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‘International Women’s Day reminds me just how far we have to go’ - Stem & Glory founder reflects on gender equality

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

Louise is a previous winner at the Cambridge Independent SME Cambridgeshire Business Awards and SME National Business Awards.

Louise Palmer-Masterton - Stem & Glory. Picture: Keith Heppell
Louise Palmer-Masterton - Stem & Glory. Picture: Keith Heppell

I have a bittersweet relationship with International Women’s Day. On the one hand it is an incredible opportunity to celebrate how far women’s rights and gender equality have come, but on the other it massively highlights to me that there is so much that still needs to be done.

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

Often when we think about women’s rights we think of women in places like Afghanistan who are fighting for what we would consider to be quite basic rights, such as access to education. In doing so we, somehow place our own societies in the clear.

We may be offering education to women in this country, but we are still very much on the inequality spectrum ourselves. And this for me is the other issue with International Women’s Day, we are in danger of trivialising something which is so monumentally huge, and deep rooted in all of us.

Let’s not forget how recent ‘equality’ is in our own society. My mum recounts how it was only in 1974 that women in the UK were permitted to have a credit card in their name. In the 1970s, working women were routinely only granted mortgages if they could secure 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, collects her Gold Award for Business Person of the Year at SME National Business Awards 2022, following success in the Cambridgeshire awards
Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory, centre, collects her Gold Award for Business Person of the Year at SME National Business Awards 2022, following success in the Cambridgeshire awards

I am sure many people reading this (myself included) lived through this time, and both women and men were in the main accepting of this as ‘normal’. When you think about it like that, there are without a doubt things we are doing and accepting as ‘normal’ now which we will look back on with horror.

Hospitality is an extremely good example of unseen inequality. A very large percentage of people in senior positions that I deal with in my daily work life are female, so why are so many hospitality talks and events so male-dominated? It’s not that we do not have outstanding and diverse role models in every walk of life. I don’t think that ‘men’ are deliberately ignoring women either - it’s far more complex than that.

In 2023, assertive and empowered women are still all too often viewed as “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive”. A “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive” woman in our society is a woman that doesn't fit the comfortable image of how a woman should sound and behave, and they are viewed as anti-feminine and undesirable traits.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about this phenomenon in her book 'Lean In'. The book describes anyone subverting the norm of what are considered to be ‘desirable’ feminine traits as being viewed by both men and women as a bit of a freak.

Use of words like “difficult”, “rude” and “abrasive” are typical of this. Look at 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, Sandberg's book is an uncomfortable read at times. The book also introduces the Ban Bossy campaign, and calls for the banning of the word bossy when used in a derogatory context describing female children at school.

Sandberg puts forward that when a young male child is assertive they are labelled a 'leader', when a young female child is assertive they are called 'bossy'. I certainly got called bossy as a child, and I bet many of my peers did too. If assertive females are viewed as ‘difficult’ and subverting the ‘norm’, is it any wonder they get overlooked in other ways?

Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for her refusal to obey orders banning girls from school. But she didn’t subsequently wage a war of hate upon her attackers. She speaks of love and forgiveness: “Whatever hatred you have against this person, it’s not going to solve any of the problems. There is a system in there that will create more terrorists. It’s the narrative that is wrong … It’s the ideology that we need to challenge.”

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

Enter this year’s SME Cambridgeshire Business Awards here - the awards feature categories including Business Woman of the Year and Business Person of the Year.

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