A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
The aims of International Women’s Day (above), to encourage a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, on one level offer an easily achievable goal. It offers the ideological outline of a world of peace, equality and inclusion. The theme ‘Breaking the Bias’ which forefronts International Women’s Day (IWD) for 2022, arguably is counter-intuitive to this ambitious goal of diversity and inclusion.
The role of bias in gender inequality is ingrained into attitudes and generational practices which will take generational efforts to un-do. Ideas of superiority and inferiority, gendered associations of jobs, actions, names. The controversy that still surrounds these practices, and that even inhibits attempts to approach ideas of gendered toxicity (think: that Gillet advert), act as testimony to how far is still yet to go. In its universalised approach to promote the ambitions of International Women, this year’s theme risks being overly reductive of the localised and nuanced implications of ‘bias’. In doing so, reaching too far and falling too thin.
In a conversation earlier last month, SOAS lecturers, alumni and students discussed the relationship between gender equality and sustainable development. While exploring the relations between the topics within a range of respective disciplines, they discussed the much-needed nuance surrounding gender equality. As a result, they reaffirmed the need to acknowledge bias is fundamental to any attempt at overcoming gender inequality. However, the discussion of nuance further underscored the complexity of this. Christine outlined how more sustainable solutions are increasingly likely in their execution in legislation when women are included in talks. As a result, an equal representation of women and men was incorporated in the recent plenary meetings of COP. Despite this attempt to overcome male bias through female representation, the multi-dimensions of bias are exposed in one UN report which cites men dominating 75% of the talks with women assuming only 25%. The complexities of un-doing bias here are evident in the disparity between actions of un-doing in thought and in practice.
Similarly, Nokukyhanya contributed the mirroring evidence of this in Sri Lankan domestic abuse laws, whereby there is a clear disparity between the gender equality laws in place and the culture of gender inequality which causes them to be largely redundant. Again, the need to overcome bias in the pursuit of gender equality is undeniable but shadowed by the complexity of its implementation.
As SOAS lecturers and Alumni suggested in their conversations last month, and increasingly explosive headlines corroborate, bias is entangled in a more complex web of challenges facing gender equality; bias doesn’t stand alone but is intertwined with culture and context. The notion of ‘breaking the bias’ looks more like a concluding step in a staircase of action preceding women’s liberation, than a headlining theme for an International Women’s Day, weeks after the French state ban on the hijab.
What isn’t approached on the IWD website, but that sits in the foreground of this Western push for women’s liberation, is the French state’s recent ban of the hijab. IWD, in the context of promoting the pursuit of gender equality, must be wary that the theme ‘breaking the bias’ doesn’t further promote the misconstructed narrative that transcending gendered bias is a unifying female experience. France exemplifies the intersectional challenges facing women, whereby even in a Western, democratic state, the obsession with controlling the female appearance has dominated public discourse and resulted in a dictatorship of appearance that targets Muslim women. In attempting to overcome the bias against women, the theme dances with the complexities of bias between women, classes, ethnicities and more.
‘Breaking the bias’ is a cautionary ambition for International Women’s Day to take on. The tagline goal is inherently suggestive of overlooking the intersectional nuance that is so necessary for meaningful change. It seems dangerously close to mimicking the same archaic ‘girl-boss’ isms that promote ideas of a kind of privileged pursuit of feminism that saw Molly-Mae slandered earlier in the year. This same contortion of feminism risks alleviating the consciences of men, while serving to sustain gender, and other inequalities, for the majority of women and marginalised genders.
The practical demands of un-doing centuries of ingrained bias, and the intersections of ethnicity, faith, ability which intersect these bias’, while pivotal in the pursuit of practical gender equality, does not seem to be encapsulated in this consumable tagline. It’s very difficult to break something which is both systemic and unacknowledged while simultaneously unseen. The intentions and practicality of this year’s theme are unclear and arguably threaten to simply over-promise and under-deliver. International Women’s Day is a celebration that offers a great opportunity for change, and for the promotion of women’s voices and desires in the way for gender equality. Perhaps the themes are better situated in the pursuit of nuance rather than multi-dimensional world issues. While bias certainly needs to be broken, this will come at a problematic cost if intersections within the movement for gender equality are not more widely acknowledged and recognised first.
Anna Sian White is a SOAS Digital Ambassador studying BA International Relations and Social Anthropology.