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Token feminism? What token feminism?

By Eileen Byrne - posted Friday, 6 August 2010

I have spent a lifetime as an unrepentantly passionate feminist who has chosen to work within the system as distinct to arguing from outside it. There is room for both.

In campaigning in the workplace and across sectors and across different interests, we (my generation) have always rejected tokenism, and there has been none. We did not reject tokenism just in the workplace, but any tokenism on boards, governmental advisory panels even if unpaid, and appointments to represent government overseas. (Without undue modesty, I was sent to Brussels to represent Britain at a nine-country meeting in 1978 not because I was a minority woman, but because I was the best expert available.) “We” in this instance is not the “Royal We” but a remarkable network of feisty women right across Britain who worked across regions, across sectors - even across Churches - to establish common ground and common principles for policies on equity.

I cannot believe that it is being postulated that "tokenism" is still current. When are we going to admit that when women get up the ladder, it is because they have earned it? Wherever women have succeeded in breaking through the male-constructed filters (“Sound chap, we were at school together”) and the male prejudices (I was told “women can’t handle finance” when the budget I was then responsible for as a Deputy CEO was £50 million at 1970s prices), we were if anything over qualified to do so. We had to be in my generation to get there.


And having got there when we were in only 5 per cent of the influential positions, we were then told we were “untypical” and not a basis for proving that women could handle anything that men could. To call us token women is insulting. Julia Gillard and the very few women at the top of banks and big business are not “token women”, they are people who can do the job regardless of sex-role stereotyping.

After 19 years of innovative reformist work in English local and central government and three years working in Europe for the EEC and UNESCO researching the first international reports on policies for equality of education and training for women, my appointment to the Chair at the University of Queensland then took the total Australian female professoriate to only 3 per cent - after 100 years of higher education for women.

The rules had discriminated against women because of factors like the undervaluing of teaching skills, however brilliant, and the over-valuing of research, even when it was puerile, and because there was no child care.

Most male research got done because their (often academic) wives did all the domestic and family work while the men did fieldwork and wrote their theses at the expense of their wives’ work.

Changing the rules for promotion to include new criteria which reflected the reality of the lifestyles of 51 per cent of the population was not tokenism, it was fair and just policy. And it was economic - it is wasteful not to use the skills, abilities and experience of women who are half of the population to shape policies, not just to carry them out.

It took us two Private Members Bills in the House of Lords and five years of non-stop networking across Great Britain to get the UK’s Sex Discrimination Act through in 1975, and those of us who influenced and constructed the detailed drafting of it section by section, rejected tokenism. And rejected quotas. But we did fight for affirmative action which is not the same. And we fought for legislative sanctions to make the men who (still) control our societies change their behaviours even if they wouldn’t change their attitudes, like no longer allowing them to advertise for a Finance Clerk (Male) in the media, or stopping them from denying mortgages to single (or married) women in their 30s because “they were still of child-bearing age”.


It is not tokenism to ask for more female judges now that women are half of all law school students. The judiciary should increasingly reflect the demography of the population to a reasonable degree when there are properly qualified women (blacks, migrants …) coming up.

It is not tokenism to question why women lawyers who are equally qualified are still not holding equal partnerships in law firms.

It is not tokenism to expect constituencies to select more women to stand for Parliament: heaven knows some of the men who have been selected would not outclass the traditional drover’s dog in terms of lack of qualifications and experience.

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About the Author

Professor Byrne is Emeritus Professor of Education of the Graduate School of Education of The University of Queensland, where she held the Chair of Education (Policy Studies). She has taken "early retirement" to complete work on two policy books and to take on more community work, but following the example of Dame Margery Corbett Ashby, does not propose actually formally to retire until she is 94.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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