Study Notes

Feminism and Discrimination

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

In this study note we explore the relationship between discrimination and feminism.

Discrimination can be defined as a situation in which an individual (or group) is treated differently from other members of society. This is usually upon the basis of ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age or gender. Discrimination can either be positive or negative. In the case of the former, discrimination may take the form of quotas in relation to gender (or ethnicity). Within the political process, positive discrimination is based upon the resemblance model of representation. The assumption behind the resemblance model is that the political process (which entails the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, membership of pressure groups, etc.) should be a microcosm of society. Negative discrimination however is often the result of racism, ageism, homophobia or sexism. In everyday parlance, discrimination is usually referred to in the negative context.

There are several avenues in which women suffer from negative discrimination. Of these, the most significant is in the workplace itself. Perhaps the main barrier facing working women is how their ambitions are thwarted by the glass ceiling. The use of the word ‘glass’ refers to the subtle and covert character of this widespread form of discrimination – whereas ‘ceiling’ refers to how it limits social mobility. In terms of the pay gap, women earn considerably less than men. According to recent figures, women effectively work two hours every day without payment. In addition, around two-thirds of low paid workers in the UK are women. Furthermore, women also face the less well-known term glass cliff. This occurs when they are promoted into very challenging positions because the chances of failure are often quite high. In other words, they are deliberately set up to fail due to a desire within a patriarchal institution to repress the career ambitions of women. The glass ceiling, the pay gap, low pay and the glass cliff may be attributed to a form of institutionalised sexism.

In the political realm, it is an undeniable fact that women are heavily under-represented within national legislatures. Following the 2017 General Election, women made up approximately 32% of the total number of MPs (the figure in the House of Lords is around 25%). Furthermore, the actual number of male MPs is greater than the number of all the female MPs ever elected to the lower chamber. The Westminster parliament therefore records a relatively low figure by international standards, particularly when compared to those countries with a more progressive and egalitarian outlook. As befits a pluralist society such as the UK, there are several pressure groups that campaign in favour of a more equitable representation of women. These include the recently-formed UK Feminista alongside more established forums such as the Fawcett Society.

Political parties within the UK have attempted to reflect the wider population by a strategy of positive discrimination. Indeed, the Labour Party broke its own legislation when it sought to encourage more women candidates. A form of positive discrimination has also been used within the devolved assemblies, and the number of elected female representatives in the devolved assemblies is higher than that recorded at Westminster. However, the issue of positive discrimination is a controversial one even within feminist circles. Supporters claim that positive discrimination is one of the most effective means by which to combat the patriarchal structure of society. Firstly, it generates greater confidence amongst those groups traditionally marginalised within society. Secondly, a more representative approach demonstrates that the various institutions actively welcome women with the talent and ambition to succeed. Opponents argue that it discriminates against men and may even lead to the emergence of second-rate female candidates climbing up the ‘greasy pole.’ Moreover, those women who have succeeded in the rough and tumble of the political world never asked for (nor expected) any favours.

In the context of gender, it is worth asking the following questions – is a female politician necessarily going to represent the views of women better than a male politician? Is it patronising to reduce a person’s master status to that of gender? Moreover, is it even possible to identify women’s issues in a homogenous manner? It would seem incongruous to claim that there is a uniform female experience – if indeed there ever was in the first place. As we have already considered, the women’s movement is divided over several issues – which reflects Ivy Compton-Burnett’s sage remark that “there is more difference within the sexes than between them.”

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