I had to break some terrible news to my daughter this morning. At the tender age of 18, I knew that what I was going to tell her would shake her world to the core and affect her life forever. We live, I explained, in a society that limits women’s choices and that she will never be truly free to be all that she can be simply because she was born a girl.
My daughter shook her head in bemused disbelief and, with a disdainful roll of her eyes, went off to clean her teeth as she pondered whether to be a doctor, a receptionist or Prime Minister.
Among some of my friends and colleagues there is an optimistic belief that younger women have far more choices these days; that most women choose occupational segregation that just happens to shunt us into lower paying fields or in areas of discrimination – she chose to step down from her job after getting pregnant.
I wish it were that simple. A woman who quits her job after bearing a child, for example, may be “making her own choice,” but a society where there is no guarantee of parental leave, where workplaces remain hostile to pregnant women and new mothers, and where our conception of the ideal worker is still inherited from a 1950’s male breadwinner model all make that choice considerably easier for her to make
Without the will of people, and in particular men, to challenge entrenched structural inequalities and gender discrimination, we end up with a perverse kind of victim blaming and a distraction from the real problems women still face. If you’re not happy with the way things are, don’t blame discrimination and sexism, the pay gap, entrenched gender roles, women’s lack of representation on boards or in parliament, or an epidemic of violence against women. Blame yourself. You obviously made the wrong choice.