Sep 2nd 2015

Why defeminising women does not equate to gender equality

Last week, it was announced that shoe designer Sophia Webster is launching a ‘Barbie by Sophia Webster’ collection of shoes for adults and children in Selfridges stores worldwide. The first I heard of this was of course on Twitter (where else?)  when a number of female figures in the media and tech industry immediately showed disgust at a particular pair of shoes aimed at little girls and the rather steep price tag of £130. One comment – ‘Don’t buy your daughter this revolting pair of shoes’ – annoyed me a little bit. Whether or not the commentator in question was referring to the price more so than the actual pair of shoes (I’m leaning towards the latter) remains to be seen, but regardless of whether you have your own values, children or beliefs about how girls should be represented in society, who are you to tell other parents whether they should or should not buy their daughter this pair of shoes?

What do shoes have to do with gender equality you ask? For me, and I’m willing to stand corrected, this comment in particular is telling parents not to buy the shoes because of what they represent. The garish pink colours with speech bubbles saying ‘Barbie Girl’ – I mean, who on earth would want their little girl to wear such monstrosities? Except, I don’t see the problem. We talk about gender equality in terms of empowering women to be whoever they want to be, have whatever job they want to have, to fight against discrimination based on sex. Then why, in the same breath, are we telling them that they can’t wear pink shoes?

I remember when Kinder released pink and blue limited edition versions of its Surprise chocolate egg. The pink egg, clearly touted towards females, had some sort of princess-y surprise encased in its chocolate layers, and the blue egg a very masculine car. Kinder was at the receiving end of huge backlash and claims that the company was perpetuating gender stereotyping. Yet research from the chocolatier indicated that the majority of parents welcomed the product.

We come back to the shoes. If parents are willing to shell out £130 for a pair of tiny shoes – that in itself is a separate argument – then why not, if the child wants to wear them? It shouldn’t devalue them in anyway, and we should be teaching our children not to avoid gender stereotypes, but to pave their own way and make their own choices. By telling a girl she can’t wear pink or eat a pink Kinder egg, are we not trying to defeminise her in some way? Are we not inadvertently telling her that pink is not ok, because it’s too girly or weak? Can some girls not like pink and still be strong women? Of course, we can also argue that whoever decided that pink would be the colour for girls and blue for boys has a lot to answer for.

Gender equality is still a real problem in business. Just today, research showed that female bosses are essentially “working for free” as the pay gap between men and women persists. Female managers are earning 22% less than their male counterparts and the difference in pay now stands at £8,524. I doubt this gap exists because women are wearing pink in the office. I appreciate that sounds overly simplistic, but this blog is not an in-depth academic commentary on a pertinent issue, but rather an observation of social convention and attitudes towards gender in the media. If we want to make strides with gender equality, we need to embrace femininity, rather than telling women that they ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do this or that because it might perpetuate stereotypes. Or that they need to act more ‘masculine’ to compete with men. Defeminising women does not equate to gender equality; teaching the next generation of business leaders that they shouldn’t like Barbie doesn’t help matters. I bet no one ever told a young boy that he shouldn’t play with diggers because it reinforces the masculine, boyish stereotype. If we’re ever going to bridge the gap between the male-female gender divide, we should embrace our differences, empower people to make their own choices and afford both genders the same opportunities.


Sarah Alonze
Sarah Alonze DIRECTOR