On the 22nd of November, the Great Hall of a Wills Memorial Building “lit up in suffragette colours” was filled with women and men coming together to celebrate the centenary of(partial) female suffrage. Organized by University of Bristol and supported by BWV as part of the Deeds Not Words programme, the sold-out event “Women and Equality: the next 100 Years” is one of the many initiatives carried out throughout the year to commemorate this significant landmark for women’s rights. On this occasion, the audience had a chance to engage in an animated discussion on contemporary issues faced by feminists and gender equality advocates, as well as considerfuture endeavours and propositions to ensure that “women don’t have to wait another 100 years” to enjoy full equality in every aspect of their everyday lives.
Judith Squires, the University of Bristol’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, led the debate alongside the panel composed of Honorary Professor of Law Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, Bristol Students’ Union equality, liberation, and access officer Sally Patterson and Sarah Smith, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol. Furthermore, interactions with the panel were made possible both through live questions by members of the audience and the use of online participation polls, with results being shared in the course of the evening.
The event started with a brief introduction from BWV Chair Penny Gane on the road covered so far, recalling the importance of Bristol as a suffragette basein the past and showcasing recent local accomplishments,such as the high percentage of women elected to the City Council. From the International Women Day in March, to the commission of graffiti to female artists to celebrate women past, present and future at the Upfest in the summer, throughout this year Bristol has turned into a stronghold in the fight against inequality and gender discrimination, thanks to the commitment of BWV and Bristol Women Commission to get women out of poverty and improve female healthcare in the city.
The University of Bristol also joined in in the effort to celebrate “the many incredible women who’ve helped to shape the University and indeed the world”, said Judith Squires. Female portraits are now displayed alongside their male counterparts in the Great Hall. This symbolic gesture that appeared to be well received by the audience, although some commented that “it was long overdue”. The University has also undertaken to extend the commemoration through the commission of new permanent artworks featuring inspirational women every year until 2028.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first findings emerging from the live survey revealed that the attendees were for the most part female. Sarah Smith commented with particular emphasis on this troubling result by observing that “we need men to be in the room and to be engaged as well”. However, it should be remarked that the audience also appeared to have an optimistic view of the capacity for improvement in equal standards for both sexes in the next 100 years.
The event was structured in three sections: Women in Politics, Women in the Workplace, and Women in Emotional Labour. Baroness Shami Chakrabarti presented the first topic by pointing out that, while female participation in politics hassignificantly increased, women are constantly subjected to misogynistic and discriminatory abuses, especially because of the widespread use of hate speech on the internet and social media. The Labour politician observed that the web can be a “wonderful, democratising medium” but it has a “dark side” that the current legislation cannot adequately contain. When asked how to oppose this negative trend, Chakrabarti replied that the best strategy is for women and men to stand in solidarity against online abuse and that “affirmative action is important to kickstart change and increase representation”. She further maintained that we need to work on better laws to protect the female politicians who are subjected to “threats and intimidations every day” and to hold into account the owners of these platforms. Sally Patterson also warned the audience against being part of the problem. She encouraged the audience to avoid “ever crossing that line” and spoke in favour of a more conscientious use of social media.
The second section, which explored the topic of Women in the Workplace, was introduced by Professor Sarah Smith, who identified the need to close the gender pay gap as a priority in the future of the fight against gender discrimination. Moreover, she illustrated how the “occupational segregation” phenomenon is proof that “there is a real gendered nature to the choices people make”, which ultimately contributes to establishing patterns of gender bias in the workplace. In this instance, the discussion with the audience focussed on the effects of maternity leave on women’s careers, and the presence of a “penalty in re-entering” the professional world in the event of a child. The struggle with juggling work and family life and the intersectionality between sexism and ageism were also brought up by some members of the audience as examples of issues encountered by women in a professional environment. Chakrabarti recommended a shift in our perspective of time management and affirmed that “femonomics and investment in the human” is what we need to fight the patriarchy. Finally, she urged the state to play a more substantial role in policing equal pay and enforcing gender equality.
UoB officer Sally Patterson broached the subject of Women in Emotional Labour in the third and final section of the evening. Patterson denounced the emotional burden imposed on women who are expected to run their household, succeed in their careers, and take care of other people’s needs and emotions. She also stressed on the importance of combating tokenism at every level in order to relieve women of the considerable emotional strain of having to be “the voice” of their minority in every situation. Questions from the audience directed the attention on the urgency to openly discuss mental health problems and to promote more fluidity in gender norms to benefit the next generations of men and women. Patterson said that “we need to deal with the problem, the outcome, but we need to look at what is causing this as well”, particularly in the University context.
One of the recurring themes throughout the event was that of “humanity”. In relation to this, Chakrabarti invited the audience to always “remember and try to understand what it means to be human” and to aspire to be beacons, not tokens. Similarly, one of the main points underlined was the richness and complexity of the human experience, which shouldn’t in any case be censored by discrimination or judged by “the sex police”. Finally, the panellists spurred the attendees to keep the conversation on these issues going and to “disagree graciously”, when necessary.
Feedback on the event from members of the audience was predominantly positive, with most of the attendees reporting having felt inspired and boldened by the discussion. Some also mentioned getting emotional during this belated celebration of women’s accomplishment and pledged to take on a militant role to ensure the advancement of gender equality in the next century.
Written by BWV Reporter Paola Rosatelli