Are women moving forward or still taking two steps back?

Looking back at perceptions and attitudes towards women during wartime; how far have we really moved on?

I have recently finished reading the wonderful book Back Home by Michelle Magorian, with my eight-year-old daughter. A favourite from my own childhood, the main characters, a feisty, talented, ‘tomboyish’ (as she was regarded then) girl and her talented mechanic mother, have always stayed with me. Set during the second world war, the two female central characters challenge stereotypes, and battle with society’s perceptions of what women should do and how women should behave, in a way that ultimately leads to the breakdown of a marriage and an expulsion from a Private Girls’ School.

Challenging stereotypes

When reading this with my daughter, in her innocence, she was totally bemused. She simply couldn’t understand why the young girl’s friend, a boy, didn’t want to play with her because his friends thought she was too adventurous and playing with an odd girl like her would harm his image. My daughter could also not understand why the girl’s incredible talents in woodwork, and her mother’s in mechanics, had to be suppressed (the only reason why her mother’s skills were welcome was due to the need for women to drive and repair vehicles as part of the Women’s Voluntary Service during the war).

one step forward and two steps back

My daughter’s incredulity at these societal norms back then was actually reassuring. We have moved on a long way. Women are successful in traditionally male industries. A huge amount of investment is spent by leading companies to encourage girls into STEM subjects and careers, and we do have the opportunity to follow our dreams, skills and careers of our choosing, without fear of society’s derision. Women are also making a massive contribution to the economy and finding ways to balance family life through starting and running successful businesses, changing careers and retraining.

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women one step forward and two steps back


Aspirations of an Engineer or Princess

My daughter has talked about being an engineer ever since she knew what one was, and frequently makes observations on roof structures and buildings. Much to our amusement, upon seeing the stunning Christmas Ferris Wheel in Lille surrounded by animatronic bears, fairy lights and snow, she asked ‘’mummy, how many rotations does the wheel make every hour?’). She has always vehemently hated Disney Princesses, Frozen, glitter, facepainting and dressing up and loved maths, coding, jigsaw puzzles and numbers.

Hurrah for her.

She can be herself.

The world is her oyster.

Or is it?

Every time there’s a shining example of how far women have come, it seems there’s a spanner in the works thrown in to show just how far we STILL need to go. It feels like as a gender so many of us are battling and toiling away for respect and recognition of our achievements, only to be undermined by deep-seated prejudice, naivety and ignorance.


Like a presenter asking an internationally acclaimed female footballer to ‘twerk’.


Like the age 20 something teams on The Apprentice consistently demeaning women in virtually every series, in how they depict them in advertising campaigns and packaging (it’s quite amazing as these are young women wanting to get on in business).


Like an airline being accused of giving Captain stickers to boys and Crew stickers to girls.


Like a well meant, admittedly cleverly crafted engineering campaign by EDF aimed at getting young girls into engineering, still being being based on the premise of being pretty (Pretty Curious).



Does it all add up to one step forward, two steps back?

Let’s hope not. In a few years time I’ll ask my daughter – after all, she’s the mathematician.


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Elizabeth Hibbert Contributor
Elizabeth is an Oxford University educated, former advertising Client Services Director turned professional writer, marketer, small business owner and mum. With a deep understanding of the impact of words, she makes business communications powerful, engaging and effective.
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