Driving Ms, But Only Maybe - Saudi Women Behind The Wheel Is No Cause To Feel Smug

Fiona Hotston Moore
Women will be able to drive a car in Saudi Arabia soon, news that reminds us just how much of a patriarchy still exists even in an apparently sophisticated world.

Women will be able to drive a car in Saudi Arabia soon, news that reminds us just how much of a patriarchy still exists even in an apparently sophisticated world.

But are we really any better in the UK? Women have been allowed into most areas, albeit sometimes gracelessly. But sexism still seems to need winkling out of clubs and societies; and many woman will tell you that they climb a mountain daily.

To be a commanding, competent, self-contained female is still to invite a closing of male ranks around your ambition. We are still to some what the MP Kenneth Clarke might describe as the 'bloody difficults', which is often male code for challenging and lacking gender deference (to men).

Discrimination is subtle these days. Even Mr Clarke in his unguarded comments about Theresa May thought he was off-camera. Men may even themselves be unconscious of the daily twists and turns women are making to protect their (male) fellow travellers; and to avoid threats that are emotional, sometimes physical, but always calculated.

The reason is quite simple: gender prejudices start at an early age and for generations were fostered by, among other institutions, public schools, which originally arrived to cleave the class system into its parts. Some remnants of that historic heritage still litter corporate and cultural life in the UK.

It is even where you least expect it. The Bechdel Test asks the question how often in a work of fiction when two women are talking together it isn't about a man. The answer in film, the most popular expression of popular culture, is just half. And John Lewis the department store has only recently decided to get rid of 'boy' and 'girl' labels in clothing. Still, it may be a while before we see many boys after the age of, say, five dressed in pink. Why? Because somehow, from somewhere, it just doesn't happen. Recent Kinder Eggs are pink with little kitty gifts inside or blue with racing cars. I wonder why.

Boys are still the ones being drawn to toy soldiers, diggers and lifting equipment however scrupulously they are marketed. Girls still end up with dolls and home paraphernalia. Or put another way, boys work with equipment and girls with emotion, Perhaps that is why women are good team builders: They have more emotional intelligence and empathy to draw upon. Just a theory.

And then we get jobs. Professional men are quickly at the golf club, women are left to work harder and then fret about having children. I wonder how many men realise just how difficult it is for a woman to reach comparable levels of achievement? The problems are rarely to do with competence, or even casual sexism that assumes the woman in the room does low level organisation. No, the problem is navigating male self-regard and silence.

So when we look at the sexism and patriarchy that exists so blatantly in many countries we should pause before exonerating our own where it is less visible. There may be no overt downgrading of women any more, but it exists. It is striking that very few businesses have so far reported on their gender pay gap despite a requirement to do so.

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that we are still here in a patriarchy every bit as embedded as it more plainly is elsewhere. Even here women are not driving very much.