Women being themselves
British consulate event celebrates feminism and equality
Published: Mar 23, 2016 05:18 PM Updated: Mar 24, 2016 08:23 AM

James Rapley, Consul (political) of the British Counsulate General in Shanghai talks with the audience prior to the movie viewing. Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai

A distinguished speaker at the "Be Yourself" event on Friday: John Edwards Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai


Female professionals, NGO activists, a former world champion boxer and diplomats were among the 60-plus people gathered in the Art Gallery Café last Friday for the "Be Yourself" event organized by the British Consulate General in Shanghai to promote gender equality. The Global Times and Lean In Shanghai were partners for the event.

The British Embassy in China had announced earlier that rather than just celebrating one single day for women, it would be using the entire month of March to promote the concept of empowering women for our future and encouraged them to "be themselves." On March 18, the seminar and film viewing attracted diplomats, psychologists, celebrities and activists to discuss gender inequality and solutions.

John Edwards, the British Consul General in Shanghai, opened the seminar by speaking from the perspective of a male diplomat about the reality of gender inequality in Britain and China. Edwards told the audience that more efforts were needed to help women achieve true career development and political participation. He stressed the importance of institutional environments and workplace cultures to help women enjoy equality.

A distinguished speaker at the "Be Yourself" event on Friday: Pei-Feng Su Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai

A distinguished speaker at the "Be Yourself" event on Friday: Lin Yizhen Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai


Unexpected rewards

Pei-Feng Su, the executive director of ACTAsia, talked about her hard childhood in Taiwan and how she began working for charities. Su said that if you do something meaningful for society, sometimes there are unexpected rewards. She was given financial support from businesses to make her dream of a trip around the world come true after she had been working for several years in Taiwan. The trip to Europe and America helped her broaden her vision and establish relationships with royalty and the experience contributed to her current career.

Su told the audience that family support was very important for a woman to realize her dreams and ambitions. She had her daughter when she was 40 and she found that earlier fears that children might distract her from her career were completely groundless - her daughter is a keen supporter and a big fan.

Psychologist Lin Yizhen said women should be bold enough to be real people instead of the fake people often expected by others. She talked about her own experience as a "fake" person, having obeyed and followed her father's guidance in choosing a university, a major and then a job. It was only then she realized the importance of "listening to your heart" and being a real person. Nowadays she enjoys counseling others and giving advice. She felt that women were always making compromises to meet demands set by tradition or culture. She encouraged women to jump out of stereotype mind-sets and ignore negative reactions.

The former world champion boxer, Michele Aboro, was another speaker at the seminar. Over her seven-year professional career, Aboro had a spectacular unbeaten record of 21 wins out of 21 fights. She told the seminar she had fallen in love with boxing when she was a little girl while the sport was exclusively a male domain. She followed her heart and never gave up on her way to becoming a major figure in European women's boxing. She helped raise awareness of women boxing and talked about being treated unequally especially financially. As well as the physical demands of boxing after she retired she had to battle breast cancer.

Aboro now runs a boxing gym in Shanghai and talked about how, in the early days, she did all of the menial tasks herself to fulfill her dream. In an earlier interview with the Global Times, Aboro said her ambition was to train China's first professional world champion woman boxer. "This is what I want to accomplish, I want to have a woman's world champion from China," she said. 

A distinguished speaker at the "Be Yourself" event on Friday: Michele Aboro Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai

A distinguished speaker at the "Be Yourself" event on Friday: Ding Li Photo: Courtesy of the British Consulate General in Shanghai


Family is crucial

Ding Li, the vice president of the Non-Profit Incubator Headquarters, shared her experience about being true to herself in her career - in pursuing her dream she always listened to her heart. She has had to relocate several times for her career and agreed with Su that family members played a crucial role in career success.

She joked that a husband should at least be able to cook for himself, otherwise he would always have to wait for his wife to make a meal. If a career woman has to go on business trips this could prove terrible - how could a family imprison a woman in the kitchen?

The seminar group discussions provoked some heated debates about gender inequality. Although speakers agreed that some progress had been made discrimination still thrived everywhere. Taobao and JD promotions implied women were merely money-spending housewives while men were the breadwinners for families - but this was not the reality, Ding Li said.

Consul General Edwards asked panel members whether women in sports could be regarded as sexy. On the one hand, it was generally agreed that a healthy lifestyle and good physical condition were a type of beauty. Traditionally the "Sister Lin" type of woman from The Dream of Red Mansions represented the sort of beauty that inspired male tenderness and a willingness to protect.

Nowadays, women like tennis star Li Na represent another type of beauty. But on the other hand, other speakers pointed out that just using the word "sexy" to describe or define beauty was, in fact, another form of sex discrimination. Is the purpose of a woman's beauty just being sexy enough to please men?

Cultural prejudice

Other heated discussions involved whether parents should expect boys to be naturally better than girls. The Global Times suggested that this was a reality especially in underdeveloped parts of China. Parents would be shamed if their daughter outperformed a son in academia or in a career. Although parents try to treat girls and boys fairly in education and life, a deep-rooted cultural prejudice still prevailed.

Asked whether Chinese women spoil men and encourage them to be chauvinistic in their families and careers, psychologist Lin said this was a die-hard tradition that allowed men to enjoy more privileges.

Edwards said if a husband did 50 percent of the housework, this was a more practical way of showing respect and support for gender equality.

The seminar was followed by a screening of the film Make More Noise! - Suffragettes in Silent Film, a collection of silent clips and comedy shorts filmed between 1899 and 1917. Lucie Zhang, a member of Lean In Shanghai, introduced the film and shared with the audience her personal reactions to it.

A student majoring in translation at the Shanghai International Studies University told the Global Times that the seminar was a good opportunity for her to learn about British feminist history and the battles British women had undertaken to gain equality in politics.