Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 04.05.19

As the west worries about the future of liberal democracy, there is plenty of analysis on how the competing ideologies of fascism, communism and liberal democracy battled it out in the 20th century, leading to what looked like a secure win for liberal democracy. This now looks far less certain in these turbulent times of wealth inequality, neo-nationalism and climate breakdown.

What I haven’t been reading about is the political movement that also hallmarked the 20th century, changed the lives of billions, and whose aims and values are the best ally of liberal democracy: feminism.

Last year in the UK we celebrated 100 years of women’s suffrage. This was a century in which women in the western world were at last allowed an education on a par with their brothers, to take degrees, to enter the professions, politics and the church.

In the 1970s, sex discrimination became illegal in the UK, and women were, for the first time, allowed credit and mortgages in our own names. We were supposed to be awarded equal pay for equal work too, but more than 40 years later we are still in an almighty row about women’s pay as companies are forced to report their gender pay gaps. Those pay gaps are not there because men are worth more than women; they are there because we are still stuck in a system that values men more highly than women.

Education, socialisation, vocation, expectation, risk and reward come with an inbuilt gender bias. The genius of feminism was to call this out. Far from being a loose collective of single-issue campaigns, feminism strikes at the core of the problem — one that Mary Wollstonecraft nailed in 1792 in the pages of A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

The problem is this: why do men discriminate against women simply because they are women?

The subordination of women isn’t based on anything real. It is a story we tell. Take one example: in 1911 there were fewer than 500 registered female doctors in England and Wales. Today, 52 per cent of general practitioners in the National Health Service are female. Women’s capacities haven’t changed. It is the story that has changed.

Exposing the craziness behind discrimination really matters, because once any kind of discrimination is both accepted and acceptable, every other kind gets the run of the road: race, class, colour, creed and sexuality. An end to sexism as the primary practice of discrimination would be the solid foundation on which a society genuinely built on merit could stand.

The world we live in was made by and for men. It has privileged war as a means of acquisition and control, and paid no attention to the environmental cost of economic growth. This world has ignored the ordinary needs of ordinary people to such an extent that nationalism and fundamentalism now look like the only way out to many.

If we don’t soon find better models of social organisation that are realistic about work, welfare and reward — models that recognise how important community is, how vital it is to have meaning, and above all, a model that repudiates war — then the civilised life we love will vanish.

Even bankers such as Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, have realised how precarious is the social structure we used to take for granted. “Forty per cent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders this year. What he did not say, however, is that the worst paid people in the workforce are women. And he offered no solutions beyond worn-out mantras about competitiveness and growth.

The answer to socially divisive levels of inequality is not growth. The planet can’t take it any more. The Swedish teenage climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, like a modern Joan of Arc, is a new example of how women must stand against the madness of a man-made world that is threatening life on earth. Technology alone won’t save the planet — our story about the purpose of being human will have to change.

Feminism gets a bad press because it stands up to patriarchy and questions its values and its priorities. Feminism is telling a different set of stories. What else was the #MeToo movement?

Yet I fear that just as female voices are needed more than ever, women may find that the future in waiting is another kind of exclusion zone. The next revolution will occur in artificial intelligence and robotics — and it will be a big one, altering our work life and home life, potentially freeing us or, just as likely, leading to Orwellian despair as humans under constant surveillance are reduced to walking data banks.

Women are not studying IT and computer science in sufficient numbers, or taking jobs in machine learning. And this matters because machines are not neutral — as Amazon discovered when it used an algorithm to sift through job candidates and this resulted in women being ignored. When machine learning is done on historical and existing data, where there are many more men in the workforce in positions of power, the machine discriminates in favour of men. It cannot know this is bias. We can.

And in China, patriarchy at its nastiest is facing the consequences of a one-child policy that has led to a shortfall of about 33m Chinese women. What will the men do? Bring on the sex-bots.

My advice to women? Learn to code.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming novel ‘Frankissstein’

Letters in response to this article:

My educated mother had the audacity to work / From Patrick Dransfield, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Feminists need to rely less on vivid assertions / From Andrew Park, Hong Kong

Let’s not take the comparison too far / From Joe Keaney, Sale, Cheshire, UK

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