As one of the co-founders of the Women’s Equality Party, Catherine Mayer is at the forefront of women’s issues in the UK. Now, she’s written a book - Attack of the Fifty Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! – about how parity between the sexes can benefit everyone. We spoke to her ahead of International Women’s Day to find out more, as well as to ask her about the Women’s Day Off, an idea she’s spearheading to raise awareness of gender equality and how much women contribute to society…
How did you come up with the idea for Women’s Day Off?
Last April I travelled to Iceland to research my book, Attack of the Fifty Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! Iceland regularly tops the world rankings for gender equality and I wanted to find out why. I discovered that in 1975 ninety per cent of the women in the country took the day off. This wasn’t a strike but a celebration of everything women do, paid and unpaid, much of it until then unnoticed by Icelandic men. The Day Off was a revelation for them. After Iceland’s Women’s Day Off women and men worked together towards gender equality. I would like to see the same thing happen in the UK.
What industries do you think would be the most affected?
Look at any of the jobs that are low paid and you’ll find a lot of women in the workforce: cleaning, catering, clerical and care work are obvious examples. Many women won’t be able to join the Day Off unless they can avoid a financial penalty for doing so and many vulnerable people—and the entire health service—relies on female support. That’s why the Day Off needs to be organised not as a strike but an inclusive celebration, backed by employers and unions and the widest range of partners possible—and of course men will have to pitch in to cover much of the work that goes on unseen to keep their lives functioning.
Do you think any would be surprising?
Some people will be shocked to see that even the most male-dominated industries rely on women. In Iceland, fishing felt the impact. There were women on the boats, far fewer than men and paid far less, cooking and cleaning. I also met one woman who worked alongside the men, hauling in the fish and gutting them. She told me a story about a big trawler with a particularly harsh captain. His female crew downed tools and sent a telegram of support to the huge Women’s Day Off rally in Reykjavik. They worried the captain might be angry but instead he was chuffed. His wife was at the rally and called him to say the telegram had been read out and how happy she was to hear the name of his boat.
What do you think women should do on the Day Off?
In Attack of the Fifty Foot Women, I don’t just describe the present day and uncover the interlocking mechanisms keeping women down, I also take readers on a tour of the gender-equal future that could be ours, a place I call Equalia. The tour guide of the future remembers the UK Women’s Day Off as a day of rejoicing and enormous good humour. I imagine there might be rallies and street parties and public entertainment and smaller events—but it wouldn’t be prescriptive. Every woman should be able to decide whether and how to participate.
How are you going to try to make it a reality?
In 2015 I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party with Sandi Toksvig. We’ve already been talking to people from a wide range of other organisations, and this Saturday WOW—the Women of the World Festival at London’s Southbank Centre is inviting all of these organisations and everyone at WOW to a meeting to discuss the best way forward. It’s a complex job and will need volunteers and at least one or two people to drive the project. I’m optimistic businesses may wish to fund those positions or possibly second staff to the effort. All the research shows that businesses that are more diverse thrive and economies are boosted by improved female participation. Many businesses know this will help them.
Do you think women need to start striking/staging walk outs more often?
As I said, the Day Off isn’t conceived of as a strike because we want it to be as inclusive as possible—and as big as possible. We need to figure out ways that it can go ahead without causing hardship to the some of the very women it is supposed to help. I will however say that strikes have been hugely important in achieving key breakthroughs. The famous sewing machinists dispute at Ford’s Dagenham plant led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
Why do you think International Women’s Day is important?
No country in the world is gender equal, not even Iceland. Every day of the year is Men’s Day. We will need International Women’s Day to celebrate female achievement and highlight the barriers to women until we reach a point of true equality.
What do you think are the issues affecting women the most today?
The Women’s Equality Party has seven core aims: equal representation, equal pay, an education system that combats gender stereotyping instead of blindly pushing girls towards “female” subjects and boys into STEM, healthcare attuned to the needs of women, shared parenting and caregiving, equal treatment by and in the media and an end to violence against women. The lack of all of these things combines to ensure women remain at best second-class citizens.
Which countries do you think set the best example when it comes to gender equality?
You won’t be surprised if I mention Iceland—and the other Nordic countries. But they too have a long way to go. All still have a gender pay gap. Sweden for all its reputation as a feminist nirvana has never had a female prime minister.
Your new book outlines how gender equality can help solve a multitude of problems. Could you give me some examples here?
One reason male-dominated businesses and institutions perform poorly is that they are missing out on half the talent they could recruit. Another is that they fall into groupthink and miss the perspectives and experiences and connection with the wider population women would bring to the table. There are huge social benefits to improved gender equality too. Many men suffer from the pressure they feel to be breadwinners. They regret spending too little time with their children. Women sometimes become the targets of male rage because we all grow up in societies that fill us with false ideas about gender roles. More equal societies are happier, gentler societies.
The Women’s March saw unprecedented numbers of people joining the protests against Trump – why do you think it captured so many people’s interest?
We had just watched voters in the USA, military superpower and the world’s largest economy, elect a man unsuited in every way to be president in preference to a woman well-qualified for the job. It was a wake-up call to women and our allies everywhere.
What do you think are the dangers to women presented by Trump?
The misogyny and racism of Trump’s campaign unleashed misogyny and racism. His administration immediately set about rolling back the rights and protections hard-won by women and minorities. The negative effect of this is global, but there is a tiny sliver of silver lining. A lot of people had become complacent and thought we already had gender equality or would get there soon without any extra effort. Now they understand that progress can be reversed and that we have to come together to create lasting change, for the benefit of everyone.
ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMEN:HOW GENDER EQUALITY CAN SAVE THE WORLD!, by Catherine Mayer, published by HarperCollins HQ, 8 March 2017