International Women’s Day 2023

Equity for women in the playground

At my mixed-sex primary school, our playground consisted simply of one big rectangle made of concrete. The playground didn’t have any lines marked on it, and it had no goal posts. And yet every playtime and lunchtime, it became a football pitch for the boys, the goals marked by their grubby jumpers. God help you if you were a boy who didn’t like football, but that’s another story. We girls gathered around the edges, chatting, skipping, cartwheeling, or playing endless games of catch. If we strayed onto the football pitch, the boys met us with shouts and shoves. When the football got kicked out, we were expected to toss it back to the boys in the right direction. Occasionally a particularly bolshy girl (future feminists of the UK? You know who you are, ladies) would boot the football away into the car-park and then all hell would break loose.

We girls grumbled to each other, but it never occurred to us to complain to the teachers. That was just the way it was. Anyway, what would we say? Our child’s sense of fairness couldn’t explain in words what intuitively angered us. There was no school rule that girls weren’t allowed to play anywhere on the playground. There was no school rule against us joining the boys to play football (although I never saw a girl dare, even those of us who enjoyed football outside school). It was just natural that the boys should be entitled to use all the playground, because they needed it to play football. The rules were the same for everyone and so it was fair.

These days we might call our playground rules ‘gender blind’, or that coy phrase, ‘gender neutral’. ‘Gender neutral’ must be good because it means we treat males and females the same and thereby ensure there is no sexism and therefore equality… right?

I was thinking about our school playground while reflecting on this year’s civil service theme for International Women’s Day: ‘equity’. Equity is our middle name here at SEEN and a key value for us, so we think a lot about what equity means and what needs to be done to achieve it. Equality and equity are complementary concepts of fairness, appropriate to different circumstances. Ensuring equity at work and in wider society sometimes requires treating women and men differently, according to our different rights and needs. The rules might be applied equally but there may still be unfairness, so how do we deal with this?

Grown-up life has often seemed to me very like our school playground. Yes, women are allowed to walk around town just like men do, but some men still decide to shout at us and shove us for taking up space. Yes, women are allowed to be in the digital town square of Twitter just like men are, but we’d better be prepared to cope with rape threats, death threats and cyber stalking. Yes, women are allowed to get good jobs, but we still end up being a minority in many of the best-paid professions and getting paid less in almost every profession. This is especially so if and when we take on that extra job for which there can never be ‘gender neutrality’: pregnancy and motherhood.

There are no rules specifying any of this inequity, and actually in the UK we now have laws against much of it. But women and girls still continue to be treated unfairly because of our sex. Our reality is not ‘gender neutral’.

True equity means that all of us, women and men, need to work to change our culture in all the small and big ways which will enable women and girls to take up space and thrive in the same way that we allow to men and boys. Until then, true equality remains an illusion.

Please write to us at SEEN and let us know your experiences of barriers to women in your public service workplace, and what you think can be done to improve equity for women staff. We hope later to publish some of your experiences, with your agreement.

Finally… please join us in taking 3 minutes right now to celebrate International Women’s Day with us and the wonderful Helen Reddy singing “I am Woman, Hear me Roar”. We send love and solidarity to all our SEEN members and supporters. Please roar along!

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Cover image: “Students take a break from school on the playground” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse.


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