Q&A: Women’s Equality Party Founder Catherine Mayer

Following a brilliant appearance at our Stories for Rebel Girls event at Latitude Festival this year, we caught up with the fantastic Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party (WE) to chat structural sexism, equality and the feminist revolution.

Can you tell us how the Women’s Equality party was initially founded?
In March 2015, during an event at the WOW-Women of the World Festival in London, I suggested that a women’s equality party would be a good idea. I didn’t propose founding such a party but by the time I got home, social media decided that’s exactly what I’d done. A couple of weeks earlier, my friend Sandi Toksvig and I had discussed our frustration with the glacial pace of progress and the lack of concerted will inside the old parties to dismantle the structural barriers to women, so I rang her to tell her what had happened. She said “But that’s my idea!” She was planning a finale for WOW showcasing a fantasy women’s government and asked me to be her “Foreign Secretary”. We quickly decided to try to turn fantasy into reality. Not that I would ever wish to be Foreign Secretary.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when building the party?
The UK political system is designed to resist change. Setting up and building a party is enormously expensive and bureaucracy-laden and first-past-the-post voting hands a huge advantage to the old parties and has been shown globally to exclude women and minority perspectives. We always knew the system was literally stacked against us but we also sensed a deep appetite for something different and this has been reflected in the extraordinary growth of the Women’s Equality Party and passion of our activists.

How do you think we can tackle structural sexism in the creative industries, such as journalism?

The media and entertainment industries don’t just reflect public opinion; they shape it, for good or ill–and frankly it’s routinely the latter option. These industries are dominated by affluent white men, who too often marginalise and exclude diverse voices and perspectives and perpetuate gender stereotypes. That’s why one of the core objectives of the Women’s Equality Party is equal treatment by and in the media. My own experience as a journalist helped to inform that objective. Even when I reached the upper echelons of the profession, there were limitations on my ability to change the culture or even to protect myself.

In your book Attack of the 50 Foot Women, you propose a gender-equal world called ‘Equalia’ – what do you see as the major benefits of an equal world for both sexes?

I’m glad you asked that and this also relates to your last question on the media. A fallacy, more often perpetuated than unpicked by the media, is that equality is a zero sum game, in which every gain for women represents a loss for men. The opposite is true. More equal societies show huge benefits for men as well as women, in better mental health outcomes for example. And only economies and institutions that harness all the talents truly thrive. One reason so many men don’t know this is because so many male editors treat gender equality as a “women’s issue” rather than something that impacts the entire population.

When researching your book, you looked at the way cultures all over the world handle equality (from Saudi Arabia to Hollywood) – what was the most interesting insight you discovered?

It’s hard to pick out a single insight or anecdote because all the research was fascinating and full of surprises, though also on one level predictable: the story for women world over is remarkably similar. Everywhere we are, at best, second class citizens. This is true even in Iceland, regularly held up as the world’s most gender-equal nation, but even so I found my trip there to be inspiring. I had heard about the 1975 Women’s Day Off when 90 per cent of the female population left paid and unpaid work for the day to demonstrate the scale of women’s contribution to society. I assumed the Day Off had radicalised Icelandic women and that this explained the country’s rapid progress towards equality. I discovered when I was there that it had also helped to turn many Icelandic men into feminists. I returned to the UK fired up to organise a Day Off here.

Want to find out more? Follow the Women’s Equality Party on Twitter, and don’t forget to tweet us at @WomensPrize with your thoughts.

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