I was part of a conversation a few days ago that truly shocked me. I grew up in the early days of feminism when women began asserting their rights to equal pay and equal employment opportunities and my feminist hackles still rise at some of the inequities that continue to exist. Things may have improved greatly since as a young woman I found my way into one of the professions blocked because I was female but there is still a way to go. While women on average still earn less than men (just Google gender pay gap and you'll see what I mean) I thought that at least with all sorts of employment opportunities opening up into jobs that were once reserved solely for one sex or the other all the nonsense about work being judged as appropriate only for one sex was well on its way out. Seems I was wrong but not in a way I would have expected.
The conversation started with me mentioning the work of a local textile artist who happens to be a man. He had just won some prizes at a quilt show and I thought this was worthy of praise. Instead, to my horror, it provoked giggles and eye rolling. Why? Because he sews and appliques fabric to make his artworks. When I asked why this was so hysterical I was told it was because he was a man. Apparently a man should only do 'manly' art.
'So if he went out into his studio and created sculptures out of metal with a blow torch would that be taken seriously,' I asked.
'That would be fine,' I was told.
What rubbish. These young women have grown up with the benefits of the struggle of my generation so that their options are much wider than those of women of my age. So many occupations were denied us because they were 'men's' work. Now if a woman wants to drive a giant dump truck at a mine site she can. If she wants to join the navy and captain a vessel she can. It goes the other way too. Half the carers who look after my invalid mother in a nursing home are male and when I was in hospital recently three of my nurses were men - and why not. They did a perfectly competent job and that's all they should be judged on.
So why did these young women find a male textile artist so strange? He's by no means the first in the field. Honestly I don't know. What I do know is that, while women still have a way to go to gain true equality, attitudes like this are just as intolerant as those women have faced and are still facing. They are just as sexist and just as inappropriate. When we talk about equality it should be just that - and that means mutual respect just as much as equal pay.