“International Women’s Day reminds me how far we have to go”

Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of plant-based restaurant Stem & Glory in Cambridge and London, reflects on recent International Women’s Day.

Louise is the previous winner of the Cambridge Independent SME Cambridgeshire Business Awards And National Business Awards for Small and Medium Enterprises.

Louise Palmer Masterton - Stem & Glory.  Photo: Keith Hebel
Louise Palmer Masterton – Stem & Glory. Photo: Keith Hebel

I have a bittersweet relationship with International Women’s Day. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate just how far women’s rights and gender equality have come, but on the other hand it greatly highlights that there is still a lot to be done.

The world is currently in great danger, and the gender axis and the disparities that come with it are at the root of so many issues facing humanity.

So often when we think of women’s rights, we think of women in places like Afghanistan who are fighting for what we consider to be absolutely basic rights, like access to education. And in doing so, we are somehow putting our communities in the clear.

We may offer education to women in this country, but we are still ourselves on the spectrum of inequality. And that to me is the other theme of International Women’s Day, we are in danger of underestimating something so huge and so deeply rooted in all of us.

Let’s not forget how modern “equal” our society is. My mother tells how women in the UK were only allowed to have a credit card in their name in 1974. In the 1970s working women were routinely given mortgages only if they could get the signature of a male guarantor.

Even in the 1980s, a married woman’s income had to be declared on her husband’s tax return – so he knew how much she earned!

Louise Palmer-Masterton, Founder of Stem & Glory Centre, receives her Gold Award for Entrepreneur of the Year at the SME National Business Awards 2022, following success at the Cambridgeshire Awards
Louise Palmer-Masterton, Founder of Stem & Glory Centre, receives her Gold Award for Entrepreneur of the Year at the SME National Business Awards 2022, following success at the Cambridgeshire Awards

I’m sure many of the people reading this (myself included) have lived through this time, and basically both women and men would have accepted this as “normal.” When you think of it this way, there are undoubtedly things we do and accept as “normal” now that we will look back on with awe.

Hospitality is a very good example of invisible inequality. A very large percentage of the people in the senior positions that I deal with in my daily work life are female, so why is so much male-dominated in hospitality conversations and events? This does not mean that we do not have outstanding and diverse models in all areas of life. I don’t think “men” intentionally ignore women either – it’s much more complicated than that.

In 2023, an assertive and empowered woman is still seen as “tough,” “sassy,” and “abrasive.” The “difficult,” “rude,” and “abrasive” woman in our society is one who does not fit the comfortable picture of how a woman should sound and act, and is seen as anti-feminine and undesirable traits.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about this phenomenon in her book, Lean In. The book describes anyone who subverts the rule of what are considered “desirable” feminine attributes as being seen by both men and women as a bit odd.

The use of words such as “difficult”, “rude”, and “abrasive” is typical of this. See how senior female politicians are viewed.

This is so ingrained in all of us that we hardly see it. Wherever you are on the feminist spectrum, reading Sandberg’s book is sometimes uncomfortable. The book also introduces the Ban Bossy campaign, calling for the word bossy to be banned when used in a derogatory context describing female children at school.

Sandberg says that when a young child is assertive, he is called a “leader,” and when a young child is assertive, he is called a “bossy.” I sure was given the nickname bossy as a kid, and I bet many of my classmates did, too. If assertive females are seen as “tough” and subverting the “norm,” is it any wonder that they are overlooked in other ways?

Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for refusing to obey orders to stop girls from going to school. But she did not then launch a war of hate against her attackers. She talks about love and forgiveness: “Whatever hate you have against this person, it won’t solve any problem. There is a system out there that will create more terrorists. It’s the wrong narrative… It’s the ideology we need to challenge.”

So on International Women’s Day, we don’t need to publicly celebrate our female leaders and activists, we need to challenge and change what’s in our hearts and minds. This is the only way we can achieve true gender equality in every workplace, in every home, and in every walk of life.

Enter this year The SME Cambridgeshire Business Awards are here The awards include categories including Businesswoman of the Year and Businessman of the Year.

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