Jun 22, 2011

The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

There is just too much at stake for us to continue denying that gender inequality is a problem and ridiculing efforts to draw attention to it. This book has been written as a wake-up call: feminism is one of the most important movements for social justice of our age – and we need it now more than ever.
The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Women and Men Today is both an introduction to feminism and a powerful and unapologetic debunking of the myth that the movement’s work is done and we’re all equal now, thank you very much. The book is divided into several different sections, covering topics such as body image, ideals of beauty and eating disorders; sexism in education; sexism in the workplace; domestic violence; the sex industry; and reproductive rights. Each chapter begins with the story of a real girl or woman affected by these issues, which gives the book a more human and immediate feel. Banyard concludes The Equality Illusion with a chapter titled “What To Do”, in which she gives readers several suggestions for involvement and grassroots activism.

I’m not sure if Kat Banyard’s intention was to specifically aim the book at young readers, but The Equality Illusion certainly seems to have a lot of YA appeal (by which I of course don’t mean it’s dumbed down). In any case, I do hope it finds an audience among young people, as this is the kind of book that could have changed my life for the better at the age of fourteen or fifteen, simply by making the several ways in which sexism affects all our lives click together and fall into place. The Equality Illusion is very much a Feminism 101 sort of book, so it’s likely that readers more experienced in gender issues won’t find much that is new here. But nevertheless we need books like this: current, accessible, well-written, passionately argued, solidly researched, and, despite the grimness of the facts described, far from bleak.

“Hands up for a gendered education”, a chapter which covers sexual harassment in schools and the institutional indifference it’s often met with, was one of the most striking, and it provides a good example of how The Equality Illusion could have deeply impacted my younger self’s life. When I was in eight grade my best friend and I wrote a letter of complaint against an education auxiliary who was in the habit of groping female students. This was something pretty much every girl of our acquaintance had experienced and was every bit as tired of as we were, and as such we had no trouble at all getting some thirty or so students to sign the letter along with us. However, the result of handing it in was not quite what we had anticipated. The headmaster’s instant assumption was that we were making it up, and, along with our maths teacher, he endeavoured to give us a Good Talking To. To make matters worse this was done publicly, and as an inevitable result the backlash quickly spread through the school. Faced with this pressure, most others girls withdrew their support and claimed that we had tricked them into signing the letter by pretending it was about something else.

My friend and I were left isolated, and the attitude we met with could be summed up as, “sexual harassment is a compliment, and you’re nowhere near pretty enough to merit it”. In more than one occasion we overheard the guy in question telling a group of male students, “If I was going to grope something I certainly wouldn’t settle for groping that” as we walked past, to loud and general mirth. We faced weeks of mockery, bullying, and open threats of physical violence, until my friend couldn’t handle it anymore and transferred to a private school where I could not afford to follow her. As you can probably imagine, the rest of eight grade wasn’t exactly a lot of fun for me.

What a book like The Equality Illusion could have done was reveal that something like this is in no way an isolated incident – it’s part of a pattern, and it’s far more common than many would care to admit. That knowledge alone can make a world of difference to a struggling and isolated teen. While I would like to think that some progress has been made in this regard since the late 1990’s, I’m not entirely sure whether that is the case. Still, young people in these situations today do have resources at their disposal – the crucial thing is that, unlike me, they be made aware that these exist.

As I said above, The Equality Illusion is an excellent introduction to all sorts of gender issues, complete with references and statistics that make the facts plains to see. However, my one complaint is that Banyard sometimes oversimplifies the research she’s reporting, which makes her arguments far less solid than they could and should be. This is especially the case when it comes to neurological research, and I’m to cheer on Cordelia Fine as she deconstructs oversimplified studies in support of neurosexism, I have to hold research that actually supports feminist arguments to the exact same standards. I’d feel deeply intellectually dishonest if I didn’t. The thing is, I actually agree with Caroline, who made the point that the fact that The Equality Illusion does not read like an academic book is part of its appeal. But accessibility and rigour don’t have to be mutually exclusive, so perhaps there’s a better way of balancing the two.

If I had another issue with the book, it was the fact that it came a little too close to The Patriarchy Made You Do It territory sometimes. Feminism is of course no monolith, so you can easily find diverging opinions on several issues within the movement. One of the most divisive topics of all is perhaps pornography. Banyard takes a firm stance that I generally agree with: the majority of mainstream porn is violent and rabidly misogynistic, and it’s extremely troubling to see it co-opt the language of feminism in the name of supposed “empowerment” and “liberation”, only to perpetuate what are actually millennia-old sexist notions. However, not finding that feminist porn/erotica is necessarily a logical impossibility or a contradiction in terms doesn’t make me brainwashed, and I kind of resent the implication that it does.

But these two points don’t really detract from my overall enthusiasm for The Equality Illusion: this is an honest, accessible, inspiring and hugely important book. I hope it finds a large audience, for the sake of people like the teen I was.

Favourite bits:
‘Gender’, and all that word implies today, is the net result of the decisions, debates, accidents, and battles played out amongst our 100 billion forbearers. (…) In fact, gender itself pivots on a power relation: the height of masculinity – a ‘real man’ – is when it is furthest away from the ‘depths’ of femininity. While the level and forms vary, women and girls in every society on earth have less access to opportunities, resources, and political power than men and boys – not because of sex, but because of gender – something we create.

The daily trip to school is uncertain, frightening, and dangerous for millions of girls across the world. Those fortunate enough to make it to the school gates spend their day exposed to a hidden curriculum of gender inequality. Although not written into their timetables, the learning takes place every time they enter the classroom, go out to the playground, or walk on the sports field. The gender trenches of masculinity and femininity produce segregation and violence. Yet the equality illusion persists under the guise that what we are witnessing are natural, biological differences.

Another cause of the pay gap – but one which is rarely discussed – is the fact that workers in female-dominated roles and professions are paid and valued less than workers in male-dominated roles and professions – even when the jobs demand the same level of skill, training, physical and mental effort and decision-making. When this takes place within the same organisation it is deemed illegal in the UK under the Sex Discrimination Act – violating the right to equal pay for equal value – but across the economy as a whole this takes place daily. The five Cs which make up the sticky floor of women’s work – cleaning, caring, clerical work, cashiering and catering – are jobs which generally have traditionally been done by women at home for free, and the skills they require are seen as “natural” for women and thus not deserving of much financial remuneration.

While in the UK government is able to predict that 100,000 women will be raped each year in Britain – equivalent to 2,000 women a week – only 6.5 per cent of those that are reported to the police end in conviction of a perpetrator, and there is little public discussion of the aspects of our culture that encourage so many men to choose to rape women. Rape, as with most violence against women, is widely seen as a causeless problem.

Culture is not a static, ahistorical, inflexible entity. Quite the contrary. It is a series of social practices that not everyone has an equal hand in forming, which can privilege certain groups, and which are constantly being contested. However, there is a problem in recognising these forms of violence as uniquely culture. As I’ll argue later in this chapter, culture plays a crucial role in all forms of violence against women – including Western mainstream culture. Feminist author and activist Rahila Gupta suggests that ‘culture is not a prism through which we view only the actions of minorities In 1994, Roy Greech, a white man, stabbed his wife twenty-three times and left the knife in her throat because she was having an affair. Crime of passion? Jealousy? Honour? Different labels, but they are all about the control of a woman’s body and mind.’ Yet there is often a tendency to notice the role of culture only if it is outside the mainstream/majority or if it is occurring abroad.
Other Points of View:
Still Life With Books
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat



  1. Interesting review - thank you. And apt timing - after Banyard's appearance on Newsnight on Monday, along with Belle de Jour and Caitlin Moran, discussing the current media interest in feminism that's been stirred up by the Slutwalks and Moran's book How to Be a Woman (which I highly recommend).

  2. Interesting review and I can see why it's such an important subject to you. Sexism is still a big issue and I work in a male dominated environment. Sometimes my clients still want to deal with someone more senior than me ny which they mean male. Frustrating foe sure. Rape and porn are also issues close to my heart. Will look out for this and maybe get it for my husbands cousin.

  3. Thank you. I learn so much from you. I will buy this book and give to my nieces. And my nephews.
    Hugs for your 14 yo self and hugs for the you you are now.

  4. From your quotes, it doesn't sound very ya-ish to me. I'm interested to know why you think it is. (accessibility, maybe?) And the pornography/eroticism issue is so very interesting! I've read a great deal of Katherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and I still can't make up my mind about how much, if any, can legitimately be said to be non-constructed by patriarchal influences. In any event, had I been exposed to such books at a younger age, I think they definitely could have changed my life as well, and I am always happy to hear of more of them. Wonderful review, as always!

  5. I am so sorry to hear about your 8th grade experience, it is awful just reading about it and it might have taken a lot of courage to have gone through that.
    This is such an important topic and like you I think this book would be a great help to all.

    Great review.

  6. This sounds really interesting Ana. After reading this I just picked it up for my Kindle to see for myself :) Doesn't sound perfect, but does sound useful.

  7. This sounds like a good intro text...always good to have in mind in case a person's asked for recommendations.

    And re: yours and Jill's comments, I very much relate to your position on the porn/erotica issue. Also, while I tend to agree that the vast majority of porn is violent and patriarchal, I'm extremely uncomfortable with some of the "solutions" Dworkin/Mackinnon came up with to combat it. Adding to the culture of litigation, for example, seems like a precedent that could easily be turned against feminists to define any pro-sex or pro-body literature as obscene or harmful, putting small feminist presses out of business. I don't know. I tend to be very wary of anything that looks like censorship.

  8. Oh my, I can't imagine how horrible it must have been for you to go through that at such a young age. It's totally reprehensible, and what makes it worse is that no one believed you! I can see where this book would have been helpful to you at that time, and where it would be helpful to teens in general today. I think this might be a good read with the right messages to pass along to my daughter and will be looking for it. Thanks again for the excellent and very personal review.

  9. Yeah, I had a similar experience in middle school. Although nothing happened to me personally, our math teacher was suspended for groping female students and another teacher called called them liars in front of everyone. They rehired the same math teacher the following year, only to suspend him two weeks later for the same thing.

  10. Ugh, I had a creepy, grope-y teacher like that in middle school too. I dreaded his class, and I wish still that I had both the understanding of why he made me so uncomfortable and the courage to do something about it when I was that age, like you did. Unfortunately, I had neither. It's awesome that you spearheaded that petition, and beyond terrible, of course, that it wasn't taken seriously. Regardless, I commend you. I agree that a book like this could have changed my life at that point...and books like this did, a few years later.

  11. I saw this at my local bookshop and marked to give as a present on my boyfriend’s birthday. This was right after we’ve had an interesting discussion on Women’s Day, which, he argued made no sense celebrating in Western countries, because as so well put it, “we’re all equal now, thank you very much.”

    He’s a good guy, really he is, except for these delusions :)

    While at the bookshop I read the part about the women’s basketball game commentators and my blood was already boiling. I don’t know if my blood pressure could handle the whole book.

    Oh, the 8th grade… (((commiserative hug))) I know how you feel. Groping was (is?) so common. The same with horrible jeering remarks, in and out of school, by men of all ages. So much so that I remember in my early days living in Scotland passing by a construction site, hearing nothing and instinctively thinking “what’s wrong with me today?!”

    If we ever meet, ask me to tell you the story of how I cut the hand of a groper on the train, with a x-acto…

  12. Great review!

    Your story from 8th grade reminds me of a similar story of my own when I was that age. I had a study hall, and the guy assigned to sit next to me because of alphabetical order told me explicitly the ways that he wanted to have sex with me each and every class. The teacher ignored it, but most days I managed to escape to the library. She didn't even acknowledge that there was anything wrong aside from "Oh, he has ADHD, you have to understand that" until the very last week of class, when she finally allowed me to switch seats to the opposite end of the room...

  13. Wonderful review, Ana! It was sad the way the concerned authorities acted when you made the complaint when you were in school. I can't believe that the headmaster did what he did. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for you at that time.

    I like the fact that the book describes personal experiences before looking at a topic in detail. That gives a personal touch to every topic.

    I found your description of the author's view on porn quite interesting - does she imply that porn is okay but the portrayal of women in porn is not okay and is misogynistic?

  14. Oh Ana that must have been awful for you! Looking through the comments it seems there's always one teacher like that at any school (one of ours I'm told married a student when she left school, but there were some dodgy rumours about his interactions with people in the upper years). Sorry you had to go through that.

    I think the idea that sexism comes embedded in culture is so important. We've got to find a way to get people over this idea that the patriarchy is some kind of evil over blown label that gets applied to men who don't deserve it because aw bless they're dead sweet. Sometimes good guys perpetuate mysogynistic culture. Hell sometimes I perpetuate mysogynistic culture. Culture is crazy tricky and it would be much more useful if instead of trying to say 'wasn't me guv' all the time we could just talk openly about how to stop contributing to this very human problem.

  15. Very interesting review! Sounds like a book everyone should read.

  16. Your 8th grade experience is appalling. I wish your and your friend's courage could have been better rewarded. I suppose even the liars and pretenders went on in life with a memory of the difference they could have made if they had been braver. Perhaps you made an important a dent in some of their assumptions. Do you think your headmaster truly believed the allegations were *completely* unfounded? That kind of immediate lashing out makes me wonder. It smells of fear.

    I read Fine's Delusions of Gender; this book like good companion to it, covering the human angle where Fine covered the scientific. I will look for it!

  17. Ohmigoodness, what a horrible experience you went through! I always ache for girls who aren't believed in situations like that. I know that recently, a lot of attention has come on girls who *did* turn out to lie about things like that, but it's horrible to always assume it's a lie. I am thoroughly disturbed by your experience, and I am so sorry you had to go through that.

    I also find your thoughts interesting. Do you think, if this had been your first feminist book, that you would have noticed the issues that you have with it now, coming from a more educated perspective? I ask this because as you read more deeply into a topic, it is easier to pick up on nuances, but if you are new to it, perhaps those things don't strike you as much. Meaning, if this *is* a book that appeals to a younger audience, maybe it's good to simplify a bit and whet their appetite for more detailed and nuanced reading later? But I don't know.

    Also, this is totally random, but I think you might enjoy following this discussion and clicking through to the link provided:

  18. I'm really sorry to hear about your experience in 8th grade, Ana :( That's so awful...but good on you for taking that stance even though those idiots treated you like they did. this book sounds SO good...yep, ned to get it!

  19. So sorry I didn't see this earlier but since the incoming link feature on wordpress died I never know when someone is linking.
    You summarize the boook very well and also put the finger on its possible shortcomings.
    I liked that it was easily accesible. As much as I like academic books, I'm sure a majority of readers cannot cope with them. If you want readers to become activists you need to stay simple I'm afraid. I would have liked that she pointed other readers into other directions, mentioning more other books. That is something she didn't do.
    I didn't have the feeling it was directed at YA, I had a feeling it wanted to include. Theoretical, scientific, academic and abstract books tend to leave out huge portions of the population. It's a manual and as such it's well done. I would also have loved to have it when I was 14, that's for sure.

  20. Sexism is alive and well and I am old enough to remember how things were before the push for women's rights here in the US in the 1970's with the Equal Rights Amendment. Things are better but far from equal. The men at my office still refer to us women as "girls" and in a meeting will still look to use to take notes. I guess they think because we are women we are quasi secretaries? This book sounds like an important read and an important reminder that we have a LONG way to go.


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