Why We Need the Women of the World Festival
PHOTO: ©WOW Bradford in the UK (Karol Wyszynski/The WOW Foundation)
Written by WEI Wan-jung Executive Director of OISTAT
An old goldfish came across a young one and said,
“Hello! How's the water today?”
The young one replied, "Water? What's that?
Even though the story was not really meant to be a comment on feminism, I love it because it hits the nail on the head in portraying the difficulties faced by women. What is the "water" for humans? It's everything we see each day, everything in our lives: the size of your smartphone, conversation at the dinner table, books, films, literature, theater, law, systems, etc. Though the global population is 50% female and 50% male, society holds the male as the representative of what a human is. Whenever someone mentions the word "human," the listener usually automatically thinks of men. The brain only realizes, "Oh, this person is talking about women," if such words as "women" are explicitly stated. But that's weird, because women and men are both human, right?
Men are the "default" of society, just like your computer's default font might be Times New Roman. Holding men as the default of society is a cognitive bias that has endured for ages and has penetrated every aspect of our lives. From cars to phones, the grand majority of product designs only take the size of the male body into consideration. Even medicine, which one would think to be neutral, is no exception: 80% of trial subjects for one of the Covid vaccines were male! (Didn't the developers know that women get Covid too?)
Of everything that people hear and read, only a small number come from women. In film, the amount of screen time and number of lines a male actor gets are far greater than those of his female counterpart. Moreover, female characters are usually portrayed as passive and obedient, and their lives usually revolve around those of the male characters. Women serve and men hold authority. Most of the content is delivered from the male perspective, reinforcing people's erroneous gender-based expectations. In other words, even though women account for half of the population, the society we have established does not faithfully reflect the natural sex ratio. Instead, the world has been twisted into a serious imbalance. Women are viewed as a minority even though statistics prove otherwise. If you disregarded half the people on the earth in the design of any system, it would by no means be approved—that is, unless those being disregarded were women, in which case people wouldn't really care. This is our "water," neither neutral nor transparent. If we can't see that our society is founded on a certain bias, then we are just like that young goldfish: Despite living in water our whole lives, we will have never seen it.
Being a woman in a society with men as the default is like wearing clothes that are too small. You can't wear the same size your whole life; you have to get bigger clothes as you grow. But every time I get a new outfit and shoes, they're always a size too small, yet I'm forced to wear them. I'm forced to run races while wearing shoes that are too small. But racing in shoes that are too small is not the hardest thing. The hardest thing is trying to alter my clothes so they'll be the right size while wearing them. From birth, everyone's thoughts and behaviors are influenced by society. You can't just press a button and make all the bias go away to start over and create new possibilities. We can't leave this society to create a new, equal one. Nor do we need to. Through critically thinking, we can figure out where the breaches are in society, and through discussion, we can imagine what society can be like.
This is why we need the Women of the World Festival.
It provides a space where we can analyze the obstacles faced by women and look deep inside to find out just what is keeping women from reaching their full potential. Is it that the workplace default is men and thus sets rules that are unfavorable to women? Is it that too much of the responsibility of unpaid care work at home is placed on women's shoulders? Is it that schools are instilling inappropriate expectations for gender roles? Does the Women of the World Festival exclude men? No. The Giraffes of the World Festival (if such an event existed) would not only be for Giraffes to participate in—it would be open to any animal that cared about the plight of giraffes.
How about those goldfish I mentioned, did you think of them as female or male? If you thought of them as male, that's fine, you're not the only one. You're with 90% of people who hear the story—even me. When I first read it, I imagined their voices were male voices, the old one sounding like Morgan Freeman and the young one like Seth Rogen. I know of so many great performers, but I unconsciously chose male voices. This shows just how strongly society has instilled a cognitive bias in me.
Some people might think, "So why isn't there a Men of the World Festival?” My answer is that I really look forward to that day, because it would mean that women's voices would no longer be viewed as the minority. The plight of men would have to be discussed just as much as that of women. If such a day really comes, it means that when kids read the word "human," they will think of women just as readily as men instead of only thinking of the latter. But we’re not there yet. We should really stop pretending there's equality in society and need to truly get to know our "water." The Women of the World Festival is a good springboard for that.
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