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Written by Honey Millard-Clothier, an 18 year old A-Level student studying Politics and Government. Honey is a strong advocate for women's involvement in politics. Discussing and interviewing key figures who address issues surrounding the inequality faced by women, especially prevalent in the political arena, is central to her role at Women and Girls in Politics. 

  • 22 Oct 2020 11:31 | Katie Deards (Administrator)

    When looking at the headlines of female politicians, it is clear that their appearance makes up much of their coverage. Take the Brexit discussion that Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon had in 2016 around the issue of Scotland leaving the EU. This discussion was summed up by the Daily Mail as not a debate around the most significant question for the UK, but around the legs of the leaders. ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it?’ held the front page of the national newspaper and reduced these women down to solely the attractiveness of their bodies. Therefore, the importance of how a woman looks, and what she wears, is undeniably important, especially those in the public eye. In an interview with Jude Kelly, the founder of annual festival Women of the World - WOW, she discussed why male clothing as the correct code of power is such a tough mould to break, and why female politicians in particular struggle to challenge the stereotype that women's clothing equate to weakness, whilst male clothing asserts strength. The WOW foundation aims to empower women and girls when faced with problems such as these, and thus Kelly stands as a key observer of how women in power can fall into the trap of believing that clothing’s mark for power is masculine.  

    When asked why there is so much more coverage of what a woman wears over what they say, Kelly’s response was simple: ‘a woman's worth in society is strongly related to the attractiveness of her as a wife’. Therefore, her physical worth is prioritised over her intellectual one. The repercussive remark that ‘the scrutiny that politicians come under is part of the fact that ‘oh first she is a woman and even if she is not showing she is, we’re going to do that for her regardless of if she wants it’’ coincides with idea that ceaseless judgement will continue, irrespective of what attire is worn. 

    The question therefore is, how does a woman lessen the importance of her clothing? By taking a stand against the scrutiny and wearing whatever they please? By wearing a suit to blend in with their male counterparts? This latter solution of emulating masculine clothing for many is seen as the appropriate solution, regardless of whether they like to admit it or not. Mirrored by Kelly's opinion that ‘if [a woman] wants her clothes neutralised in the commentary, she will more than likely have to wear a dark blue or black suit’ is the prime example of Hillary Clinton. The shedding of her feminine, First Lady dresses in exchange for her monochrome pant suits when deciding to run in the 2016 Presidential election clearly shows the perceived necessity to match her peers, who were almost all men. And although some characterised Clintons shift as a liberating moment for women in power, as it allowed her to become a role model and template for empowering others, this does not ring as true when analysing her clothing. The mould created by Clinton is one that entrenched dresses and skirts as weak, and instilled the suit as the accepted and familiar indicator for power. 

    When in 1993, women in the US Senate were finally allowed to wear trousers, a stampede to utilize this seemingly equaling tool emerged, with its legacy clearly still alive today. On the surface, this instrument to level the playing field by simulating the male suits that saturated their profession seemed like the best idea, but it has a crumbling aftermath. This repercussion lies in the ostracisation of traditionally female clothing. The dress, especially for female politicians, will always be pushed further out into the realm of domesticity and subservience as long as females hold the minority of leadership roles in politics, while the suit will continue to prosper as the rightful owner of power. This is ‘a very sad set of choices’, as Kelly puts it.

    However, in the 1960s, key designers such as Mary Quant and André Courrèges did attempt to overturn this inferior association to feminine clothing, with mini skirts that flipped the previously reductive and shocking length of the skirt. Yet, in that same decade came one of the most influential female leaders of the time, Maragret Thatcher, whose attire could not be more dissimilar to that of Mary Quants popularised trends. So although freedom for women’s fashion was partly licensed, this clearly did not, and has not stretched into the arena of politics. 

    In a nutshell - is wearing a suit a good short term solution: yes. A good long term one? Not so much. On the surface, no one likes to say they would judge a female politician for wearing a dress; but as Jude Kelly points out, ‘there's a world we would like to live in where women were not judged on what they wear, but there's a world we do live in where we know they are’. 

  • 22 Oct 2020 11:24 | Katie Deards (Administrator)

    Currently, very few females reach positions of high power, with only 1 in 10 companies having a female Chair or Chief Executive. Since the last election, only 33% of MPs are female, despite women making up over half of the population. Why is it that women struggle to achieve high status positions? Is it self-inflicted due to the lack of confidence instilled by the aggressive but simultaneously weak stereotypes of ambitious women? Has this issue become increasingly less important as the number of women in the workplace rise? Dorothy Byrne, former Head of Current Affairs at Channel 4, talks about these issues and how she tackled the lack of female representation in her career, whilst managing to achieve and maintain one of the most prestigious jobs in TV for over 15 years. 

    With the second wave feminist movement arising in the 1960s, more women than ever joined the workforce, only then to be faced with a strong and deep rooted stereotype of inferiority, weakness and deciet. Likewise, when Byrne first started out in World in Action in the late 1980s, she says ‘there was a lot of prejudice against women’ and was hit by a wave of discrimination, both in the form of verbal hate and sexual assult. Byrne was also the only female researcher at the time which made it even harder to combat the power of her male counterparts. 

    This lack of female representation in the workforce fed into the perception of females being weak and inadequate, lacking the voice or strength to speak up and thus being inferior for the job. Even when women showed their determination, they were pinned as aggressive and bossy. Although Byrne broke the mould and was able to display her assertive, career driven mind as Head of Current Affairs at Channel 4, the lack of women in her work, initially allowed for the similarly reducing and misleading stereotype of female inferiority to be demonstrated. 

    The sexual assault she endured from one of her male colleagues indentifies this inability to speak out when isolated amongst a sea of male superiors and thus create the image of passivity. Byrne was told ‘On my first day my boss told me that I would go out and learn to direct with a male director, and I was told that he would sexually assault me, but I wasn’t to take it seriously because he sexually assaulted everybody’. Afterwards, Byrne was unable to complain because ‘how could I complain when my boss had told me I was going to be sexually assaulted beforehand?’. The issue brought to light here is that many women struggle to gain positions of high power due to the unfair and inappropriate measures having to be endured to progress in a career. Why should companies normalise and dismiss cases of sexual assault because they ‘sexually assulted everybody’?

    The time and commitment needed to hold a position of high power is demanding, and as Byrne highlights, many more hurdles are needed to be jumped by women compared to their male counterparts. In a study conducted by UCFs Department of Political and Social Sciences, it was found that women were 30% less likely to be interviewed for a job than men. If you add children into the equation, this percentage widened even more to a 36% disparity between mothers and fathers who hold the exact same qualifications. Reinforced by Byrnes opinion that ‘between men and women of the same ability, the man is at an advantage’, it is clear why there are less women in high status careers. 

    Not only is it true that women are impaired as soon as their job application is sent off, but also that women face issues throughout their career, which impedes their desire or ability to progress in their profession. As Byrne points out, not only is there the issue of having children which targets a woman's career disproportionately, but also ‘the other problem of menopause which isn't talked about sufficiently and causes serious physical and psychological effects’. This unspoken problem in the workplace has caused ¼ of women to consider leaving their career and resulted in 1 in 10 women who are going through menopause actually handing in their notice, according to a Health Awareness study. This issue was tackled by Byrne and subsequently Channel 4 became one of the first UK media companies to install a menopause policy, which increased awareness about the issue and gave allowances to women struggling with the physical symptoms of it. However, we are clearly still far off a universal understanding of this issue with two thirds of women still claiming they currently receive no support in their place of employment for this problem. 

    It is clear that in many ways women's career aspirations are railroaded by aspects of society which favour men, neglect women and disregard ingrained issues that need genuine attention to challenge. The current lack of females in high profile jobs not only makes it seem more unattainable by other otherwise determined women, but also allows for female discrimination to become normalised and undiscussed. However, Byrne’s influential and powerful role as Head of Current Affairs at Channel 4 has shown that women can advance in their careers to high positions of power, despite the dismissive and difficult problems in the way. 

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