jokes to embarrass or unnerve you, fight back. Ask him if he knows why ‘dumb blonde’ jokes are always one-liners? So that men will understand them. Or perhaps enquire if he’s heard about the miracle baby? It was born with a penis and a brain.

If you’re in banking, try asking if he knows the difference between government bonds and blokes. Government bonds mature. If a man ever refers to you as a ‘cow’ or a ‘silly moo’, just point out sweetly that the reason men can’t get mad cow disease is because they’re pigs. And if he retorts that women can’t tell jokes, simply reply, ‘That’s because we work for them.’

Working mothers juggle so much we could be in the Moscow State Circus. But don’t try to be perfect. Perfect mums only exist in American sitcoms. Just remember that a ‘balanced meal’ is whatever stays on the spoon en route to a baby’s mouth. And ‘controlled crying’ is the art of not shattering into tears when your toddler accidentally wipes Vegemite all over your new designer suit.

And if you want to be in a top FTSE 100 job, I would also suggest you marry a man who likes to shop and mop. A beta bloke will adore you, won’t bore you and will do all your chores for you – a ‘wife’, in other words.

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Men often get pay rises because they ask. Don’t be shy about highlighting your superior qualities. When it’s promotion time, remind the boss how much time men waste. Not only is ‘hypochondria’ Greek for man (any man who says he’s not a hypochondriac, that’s the only disease he doesn’t have) but they also think sitting on the toilet is a leisure activity.

And most important of all, be helpful to female colleagues. Women are each other’s human Wonderbras: uplifting, supportive, making each other look bigger and better. And finally, remember that any woman who calls herself a ‘post-feminist’ has kept her Wonderbra and burned her brains, because we still have a long way to go.

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© Kathy Lette 2013, Extracted from Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, £12.99, Virago (www.littlebrown.co.uk). Reader Offer, £2 off plus free p&p until 14 April inclusive. Call 01832 737525 and quote offer reference LB 172.