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I’m sorry… but you’re a girl

I was asked to deliver a speech to some MP’s as part of a political summer school I was involved in. I was tasked to write about something I felt passionate about with the aim of inspiring change.

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I’m not going to start by outlining the issue that I’m passionate about. In the past there have been far too many occasions where I mention the issue, and yes, I class this topic categorically as an ‘issue,’ and at least fifty percent of the room roll their eyes, become disengaged or immediately put their emotional barriers up. Instead of battling my way through that process again, I’m going to share some of my life experiences with you to highlight my point.

It’s the summer of 2002 and I’m next in line to bat in the ‘Willington Lower School Quick Cricket Summer Championships,’ the pressure was on. I stepped up to bat and somehow managed to pelt the tennis ball that had been bowled to me a good 50m into the back left field. I then managed to repeat this process a number of times, scoring an all-time record of 112 runs. The pressure was exhilarating (for a six-year-old), no one could catch me out, I was full of energy and ready to keep going. However, Mrs Stevens, the resident dinner lady (who hated me) marched on to the field and to my utter horror, proceeded to tell me that even though I hadn’t been caught out, it wasn’t very ‘lady-like’ to continue playing in this way and that my turn in bat needed to end because some of the boys hadn’t had a turn yet.

It’s now 2009 and I had been selected to take part in the annual school brain training tournament ‘Destination Imagination.’ As a group, we were tasked with building the tallest tower we could, using only straws and cello tape. The team required a leader, someone to support, encourage and motivate the team during this tricky challenge. I thought to myself, you’ve got this Katie, you should volunteer as leader. And so I volunteered. However, the project manager, Steve, felt my leadership unworthy. In response to my offer, he replied ‘why don’t we let Joe lead the group Katie, he’s louder, a more natural leader than you. He’s a bit more boy-ish and tough.’

Honestly, my face must have been a picture. I was open-mouthed, in complete shock and disbelief about what this man had just told me. ‘Joe was a more natural leader because he was a boy?’ This moment really defined my views of the world, and turned me into a bit of a sceptic if I’m totally honest. Because actually, when you think about it, there is absolutely no ‘natural’ connection between boys and leadership, the connection between boys and leadership is a societal connection. Society tells us ‘boys are natural leaders’ and we accept it. And there lies my point.

The message I would like to deliver to you all is to be aware of the differences between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘societal’ in terms of prescribed gender roles and expectations. In the words of French philosopher, Foucault, the differences between sex and gender reflect what is in fact ‘natural’ and what is in fact a ‘societal construct. If you have the biological make-up of a male, that does not intrinsically make you a ‘man’ a ‘bloke’ a ‘lads-lad.’ If you have the biological make-up of a male, it does not mean you are ‘naturally a leader’ and it does not mean you get to take my turn in the quick cricket championship. It is being a ‘man’ that lets you do those things because the term ‘man’ is created, defined and enforced by society, in the same way the term ‘woman’ is.

Therefore, my call to arms is to educate, understand and raise awareness of the differences between what is natural for males and females, and what society dictates for men and women’s gender roles. I truly feel if one is aware of said differences, one notices the injustices on a much larger scale and in response (depending on the type of person) one fundamentally changes one’s behaviour.

Twenty and Terrified

The last time I checked, I was kicking back in a classroom, (not working particularly hard in comparison to life now), age fifteen-ish, looking at a computer screen that was telling me: ‘when you grow up, your skills suggest you should be A) a journalist B) a Civil Servant or C) a dog-walker. To be quite honest, the dog-walker did, and still does, appeal to me greatly. Yet I’ve always been told ‘you should make something of yourself Katie, go and do something with your life.’ Not only is this very demoralising towards the relentless work of dog-walkers (whom we shall forever need, might I add!), but it’s also really hard to understand. What do people mean by ‘go and do something with your life?’ If they mean, follow a typical academic route and stay on at school, take three soul-destroying A-Levels, pick a Degree you love at a University that feels like home and read and write until your hearts content, then here I am. But what next? once the stepping-stones provided by our truly wonderful welfare state, run out, what then? This is the position that I am fast approaching. I’m doing all I can to dig my heels into the ground in trying to halt this inevitable process, but once I get that certificate that says ‘Bachelor of the Arts in History, First Class Degree Honours’ (I’m praying), that’s it. I’m cast out in to the big wide world, cut off from the comfort blanket of further education and left to fend for myself. I’ve never been more terrified.

However, there is a dark comfort in the fact that I know I am not alone. I’m pretty sure how I’m feeling is fairly standard for any twenty year old who is thinking about their future, but this doesn’t make it ‘ok’. I find the pressure that society, parents (thankfully not mine) and employers place on young people to have decided their future at twenty years old, mad. I know the world is ever changing and that today we live in a totally different world to those of our parents generation in terms of employment, but I can guarantee that the man who stood and lectured me on ‘careers and employability’ two weeks ago, had absolutely no idea at age twenty, that he himself would end up being an adviser to graduates. And this is what frustrates me… I spend at least two hours of my day, worrying, thinking and trying to plan a life past graduation, because ‘society’ tells me that I’ve got myself into £30,000 worth of debt, and so now is the time to pick a career path and stick to it, and if I haven’t got this sorted by the time I get that piece of paper, I’ve failed.

Should there be so much pressure on young people to decide their futures at age twenty? I understand that this decision has to come at some point, else I could be forty and still trying to ‘figure it out.’ Luckily for me, I know I would like a future in some sort of journalism and I sort-of know what I need to do in order to get there, but I know other people my age haven’t reached the same stage in the decision process, and I can’t imagine how they must be feeling. Nevertheless, the fear of failure is ripe amongst my age-group, and I think it’s time people in general stopped putting so much pressure on young people.