Achieving a sex equal workplace: how did we do it?*

Publicity image for The Butch Monologues, Melbourne 2019.

‘The meaning of feminine attire is clear: it is a question of decoration, and decorating oneself is offering oneself; heterosexual feminists were formerly as intransigent as lesbians on this point: they refused to make themselves merchandise on display, they wore suits and felt hats; fancy low-cut dresses seemed to them the symbol of the social order they were fighting’. –Simone de Beauvoir.[1]

1. Today, 2050

The scene: a crowded hall in Melbourne, Australia. The temperature inside is 20 degrees lower than the temperature outside, which is an oven. Sexism has been conquered, but climate change, unfortunately, has not. Fashion has repeated another loop; the popular students packing the seats look like they’ve stepped out of a 1980s music video. The stage is empty but for an elegant lectern. As a young Maori woman climbs up to the stage and walks toward the lectern, there is enthusiastic applause—some people cheering, a few standing up. A disembodied voice coming through the sound system informs the audience that the woman is a professor of feminist history, recently appointed as the Germaine Greer Chair in the School of Feminist Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her talk will be about the history of women’s relation to work. She wears an oversize suit, the only skin visible her hands, a slice of her neck, and her face. Her chin is tattooed with the traditional moko kauae and her hair is wavy, ending in a blunt line at her chin. She begins speaking, in Maori, and there is rustling as some of the audience adjust their devices and earpieces to their preferred language translation channel.

            The professor begins with a list of facts about the present day with which the audience will already be familiar, a brief scene-setting to frame the history to come. Today, she says, there is no sex inequality in work. Women and men are in paid work in roughly equal proportions. Workplaces offer equal parental leave to all parents. There is no pay gap between men and women. Many industries are mixed, rather than dominated by one sex or the other, and those that are female-dominated are not valued less highly than those that are male-dominated. There is very little sexual harassment at work, and what there is does not disproportionately victimize women. Where there are uniforms, such as in restaurants, they are either the same for everyone, or there are options that anyone may choose, or mix. Women no longer end their careers with less superannuation than men, and women no longer work a ‘double shift’, combining full-time jobs with a disproportionately large share of their family’s household labour. This is not only because more housework is automated, she says, but because men are doing a fair share of what remains.

            “But,” the professor continues, “this equality we have today, we did not always have it. Thirty years ago, we did not have any of it.” She clears her throat, and looks up at the crowd, fiddling with her tie, which is perhaps too tight. “How did we get here, from there?” she asks. What follows is her answer.

2. Thirty years ago

Australia was ranked the best country in the world for women’s workforce equality by the World Bank in 2018.[2] It is instructive to start there, then, so that we can see the extent of sex inequality even in the best case. In 2021, women’s full-time average weekly earnings were 14.2% less than men’s; starting salaries for postgraduates were 13% lower for women; and superannuation balances for women at retirement were 23.4% lower than men’s.[3]

            Let’s zero in on just one industry, the legal industry. Legal work came with high social status and was very well-paid. But it was rife with the sexual harassment of women. In 2019, the International Bar Association published the largest global survey of its kind of the profession, with 6,980 respondents from 135 countries, conducted in 6 languages, across a range of legal workplaces.[4] 67% of their respondents were female. Australia had the highest response rate to the survey by country, making up one-seventh of total respondents.

            Globally, the survey found that 1 in 3 female respondents had been sexually harassed in a work context, compared to 1 in 14 male respondents; that targets of sexual harassment did not report it in 75% of cases; and that the reasons targets didn’t report included the status of the perpetrator (e.g. being a boss or workplace superior), fear of repercussions for reporting, and the incident being part of the workplace culture.[5] Workplace training and policy aimed at sexual harassment made no difference to whether people reported harassment.[6] And 37% of those who had been sexually harassed had left the workplace or were considering leaving it. It was also the case that more women than men were subject to workplace bullying, with 1 in 2 women saying they had been bullied, compared to 1 in 3 men.[7] 65% of those bullied had left the workplace or were considering leaving it.[8]

            Let’s go now from Australia to India, which the World Bank ranked 102nd (out of 189 countries) for women’s workforce equality.[9] A study of over 6,000 employees by the Indian National Bar Association found that ‘sexual harassment was pervasive in different job sectors, ranging from lewd comments to an outright demand for sexual favours.’[10] Human Rights Watch found that although India had introduced workplace sexual harassment law, ‘the law exists only on paper.’[11]

            It is clear from these findings that there was not sex equality in most legal workplaces. Of course, this was just one type of workplace, and other industries may have had better or worse conditions, remuneration, and social status. Sexual harassment and bullying of women was likely to have been especially bad in workplaces that were highly exploitative, like fruit-picking or hotel cleaning, or that hired vulnerable people, like the immigrant women hired as live-in domestic helpers.[12] And in poorer countries, the problem of sexual harassment was even worse.[13] But even in the wealthy, industrialized, democratic countries that had made marked progress on reducing sex inequality relative to their histories, there were still sexist dress codes; there were still many female-dominated industries, which were lower-paid and considered less valuable than male-dominated industries; there was still a pay gap between the sexes. There was less pay and less career progression for those who worked part-time or took time off work, which had a disproportionate impact on mothers, who often reduced their hours or took time off for pregnancy and child-rearing. Women still ended their careers with less superannuation than men; women still worked a ‘double shift’, combining full-time jobs with a disproportionately large share of the family’s household labour; and as we have just seen, there was still sexual harassment of women at work.

            One striking difference between thirty years ago and now, in 2050, was that there were very strong social expectations to do with appearance, and these differed according to sex. Women were expected to be beautiful, and to be sexually attractive to men. This was not just outside the workplace, in a nightclub, for example, but also frequently inside the workplace. In case any reader is struggling to believe this, here are some examples. In Japan, it was common for employers to insist on women wearing high heels at work. The #KuToo movement in 2019 saw 20,000 women sign an online petition demanding that the Japanese government prohibit employers from requiring this.[14] A petition against compulsory high heels in Britain at the time got over 150,000 signatures, and led to a parliamentary inquiry. It found sexist dress codes to be ‘rife in some industries’, and found that ‘while high heels were the most prominent issue, the lawmakers also heard from women who had been required by companies to dye their hair blonde or wear revealing outfits’.[15] South Korea had the highest rates of cosmetic surgeries worldwide, with 14% of all women and 30% of women in their 20s having had plastic surgery, according to a 2015 survey.[16] There were high rates of acceptance among South Korean women of ‘having plastic surgery to improve the chances of getting a job or for marriage’—between 77-80% in women aged 19-59.[17] Australian women were spending $15 billion dollars a year on grooming, compared to the $7 billion men were spending, and had been estimated to spend roughly 3,762 hours on personal grooming over their lifetimes, three times that of men.[18]

            None of this is true anymore. Something changed. Indeed, a lot of things changed. Achieving women’s workplace equality was not explained by any single variable. There were packages of interventions in place, starting with equal early childhood education; anonymized grading in all subjects in which there were sex biases; STEM programmes for girls; and scholarships for girls undertaking qualification for male-dominated industries, and vice versa. Pay scales were standardized to revalue what was conceptualized as ‘women’s work,’ and there was a shift in social attitudes—positive—toward male involvement in caregiving and child-raising, following a large campaign about male mental health and suicide risk. One massively transformative intervention was the provision of a basic income in multiple countries from the early 2030s on. There were more women breaking barriers in male-dominated industries and areas of public life; more women in political leadership; and more complex representations of women in film and television, as whole persons rather than as attractive accessories for men. All of these interventions were important, and worthy of discussion. But in 2021, appearance-based expectations were not discussed as much as the other interventions, and indeed, at the time many found them a surprising point of focus. So it is that shift I am most interested in here.

            It is worth noting that as with most topics, there was fierce disagreement between feminists about how much to focus on workplace equality. Some feminists thought that you wouldn’t get equality inside work without first getting it outside work: men had to see women as full human persons in order to want to hire them, work with them, promote them, and treat them as respected colleagues. Others disagreed, and thought workplaces were microcosms that could function as the social proof of women’s competence and accomplishment. They also thought focusing on the workplace was pragmatic: fighting to accomplish sex equality in restricted domains was like creating small squares for a patchwork that could be eventually stitched into a quilt. Sex equality ‘everywhere’ sounded good enough, but how, exactly, did one work for it? The workplace-focused feminists were hopeful that workplace equality would drag a whole lot of other change along with it. Once men started relating to women as equals and full human persons at work, wouldn’t it become harder for them to enjoy women being brutalized in pornography; harder not to be affected by news about domestic violence; harder to stomach the availability of contract pregnancy, or prostitution? Wouldn’t they start to see how many ordinary products didn’t function as well for women, and how much intellectual capital had been squandered with women’s past exclusion? (This last hope may have been naïve: it followed thinking about arguments for integration in multicultural societies.[19] But as many feminists have noted, women have never suffered from a lack of integration with men; indeed, as a ‘minority group’ they are unique in the extent to which they have been dispersed among the dominant group, living with fathers, sons, husbands, etc. inside families).[20]

3. Disrupting sex-based expectations

Accept, for the sake of argument, that there were (some, weaker) sex-based expectations still in place in 2020 that were a legacy of (many, stronger) sex-based expectations in place historically. Such expectations were firmly in place as late as the early 1960s, and much more so in earlier periods, such as late-1700s England.[21] These included expectations to do with women’s appearance, behaviour, interests, and function. In the worst case—i.e. according to an unashamed sexist—women ‘ought to’ have had a feminine appearance; to have been kind, submissive, passive; to have had domestic interests, like cooking; to be ‘for’ pregnancy and child-rearing, or ‘for’ sexual penetration (women the passive object to men’s active subject). One question we can ask is, how did these expectations relate to men’s treatment of women? Some had commented on the way that failing to conform to these expectations could attract social sanctions for women.[22] But few had really explored the way that conforming to these expectations might relate to men’s treatment of women.[23]

            This was a taboo subject, for two reasons. The first was that the mainstream form of the feminist movement at the time was heavily focused on a woman’s choice, and for good reason given the history of such choice being limited or controlled by men. Thus feminists were reluctant to endorse any normative position on what women should or shouldn’t be like, rather choosing to emphasise the idea that any way she chooses to be is fine. This was an important message, and did a lot of good, but it also made certain feminist issues harder to discuss, like the ways in which women may become complicit in their own oppression through certain choices. The second reason was that there was a real sensitivity at the time to ‘victim-blaming’—any focus on what a victim ought to have done to avoid victimization, rather than keeping the focus where it belonged, namely on the victimizer. This created a situation in which it was perfectly fine to be angry at men for expecting women to be pretty, or submissive, or bad at maths; but unacceptable to direct any blame toward women who spent time prettifying, or acted submissively, or who were gifted at maths but avoiding doing it because it seemed to be ‘for boys’. And this made sense too: as individuals, women were just responding rationally to the incentives in place in their social situations. It was a lot—perhaps too much—to expect every woman to be a revolutionary.

            Against the backdrop of this taboo, a few feminists nonetheless began to quietly speculate about the connection between the sexual harassment and bullying of women in the workplace and the (full or partial) exclusion of women from certain workplaces, on the one hand, and conformity to sex-based expectations on the other hand. Were workplaces with more sexual harassment, for example, also workplaces with more expectation-conforming behaviour? And if they were, was it possible to disrupt the harassment (and other unequal treatment) by disrupting the conformity? Some aspects of how women were expected to be were harder to disrupt. In some cases, habitual conformity had created reliable behavioural traits that were hard to change. Women conditioned to be passive or submissive became passive or submissive, so just telling them ‘start speaking up at work!’ didn’t stand a great chance of success. In other cases, expectations were to do with matters not usually part of the ‘public’ of a workplace, like women’s sexuality. A woman could not easily establish that she was ‘not for pregnancy’, or ‘not for sexual penetration’ (or, not just for those things, and not importantly for those things) in any straightforward way. But expectations on appearance were low-hanging fruit for feminists interested in disruption.

            Nancy Fraser (1994) argued that in order to achieve sex equality we must ‘end gender as we know it.’[24] (At the time, ‘gender’ referred to the socialization of people into different ways of being, on the basis of their sex.) She described the feminist impasse in thinking about sex equality either as equality with or difference from men, and the way that this had produced two approaches to social reform. The first was the ‘breadwinner’ approach, which took the male breadwinner model (originally assumed to be the head of a family), and ‘universalized’ it so that women were breadwinners too. The second was the ‘caregiver’ approach, where women’s caregiving work was remunerated by the state.

            Both models had their problems, not least that the first promised to achieve equality by making women more like men, and the second promised to achieve equality in a way that left women ghettoized in a separate domain from men. Fraser argued that we could overcome the impasse by thinking of sex equality as a complex, pluralistic value, in which she included five principles: anti-poverty, anti-exploitation, equality (of income, leisure time, and respect), anti-marginalization, and anti-androcentrism.[25] She thought this complexity would force us to ‘find approaches that avoid trade-offs and maximize prospects for satisfying all—or at least most—of the five principles’.[26] It was part of her understanding of equality of respect that women would no longer be objectified. She wrote:

‘A third kind of equality that is crucial to gender equity pertains to status and respect. This kind of equality is especially pressing now, after the family wage,[27] when postindustrial culture routinely represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male subjects. The principle of equal respect rules out social arrangements that objectify and denigrate women—even if those arrangements prevent poverty and exploitation, and even if, in addition, they equalize income and leisure time’.[28]

            Fraser’s project had a wider scope than the feminists circa 2020 who were interested in the relation between workplace sex equality and sex-based expectations for women. Fraser was interested in reforms to the welfare state. In her view, both the ‘breadwinner’ model, which simply looked to get more women into full-time, well-paid work, and the ‘caregiver’ model, which simply looked to remunerate women for their then-unpaid domestic labour and caregiving, were insufficient to securing sex equality. Instead she thought we needed an approach that would ‘induce men to become more like most women are now—that is, people who do primary care work.’[29] She thought we needed to ‘make women’s current life patterns the norm,’ and that would require ‘a wholesale restructuring of the institution of gender.’[30] But the specific point she made about sexual objectification and equal respect was of enormous interest to the feminists interested in the workplace-specific project: equal respect is a necessary component of sex equality, and the sexual objectification of women is not compatible with equal respect. The mainstream feminist approach at the time was to focus only on the men, and say: stop objectifying women! The more controversial approach was to ask about the role played by women’s continuing to be made into objects by conforming to expectations for feminine appearance. Was it possible for women to demand equal treatment while ‘being’ as men thought they ought to be? Or could equal treatment only be secured precisely by not being as men thought they ought to be, which was precisely to be subordinate? Feminists at the time began to question more and more the link between unequal treatment (by men), sexual and beauty objectification (by men and women), and feminine presentation (by women).

4. “Women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male subjects”

What those feminists meant by ‘feminine presentation,’ precisely, was presentation by female people in conformity with then-in-place sexist expectations for feminine appearance. This included dressing in a way responsive to men’s sexual demands (revealingly in some countries, modestly in others); adopting clothing that facilitated sexual objectification, like high-heeled shoes (which lengthened the leg and tightened the leg muscles), short skirts, low-cut tops, or very tight, figure-revealing clothing. The term—‘feminine presentation’—was slightly misleading in that it suggested that their target was anything that could be categorized as distinctively feminine. That would include aspects of natural female beauty like feminine jawlines, and feminine mouths, as well as non-enhanced aspects of female-typical presentation, like long hair. That would then set up the idea that to violate expectations of feminine presentation was to present in masculine ways, and that runs into the problem that it applied a male standard to women, i.e. suggested that women needed to look more like men. That was not the argument of these feminists, however. They did not believe that men’s appearance set the standard for how women should look.

            Some feminists at the time and prior had seemed to think it should, on the grounds, perhaps, that men had been the freest people throughout human history and (so) had developed practices that facilitated and enhanced that freedom. That included clothes that were comfortable and allowed free movement, and hair that required little maintenance or effort. Charlotte Perkins Gilman seemed to have something like this in mind when she created the aesthetic of the women of Herland.[31] But our feminists thought the focus should be on getting rid of expectations, not simply pushing women toward a different set of expectations. They saw expectations for feminine appearance as constraining because conforming to them was expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes painful, in addition to perpetuating women’s status as sexual and beauty objects whose value resides at least partly in their appearance. And that, in turn, perpetuated many of the issues relating to women’s workforce inequality. But wanting to eliminate the expectations did not necessarily mean wanting to eliminate the practices in all cases. If beauty practices were harmless fun, they should be harmless fun for everyone. If they were painful impositions, they should be painful impositions for no one.

            These feminists were careful to distinguish aspects of feminine appearance they were not concerned with. One was physical fitness, which has to do with food and exercise, and which affects body shape and muscle tone. Because this is important for health, and equally important in both sexes, it was not their concern. Another was natural or non-enhanced beauty.[32] Some ideas about beauty are universal, like facial symmetry, and some are culturally specific, like whether freckles are seen as a desirable or undesirable feature. While there was evidence, at the time, suggesting the existence of ‘attractiveness bias,’[33] natural or non-enhanced beauty was not something particularly easy, or desirable, to disrupt, and not something that others could easily change their response to.

            Instead, their focus was on presentation, over which women had significantly more control than for natural beauty, and which produced significantly less uncomplicated benefit than for fitness. Their interest was in something like styling, which included choices about clothing (tight vs. loose, short/low-cut vs. not, skirts/dresses vs. shorts/pants), footwear (high heels vs. sneakers/flats), makeup (heavy makeup, light makeup, no makeup),[34] presentation of hair (long vs. short, heavily treated vs. natural, styled vs. pulled back), and accessorizing (e.g. fake eyelashes, hair extensions, padded bras). It also included more permanent interventions like cosmetic surgery—rare today but commonplace then—which could be highly invasive (breast enhancements, breast reductions, nose jobs,[35] liposuction, butt implants, eyelid operations[36]), and less so (Botox, lip filler, permanent eyeliner).

            In an early statement of the view, one collective claimed “there can be no sex equality while there are still expectations for appearance that make women into sexual and aesthetic objects,”[37] and called on women to disrupt those expectations. They plastered their cities with stickers, posters, and billboards that read “not here to be pretty.” The concept of man-repelling as a style choice became popular within the feminist subculture. One of their most notorious campaigns was the “B.Ugly!” campaign, which encouraged women in industries with particularly strong appearance-based expectations—for example, law firms, high-end real estate, luxury car sales—to go to work “ugly” and then report on their experiences at a campaign website.[38] Women wore sneakers in place of high heels, bare faces instead of makeup, and comfortable, functional clothing. Some took great glee at showing up to work in tracksuits and taking secret recordings of their colleagues’ comments and reactions. The campaign got a huge amount of media attention, and women vied with each other on social media[39] to acquire the “ugliest” (i.e. least male-pleasing) looks and post the most dramatic tales of their reception. (Some of the latter were hotly contested by the male bosses and colleagues exposed).

            Given the taboos outlined earlier, the campaigns had to walk the very fine line between encouraging women’s participation without blaming any woman who chose not to participate. They did this reasonably well, but they still attracted plenty of criticism. Men should take women seriously, see women as fully human, regardless of their appearance, opponents said. They quoted the feminist historian Mary Beard: “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine, rather than women.”[40] What kind of feminist would say that women may need to change their appearance so that men take them seriously? Men should take women seriously, end of story. The reply was pragmatic: Yes, they should, but they don’t. So what now? It was also political: If women are to be free, they must achieve freedom for themselves. In conditions of social hierarchy it is naïve to suppose that the dominant will simply realize they have been wrong. The role women could take in challenging sex hierarchy was on the table for discussion: indeed, it had been since feminist movement and theory first began.[41] The challenge here was to be a full human person, not an object. The challenge was to confront men with women’s full subjecthood.[42]

5. The collective action problem

The problem with the approach was that the challenge of disrupting expectations for feminine presentation put women into a standard collective action problem. To eliminate the expectation, they needed widespread non-conformity. But ‘women’ have never been an organized social group,[43] so there was no way to secure this. There seemed to be only two possibilities: unilateral non-conformity, meaning that any individual woman should violate the norms of feminine presentation regardless of what any other woman was doing (a ‘bottom-up’ strategy); or regulation, something like a law or policy intervention (a ‘top down’ strategy). The first was the most intimately linked to the victim-blaming objection, because if every woman should then any woman who didn’t was arguably doing something morally wrong.

            Regulation had the advantage of being able to coordinate many people at once. Clare Chambers in 2008 had made the case for this possibility using the example of breast implants, which women back then were choosing to have in social conditions characterized by ‘the widespread belief that women’s success depends on their appearance, specifically on an appearance that emphasizes sexual availability.”[44] She thought there was reason to believe that women were having breast implants not because of autonomous choices but because of “socially formed preferences: the power of example has cultivated in her a desire for conformity. …The more women have breast surgery, the more it is acceptable or even expected that other women have breasts of a certain size and shape, and that those are achieved through surgery if they do not happen naturally.”[45]

            While conforming to expectations for how women’s breasts should look could bring some rewards, including jobs and marriages, breast surgery itself had no intrinsic benefits. In fact it was intrinsically harmful, being expensive and painful in the best case, and creating negative health complications in the worst. But when social norms become a route to achieving social status, they can lock us in, because there will always be an incentive for people to follow the norm in order to secure the status.[46] And this is what takes us to regulation, according to Chambers: “the only way for most individuals to escape a social norm that is a requirement for achieving social status… is in a context of (near-) universal noncompliance so that the norm ceases to function. … A complete ban would be necessary if the society were to reach the position where no individual had an incentive to harm herself.”[47] The expectation disappears because a ban by the state drastically alters the incentives for conformity, shifting them from rewards to sanctions. On Chambers’ view, state intervention to this end is appropriate when a practice is harmful, and when its benefits depend on a social norm—in particular an unequal or unjust social norm. She said, “Nobody should have to harm themselves to receive benefits that are only contingently related to that harm, and where the contingency is a social one.”[48] While her arguments about invasive cosmetic surgery applied directly, many other aspects of feminine presentation did not seem to count as ‘intrinsically harmful.’ Thus there was debate over the extent of regulation that would be morally acceptable for the rest.

            In the early 2020s, states had begun passing legislation prohibiting third-party interference in the ‘change or suppression’ of sexual orientation. What this meant was that if an adult was gay, but decided for some reason he did not want to live as gay, he could do that, but he could not ask any third party for support without putting them at risk of legal action.[49] The punishment for adults found to have engaged in change or suppression practices causing serious injury in one state of Australia was up to 10 years in prison, or up to $200,000 AUD in fines. At the heart of this legislation was a normative claim: some things, like living out our sexual orientations, are so important that they must be up to us, and us alone. Other people must support us in them, and must not support us in changing or suppressing them—on pain of punishment.

            Feminists wondered, couldn’t we apply this same idea to feminine appearance? (And, for that matter, to masculine appearance?) Our appearance is surely very important too—for self-expression, for being comfortable and being able to move freely through the world, for being able to keep ourselves safe, for feeling confident, for signalling particular things to other people, and more. So shouldn’t it, too, be up to us, and us alone? Shouldn’t other people have to support us in it, and not support us in changing or suppressing it—on pain of punishment? Of course a woman might decide on her own that she wasn’t happy with something about her body and want cosmetic surgery to change it, or that she wanted to dress in a more, or a less, man-pleasing way. But those choices must be autonomous, which means they must come from her as an individual, and not from social expectations, or direct peer/colleague pressure. Just like the change or suppression of sexual orientations, attempts to change women’s presentation or appearance sometimes caused injury in the legal sense: physical injury in the case of plastic surgeries, and psychological injury in the case of women ending up with lifetime body image and appearance issues, as well as health impacts from anorexia, bulimia, cutting, depression, and other self-destructive conditions and behaviours.

            A few Australian and British feminists became enamoured of this idea and had bills drafted that mirrored those prohibiting the change or suppression of sexual orientation, instead prohibiting the change or suppression of presentation. Perhaps unfortunately—for it might have been an ‘experiment in living’ worth playing out—their proposal sparked a fierce debate which ultimately convinced most of the original proponents of the idea to let it go. Liberals (in the philosophical, not the political, sense) argued that consent was the bright line for what adults may do, and seek support in doing, and that the bills were overstepping on that point. Feminists who supported the project of disrupting appearance-based expectations argued that such bills simply wouldn’t have the intended effects. First of all, they would not ‘go all the way’ (to ruling out third-party pressures on appearance), because there would still be all sorts of subtle ways that third parties—whether individuals or institutions like the media or film and television—could reward appearance of a certain type, or set it up as the ideal/standard. For example, they said, if a (straight) woman who looked a certain way got more male sexual attention, other straight women may imitate her strategy in order to compete, and so there could still be a particular kind of ‘object-like’ presentation without anyone explicitly telling a woman she should ‘make an effort.’ Furthermore, the third parties potentially at risk of legal punishment were too numerous: stylists, hairdressers, make-up artists, clothing store staff, influencers, fashion magazine staff, the whole film and television industry…? Some of the more militant feminists, with the authoritarian streak that characterized the left at the time (thankfully no longer) said Yes! Let them all be punished, for they are all complicit in harm to women. But more took this to be a reason to step back from the bills.

            The nail in the coffin was one brilliant keynote given at the 2024 Women’s Human Rights Campaign conference—uniquely well-attended, being the first time feminists from all over the world had been able to meet in person since the 2020-2022 coronavirus pandemic. The speaker, Kate Phelan, made the case that simply eliminating third-party pressure, no matter how comprehensively, would not do to wipe out widespread feminine presentation in women; most women had internalized the idea that this was how they were meant to look, and it would be self-reinforcing even without the social incentives and sanctions. She did concede that it may be less common, in that those women already chafing under the constraints would take the chance for costless ‘defection,’ but thought a substantial problem would remain. What we needed, she argued, was for women themselves to reconceptualize feminine presentation, to truly begin to resent the expectation that it was any part of their role in life to be beautiful for men (see also Phelan 2024; 2025; 2028).

            That did not mean top-down interventions were entirely off the table. Instead, a more moderate package of reforms were campaigned for, and eventually, obtained. Governments offered substantial creative arts funding for film, television, and other new media portraying ordinary-looking women as complex characters (the classic series Work In Progress, 2019-2021, was an early example). Advertising standards were introduced that prohibited billboards and magazines from presenting women in gratuitously sexualized ways to sell products. Sexist dress codes at work—including sex-determined uniforms—were made illegal. ‘Presentation’ was added as a protected attribute to anti-discrimination legislation.[50] This meant that employees could take action against dismissal or sanctioning on the grounds of presentational choices, and that fact deterred employers from discriminating in the first place. (Employers could still require a certain standard of dress, e.g. ‘smart casual’). These changes certainly contributed to providing women who already resented appearance-based expectations with the assurance they needed to violate them. But arguably the bigger role in the change was played by grassroots actions taken by women first in small groups, and later, in ever-bigger groups, some of which became organized collectives.

6. Disruption from the bottom up

Theorists at the time understood how social expectations could change, identifying multiple mechanisms that allowed the erosion of existing expectations, and/or the creation of new expectations. One was conditional agreements, of an ‘I will if you will’ type.[51] These might secure commitment to non-conformity from a number of people sufficient to disrupt an existing expectation, or might secure commitment to advocating for or acting like there already is a new expectation in place. Another was behavioural ‘cascades’, where more and more people start to have a new expectation, or abandon an old one. People will have different levels of willingness to do this; those who are not very socially sensitive may be willing to move early, others to move later.[52] As more and more people move, it becomes worth it for everyone to do so, until we end up with a stable new expectation (or have stably abandoned an old one).[53] And yet another mechanism was elites, where a small but influential group adopt a new expectation or abandon an old one, and everyone else duly follows. These expectations may be imposed from above through the use of social power, or others may willingly imitate social elites.

             These general mechanisms made clear how feminists might approach changing sex-based expectations, from the bottom up. All three strategies were put into play to challenge expectations of feminine presentation. Small organized groups, and sometimes individuals operating alone, worked to secure conditional agreement from women in particular workplaces. For example, groups of women in Japanese workplaces that mandated high-heels used online forms to secure conditional agreement from female employees that when 70% of them had agreed, they would all start wearing sneakers to work. This was successful in forcing many Japanese workplaces to remove the high-heel requirement, and eventually the Japanese government made sexist dress standards at work illegal. (The success of this strategy depended on whether the women in the relevant workplace were easily replaceable). Elite women acted as first-movers in starting cascades. For violating the norm to wear high heels, then- United States Vice President Kamala Harris was a good example, wearing sneakers with her suits on the campaign trail in 2020.[54] And cascades often (but not always) followed first-movers. For example, feminist first-movers from the 1980s onward started leaving their body hair natural; women with a slightly higher social sensitivity threshold then felt comfortable to follow; and then women with an even higher threshold, and so on, followed, until having natural body hair was perfectly normal for women. (Admittedly, this ‘cascade’ took a long time.) The package of regulations and grassroots feminist activism successfully disrupted appearance-based expectations for women, and that was one (of many) significant pieces of the explanation of how we achieved sex-equality in the workplace.

8. Back in the present: 2050

The professor steps out from behind the lectern, shoving her hands deep into her trouser pockets. She looks out at the audience, but does not smile. There is prolonged applause, which she simply absorbs, before leaving the stage.


*This essay was first published in The Radical Notion, Issue 8, Autumn/Winter (2022).

[1] (Beauvoir 1949, p. 446).

[2] (Women’s Workplace Equality Index 2021), see

[3] (Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2021), last updated 19th August 2021, accessed 30th August 2021.

[4] (Pender 2019, p. 11).

[5] (ibid, p. 8).

[6] (ibid, p. 9).

[7] (ibid, p. 8).

[8] (ibid, p. 9).

[9] (Women’s Workplace Equality Index 2021), see

[10] (Marathe 2020).

[11] (Marathe 2020).

[12] ‘…the vast majority of entrants into the formally low-skilled and temporary Live-in-Caregiver Visa in Canada are women from the Global South’ (Boucher 2019, p. 281).

[13] See e.g. (Sundar 2018) for women’s testimonies about workplace sexual harassment in India at the time.

[14] (Foster 2019).

[15] (Shirbon 2017).

[16] (Lee 2019); and for a fictional treatment of this issue see (Cha 2020).

[17] There was 78% acceptance in the 19-29 year-old female cohort; 80% acceptance in the 30-39 year-old female cohort and the 40-49 year-old female cohort; and 77% in the 50-59 year-old cohort. There was only 61% support in the 60+ year-old female cohort (Statista 2020). A South Korean feminist movement that translates as ‘escape the corset’ had been pushing back against these standards since the late 2010s (Bicker 2018).

[18] (Dent 2017).

[19] (Anderson 2010).

[20] (Hacker 1951).

[21] Anne Lister’s diaries provide insight into what it was like to be a woman who rejected many of those expectations during that period (e.g. expectations about dress, sexual orientation, travel, interests, marriage, and business).

[22] For a relatively late statement of that view see (Manne 2017).

[23] The fact that there were sanctions both ways meant women were in a double bind on this point. On the double bind see (Frye 1983, p. 2).

[24] (Fraser 1994, p. 612).

[25] (Fraser 1994, pp. 594-601).

[26] (Fraser 1994, p. 600).

[27] ‘The family wage’ refers to the old gender order: ‘The gender order that is now disappearing descends from the industrial era of capitalism and reflects the social world of its origin. It was centered on the ideal of the family wage. In this world, people were supposed to be organized into heterosexual, male-headed nuclear families, which lived principally from the man’s labour market earnings. The male head of the household would be paid a family wage, sufficient to support children and a wife and mother, who performed domestic labour without pay’ (Fraser 1994, p. 591).

[28] (Fraser 1994, p. 598), my emphasis.

[29] (Fraser 1994, p. 611).

[30] (Fraser 1994, pp. 611-612).

[31]  (Gilman 1915).

[32] See e.g. (Aharon et al. 2001); (Etcoff 1994); (Etcoff 1999); Perrett et al. 1998); (Symons 1995).

[33] On disadvantages of unattractiveness see e.g. (Minerva 2017), on advantages of attractiveness see e.g. (Etcoff 1999).

[34] See (Etcoff et al. 2011) for a study on character attributions relating to heaviness of makeup.

[35] Sheila Jeffreys discusses the example of Jewish and Italian girls being given nose jobs as high school graduation presents (Jeffreys 2014, p. 143).

[36] Double eyelid surgery is especially common in South Korea, having western eyes as its referent. See (Ha 2019).

[37] On the concept of objectification see (Nussbaum 1995, p. 257), (Langton 2009, pp. 228-229), and discussion in (Papadaki 2019).

[38] This is one form that ‘no-saying’, in Frye’s sense, can take (Frye 1983, p. 104).

[39] This was internet-based technology for strangers to share their lives/opinions globally, which fell apart during the cancel culture years 2017-2022.

[40] (Beard 2017).

[41] On the obligations of oppressed groups to resist their own oppression, see (Vasanthakumar 2018) and overview of issues in (Vasanthakumar 2020).

[42] As Frye put it, the shift in the social concept woman ‘is pressed on others by a change in social reality’ (Frye 1983, p. 107). Women cannot simply say they want change. We must change, forcing men to come to terms with the new reality.

[43] ‘Feminists’ may be, or at least there had been, since the late 1960s, some organized feminist collectives.

[44] (Chambers 2008, p. 192).

[45] (Chambers 2008, p. 193).

[46] (Chambers 2008, p. 194).

[47] (Chambers 2008, p. 194).

[48] (Chambers 2008, p. 196).

[49] Different states’ legislation exempted different third parties, for example counsellors and therapists. In most legislation, legal punishment of the third party was tied to the change or suppression practice being shown to have caused ‘injury’ or ‘serious injury’ (both either physical or psychological). See e.g.

[50] Some at the time had discussed a similar intervention under the label of ‘gender expression’, but feminists worried that this tied legal protection to gender identity / transgender status specifically, rather than giving protections to a wider group including but not limited to gender identity.

[51] (Brennan et al. 2013, p. 96).

[52] (Brennan et al. 2013, p. 99). See also Christina Bicchieri’s discussion of ‘trendsetters’ (Bicchieri 2016).

[53] (Brennan et al. 2013, p. 99).

[54] See discussion in (Elan 2020).


Aharon, Itzhak., Etcoff, Nancy., Ariely, Dan., Chabris, Chrisopher., O’Connor, Ethan., & Breiter, Hans. ‘Beautiful Faces Have Variable Reward Value: fMRI and Behavioural Evidence’, Neuron 32/3 (2001), pp. 537-551.

Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Beard, Mary. Women and Power: A Manifesto (New York: Liveright, 2017).

Bicchieri, Cristina. Norms in the Wild (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Bicker, Laura. ‘Why women in South Korea are cutting ‘the corset’’, BBC News, 10th December 2018. Online at

Boucher, Anna. ‘Measuring migrant worker rights violations in practice: The example of temporary skilled visas in Australia’, Journal of Industrial Relations 61/2 (2019), pp. 277-301.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex, Constance Borde & Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (Eds.)(London: Vintage Books, 1949).

Brennan, Geoffrey., Eriksson, Lina., Goodin, Robert., & Southwood, Nicholas. Explaining Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Cha, Frances. If I Had Your Face (London: Viking, 2020).

Chambers, Clare. Sex, Culture, and Justice: The Limits of Choice (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

Dent, Georgina. ‘Australian women pay a high price for looking good’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21st July 2017. Online at

Elan, Priya. ‘Kamala Harris: what her sneakers mean’, The Guardian, 4th September 2020. Online at

Etcoff, Nancy., Stock, Shannon., Haley, Lauren., Vickery, Sarah., & House, David. ‘Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals’, PLOSOne 6/10 (2011), pp. 1-9.

Etcoff, Nancy. ‘Beauty and the beholder’, Nature 368 (1994), pp. 186-187.

Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the prettiest: The science of beauty (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Foster, Malcolm. ‘#KuToo no more! Japanese women take stand against high heels’, Reuters, 4th June 2019. Online at

Fraser, Nancy. ‘After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State’, Political Theory, 22/4 (1994), pp. 591-618.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality (New York: Crossing Press, 1983).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. First published in The Forerunner (1915).

Ha, Yae-Jin. ‘How double eyelid surgery has become a rite of passage for many South Korean youths’,, 4th April 2019. Online at

Hacker, Helen Mayer. ‘Women as a Minority Group’, Social Forces 30/1 (1951), pp. 60-69.

Jeffreys, Sheila. Beauty and Misogyny (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

Langton, Rae. Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Lee, Alexa. ‘South Korea’s Plastic Surgery Boom: A Quest To Be ‘Above Normal’, Huffpost, 18th September 2019. Online at

Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Marathe, Harshad. ‘No #MeToo for Women Like Us’, Human Rights Watch, 2020. Online at

Minerva, Francesca. ‘The Invisible Discrimination Before Our Eyes: A Bioethical Analysis’, Bioethics 31/1 (2017), pp. 180-189.

Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 24/4 (1995), pp. 249-291.

Papadaki, Evangelia. ‘Feminist Perspectives on Objectification’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10th March 2010, updated 16th December 2019.

Pender, Kieran. ‘Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession’ (London: International Bar Association, 2019). Online at

Perrett, D., Lee, K., Penton-Voak, I., Rowland, D., Yoshikawa, S., Murt, D., Henzi, S., Castles, D., & Akamatsu, S. ‘Effects of sexual dimorphism on facial attractiveness’ Nature 394 (1998), pp. 884-887.

Shirbon, Estelle. ‘Wear high heels or go home – British report finds sexist dress codes rife’, Reuters, 26th January 2017.

Statista. ‘Acceptance of having plastic surgery to improve the chances of getting a job or for marriage in South Korea in 2020, by age and gender’, Statista, February 2020. Online at

Sundar, Vaishnavi. But What Was She Wearing? USA: Lime Soda Films, 2018.

Symons, Donald. ‘Beauty is in the adaptations of the beholder: The evolutionary psychology of human female sexual attractiveness’, in P. Abramson & S. Pinkerton (Eds.) Chicago series on sexuality, history, and society. Sexual nature, sexual culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 80-119.

Vasanthakumar, Ashwini. ‘Epistemic Privilege and Victims’ Duties to Resist Their Oppression’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 25/3 (2018), pp. 465-480.

Vasanthakumar, Ashwini. ‘Recent debates on victims’ duties to resist their oppression’, Philosophy Compass 15/2 (2020).

Women’s Workplace Equality Index. ‘Country Rankings’,, 2021. Online at

Workplace Gender Equality Agency. ‘Gender workplace statistics at a glance 2021’, Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australian Government, 25th February 2021. Online at

%d bloggers like this: