February 21, 2020

Written by: Monica McCluskey

Every year, 12 million girls get married before the age of 18 years old, and become “child brides”. That’s 33,000 every day, or one girl every two seconds. A third of women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and 50 per cent of women killed worldwide in 2019 were murdered by either their partner or a family member (figures from the United Nations).

The facts are stark, shocking and unavoidable: so why are we still fighting for gender equity? At our current rate of economic progress, it will take 99.5 years to reach gender parity (according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020). Female babies born today are unlikely to live in a world where there is global gender equity – unless they live until 2120, let that sink in for a second.

While awareness of sexual violence against women went mainstream with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement following the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, more still needs to be done to. We can’t let the momentum fall by the wayside. (Particularly in an era where it is perfectly acceptable for a certain US President to objectify women – “grab ’em by the pussy” anyone?).

However, despite the need for continued unity and global action behind the women’s rights movement, conversations about gender equity have been complicated by the F word. Feminism.

Feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes. Yet, the number of women – or men – who identify as a feminist is low. A 2016 Fawcett poll estimates that less than one in five people identify as a feminist, while a 2018 YouGov poll put the number slightly higher at 34 per cent. But, similar studies also show that over two-thirds of the population believe in gender equality.

How can this disconnect be reconciled? How can you believe in equal rights for the sexes, and not be a feminist? And what does this mean for feminism moving forward?

To start, feminism does not factor in the intersection between gender and race. It is argued that the term is not inclusive, and does not take into account the different narratives experienced by black women or Asian women worldwide, and this is problematic. The creation of Afrofeminism and black feminism have given voices to women from the black community who feel that feminism in its most basic form does not acknowledge their own individual and unique narratives. Meanwhile, intersectional feminism attempts to straddle the gap by offering women an ideology that recognizes that all women – regardless of colour – have individual lived experiences and identities.

But separate to that there is now radical feminism and Marxist feminism. Neoliberal feminism, i-feminism and post-feminism. And even third-, fourth- and fifth-wave feminism. Different sub-categories depending on which type of feminism people feel best represents their political and social standpoint.

The sub-categorization of feminism could be partly to blame for the alienation of the masses – millennials, baby-boomers, Gen Z’s, women and men alike – when it comes to identifying as “feminist.” The term “feminist” itself has become widely misunderstood, and therefore the label is now being rejected. While the majority of the population believe in gender equity, they turn their backs on the term.

Moving forward, what can be done? From a communications perspective, how should we respond when the term may confuse and alienate women, more than it may empower them?

There is no easy answer. While I am a feminist, and we would call ourselves a feminist agency (we advocate for women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes), we must recognize the global confusion and disenfranchisement with the term. Our communications should unite people – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation etc – and at this time using the term can be unintentionally divisive. We need people from all across the world to continue the momentum and continue the fight for gender equity, not shy away from a label.

Words evolve and adapt. Just as environmental activists went from “climate change” to “global warming” to “climate emergency”, so should our words evolve in regards to women’s rights. While personally we may call ourselves a feminist, in our communications let’s bring everyone together and fight for gender equity – let’s leave the label to one side, just for the moment, anyway.