George Wilson writes about gender equality after having attended a talk by the well-known feminist writer Brigitte Rollet.
One thing I love about working for the British Council is that within our global organisation there is an assumption that the world should be a good place. Now ‘good’ is always a dangerous term but the organisation genuinely believes that certain values are good and should be promoted. Our ‘Equal Opportunities and Diversity’ agenda is an important part of that.
So often in life, and in teaching in particular, we quite rightly avoid imposing our own attitudes and beliefs on others so as not to abuse the position of respect and authority that we hold. Learners look up to their teachers and it would, for example, be quite wrong for us to start sharing our political opinions with them. Nevertheless, we do feel we have a responsibility to reinforce and encourage certain fundamental values that ensure the equal rights and freedoms of all members of our society. This may involve challenging the belief that a man is somehow ‘less’ because he loves another man, that a person should be treated differently because of their skin tone or, indeed, that a woman should be paid less because she is a woman. Challenging such behaviours appropriately is as important to our work as helping people master the (often painful) intricacies of the present perfect.
it was with a mix of anticipation and nostalgia that I stepped into the room to see the woman herself.
It was with this objective and as part of the British Council’s EU Region Diversity Week that Sophie Elliott, a diversity-team member, organised a visit by the well-known feminist writer Brigitte Rollet to discuss gender equality and the situation of women today.
Rollet is a well-known academic, having published many academic works in the fields of Gender Studies and French Cinema, including Cinema and the Second Sex and a study of the work of pioneering filmmaker Coline Serreau. I had already come across her work as an undergraduate at Leeds University and so it was with a mix of anticipation and nostalgia that I stepped into the room to see the woman herself.
Rollet began the seminar by presenting her career in academia. She recounted how she had come to the field of gender studies after realising that she and her brother were not treated the same way and that this was completely unjust. Such personal anecdotes enlivened her talk and really brought home to me the frustration that drove her academic work.
The seminar then turned into an open discussion on the position of women in society today. It was unsettling to listen to the experiences of the women in the room, as several felt they were sometimes treated differently in meetings because of their gender and others felt they were becoming more aware of gender inequality as they progressed higher in their careers. Similarly, some also agreed with Brigitte’s interesting observation that women often felt a need to cushion their suggestions in language such as ‘Of course, you may not agree but …’ or ‘I might be wrong but …’. Interestingly, these comments really made me think about my own position as a man and question whether I am in fact able to be more assertive in my professional life because of my gender.
Something else that particularly struck me was Rollet’s comment that many of her students saw feminism as a relic of the past. I myself can attest to this: having asked my students at one of France’s most prestigious political-science schools to write essays on the question of whether feminism is dead. The overwhelming answer was that it is. As Rollet passionately underlined, this is strange when women are still paid on average 20% less than men for the same job. Does our society therefore accept this position? Do those that will make our future laws believe this to be fair? Probably not but, as she argued, activism has given way to complacency and this could well have serious consequences for the future.
All in all, the session changed my own perception of the feminist movement, helping me see its ongoing relevance to our lives today and to better understand the often-hidden frustrations of the women with whom I share an office. The presentation by Rollet to British Council staff was the first in what is planned to be a series of talks by guest speakers addressing different areas of diversity. After all, they can only help in the British Council’s aim of developing trust and contributing to a fairer society. In short, a society that is ‘good’.
George Wilson is a teacher and a teacher trainer in the British Council’s Paris Teaching Centre. He also works in a number of French higher-education institutions.