Firstly, I apologise that this article might not be the best writing I’ve produced. I’m currently sitting here at work shivering while I write. This could be because the air conditioning temperature in office buildings are based on a decades-old formula that uses the metabolic rates of men (specifically a 40-year-old male that weighs 70kg) for the temperature control. This may have been more applicable in the 1960s when the original study was conducted, and women had lower participation rates in the workplace. Nowadays the formula overestimates female metabolic rate by as much as 35%, meaning that current offices are on-average five degrees too cold for women.
The shivering could also be from me getting sick (Disclaimer: I’ve had the COVID-19 vaccination). I could take some aspirin but, considering this drug was only ever tested on male rats and not females, it might not be effective. This is attributed to the fact that 8 out of 10 medical trials use male rats, and cardiovascular disease was traditionally only focused on males and therefore aspirin, a medication recommended for prevention, was formulated for male species. In fact, in the 1950’s, heart disease was known as “man’s disease” due to the high rates of cardiovascular disease in middle-aged men. The situation got so serious that the American Heart Association held a conference called ‘Hearts and Husbands: The first women’s conference on coronary disease’. The conference, held in 1964 and attended by 10,000 women, was for the women to learn about how to prevent their husbands from getting heart disease. Thirty years later women finally held a conference dedicated to addressing their own cardiovascular health risks.
I might just ask my boss if I can drive home and work from there. I just hope I don’t crash as women are 47% more at risk of being seriously injured in a car crash than a male. Crash test dummies used to test vehicle safety are based-off the 50th percentile male (177cm tall and 76kg). Unfortunately, my fun size stature of 163cm means that I need to sit closer to the pedals and more upright to see over the dashboard. And the seat hasn’t been tested at this measurement.
I digress. The purpose of this article is to get some conversation started about what some consider a really dirty word. It begins with an ‘F’…..
What does it mean to be a feminist? Have a good hard think about the emotional response this word generates in you when you hear it. Now let’s delve into the basics.
Feminism, according to the Cambridge dictionary definition, means the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state. It is not exclusive to one gender and anyone can be a feminist.
If you read my above monologue about being cold, potentially sick and at a higher risk of being injured in a car crash and were shocked, outraged or any other emotion beyond thinking “Seems legitimate” then you are someone who values gender equality. This does not mean you need to go out and burn your bras or that you hate men. It simply means that you are someone who believes in equal opportunity, advocacy and equality for all genders. Our sex should not affect our rights for clinically tested medical interventions, safer cars or having to rug up to sit in the office air conditioning.
Across the generations, feminism has taken on different meanings and reference points. To some, feminism is a dirty word – the ‘F word’. To others it is seen as a way of life and an ongoing fight to challenge gender norms and biases. Whether you identify as a feminist, one way or another we need to continue to challenge gender bias surrounding us.
We all hold gender biases, whether we like it or not. It is a cognitive response whereby our brain experiences information overload and begins to look for patterns and filters to choose the important information to absorb. Even our brains take shortcuts! And while we all love a time-saving shortcut, this has the potential to cause more harm than good as our brain forms patterns, behaviours and biases. This tends to mean we surround ourselves with likeminded people – known as your circle of safety. Your squad.
Don’t believe me? Try this activity.
Grab a pen and paper…or pull out your smartphone. Just be wary that your hand might hurt holding it as they are designed off the average male hand size. Write a list of 6 to 10 people that you trust most (no family members or partners). Mark a star next to the name for each of the people that has the same attributes as you. This includes gender, sexuality, age, career, religion, first language spoken at home and ethnicity. Take a look at your list to see if you surround yourself with likeminded people or if you have a diverse circle of safety.
It is not abnormal to surround yourself with likeminded people. It is a survival mechanism whereby the brain begins to identify, at a rapid rate, who is “friend or foe” based on your own patterns and behaviours. Kristen Pressner addresses this in her TEDx talk “Are You Biased? I Am”. She encourages everyone to “flip it to test it”. Actively practice a paradoxical intervention. And by doing this, see if that changes your values, beliefs or perspective. Feminism can be practiced through the “flip it to test it”. Apply the litmus test of what standards you would or would not accept. Pay attention to language around you; apply a gender lens to certain situations. It can be as simple as comparing the different connotations when someone refers to an action being performed ‘like a girl’ or ‘like a man’.
In 2014 an advertising company filmed a social experiment. The filming was part of a campaign by Always, a sanitary pad company, to encourage girls to maintain their confidence through puberty and beyond by tackling the societal limitations that stand in their way. A casting call was put out for young men and women, boys and girls. Those who attended were put in front of a camera and given a range of different actions to act out. This included “Fight”, “Run”. “Throw a ball” and “Swing a baseball bat”.
The subjects were also given the direction to do these actions “like a girl”. The young men and women, along with the boys, immediately started performing in an over-exaggerated and self-depreciating way – weakly throwing a ball, running with their arms flailing, swinging a bat the wrong direction, pouting, hair flipping and so on These were grown men and women, and young boys reflecting the stereotypes that society had taught them.
Then it was the younger girl’s turn to do the actions ‘life a girl’. They ran with determination on their faces and air punched with their fists held firmly and confidently. They had pride and self-belief, and acted in stark contrast to the older group who have been shaped by society’s view of a female’s physical capability. When asked at the end of the filming, what ‘Like a girl’ meant to them, the young girls answered “It sounds like you’re trying to humiliate someone”.
The #LikeAGirl campaign was instrumental in helping ignite the conversation around gender bias. A description that had been previously used as an insult had now been challenged to actually represent women for their strengths and abilities. Whilst the older generations and young boys may have acted in front of the camera in a way that demonstrated weakness, to fight like a girl meant to throw a killer punch to the younger girls.
How can we build on the determination of this future generation of women? First and foremost, we need to challenge the existing gender bias that is ingrained in our culture. Easier said than done, right?
The biggest barrier to challenging gender bias is to not shy away from using words like “challenge” and “gender bias”, to normalise the concept of “feminism”. Stereotypes and stereotyping is where sexism and gender discrimination can become the norm.
To me, feminism is about the push for meaningful progress and sustainable change. To be constructive and not destructive. Unless we draw attention to what is not right, eg using ‘Like a girl’ in a negative context, then we can’t defy it and have the important conversations. This starts with looking at our own biases and flipping it where needed. And most importantly – fighting for change like a girl.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
Why we must stop dancing to the sound of our own oppression by Madame Gandhi for TedX Talks
What Is Feminism, And Why Do So Many Women And Men Hate It? by Kathy Caprino
10 Ways to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace by Lynne Callister
EU challenges gender stereotypes in a new awareness-raising campaign “Fight Like a Girl” by United Nations Ukraine
About the author:
Liz Daly is a full time Army Medical Officer (non-clinical) and a part-time PhD student. Her doctorate is focused on a tailored mental healthcare model for current and ex-serving female ADF veterans. Liz works at Headquarters Defence Force Recruiting as a Professional Services Recruiter for Health. She proudly fights like a girl.