12/09/2014 11:21 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Feminism Is About Equality, Not a Particular Gender: An Interview With Inga Schowengerdt

1. Can you tell us a bit about who you are?

I am a social and developmental psychologist passionate about advancing gender equality through research, public engagement, translation of psychological science and advocacy. As a researcher, consultant and activist I have worked on issues such as female underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the sexualization of girls in the media, policy affecting women and girls, including Title IX enforcement, paycheck fairness and political participation, and designed programming to develop healthy self-esteem and leadership in adolescent girls.

2. What is the state of feminism today? Who are some important feminists that we should listen to today?

The state of feminism is complex and debatable. Women continue to make important strides towards equality, and continue to face resistance and backlash as they do so. One trend that I find encouraging in feminism that policymakers and businesses are becoming more cognisant of the economic implications of gender equality (for example, the benefits of increasing the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce and of gender inclusive workplaces). Two organizations gender equality oriented organizations whose research reports are worth staying on top of are Catalyst and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). I also highly recommend Virginia Valian's 'Gender tutorials for change' for individuals interested in the underlying causes of gender inequality and for use as an educational resource.

3. What are some of the biggest problems facing Feminism?

Misconstruals of feminism as anti-male and as the exclusive domain of women are chronic issues that refuse to go away. These misrepresentations can discourage people from identifying as feminists, distract attention from actual gender equality issues and render invisible the ways in which they impact men as well as women. Another is the inaccurate perception that gender equality has been achieved, rendering feminism passé. This misperception obscures how individual experiences (for example, a mother being over-looked for promotion because of her assumed lack of commitment to work) are linked to systemic gender bias, and constitutes a barrier to individual and collective action.

4. The actress Emma Watson recently inaugurated the Twitter #heforshe campaign and it has been met with a lot of backlash. Are these reactions surprising? Lily Rae from the International Business Times, is against the campaign and her argument stems from it being too idealistic? Is this correct? What would you say to both men and women who want to support equality?

Unfortunately, the backlash against Emma Watson following her #HeForShe address is predictable. Women often suffer reprisals when they are outspoken regarding gender equality and feminism, and the scale of the backlash against Watson reflects her level of visibility. I share Lilly Rae's frustration with the gender double-standard for reactions to celebrities who champion feminist causes (namely that many people are more willing to listen to a man speak on the subject of women's rights than a woman), which encapsulates the problems linked to prescriptive gender stereotypes and the dynamics underlying gender inequities. The approach of the #HeForShe campaign is realistic in that it recognizes that boys and men play a critical role in increasing gender equality, and its success will be determined by its ability effectively engage them as stakeholders.

Gender inequality is ubiquitous, so I would encourage those interested in promoting equality between men and women to capitalize on the influence they hold via their roles as friends, parents, family members, political constituents in their workplaces. Helping the young people develop an egalitarian understanding of gender and become critical consumers of gender role ideology in the media, calling out friend's sexist jokes, volunteering for pro-equality political candidates and doing a self-audit on your business to ensure that you're compensating male and female employees equitably are all examples of how individuals can leverage their personal influence to promote gender equality. The important thing, however, is to do something because research shows that when sexism goes unconfronted, this is interpreted as sexists beliefs being more widely accepted than they actually are, which in turn detracts from individuals' willingness to challenge them.

5. Is the world we live still a 'man's world'? Why, why not? How can we change it, if so?

Women in the United States have enviable access to rights, recourse and resources relative to women in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, we don't live in a gender equitable society: Women are paid an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable work, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college, and women's basic reproductive rights are (still) contested. Equality-oriented policy (for example, Paycheck Farness, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Title IX) is necessary to counter the effects of male privilege in our institutional practices. Challenging gender inequities also requires scrutinizing our attitudes and implicit gender biases, and the ways that they normalize, and contribute to, gender disparities (for example, Valian, 1998).

6. Some arguments for feminism portray feminism as being against the male or masculinity? Do you believe this caricature is fair? Should feminism embrace masculinity?

The inaccurate caricature of feminism as anti-male/masculinity has been used to undermine feminism as well as distract from conversation about actual gender discrimination. Given that the objective of feminism is to advance gender equality, not a particular gender, it not necessary for it 'embrace masculinity', nor femininity, for that matter. On the other hand, advancing gender equality requires the participation of both men and women, and it's imperative that initiatives targeting gender inequities embrace the role of boys and men, and that men claim gender equality as a personal issue.

7. How does the media (including the cinema) have a hand in portraying feminism? What changes need to be made in entertainment?

Media representation of girls and women reflect and reinforce the constraints of gender role stereotypes: Females characters in television and film are side-lined, sexualized, underemployed and rarely in shown senior or executive employment roles (Smith, Choueiti, Prescott and Pieper, 2012, Report of the APA Task force on the Sexualization of Girls, 2007). These depictions send the message that passivity and subordination, rather than self-assertion and leadership, are expected and desirable in women. These messages are incompatible with the gender equality sought by feminists and the struggles involved in pursuing it, and have deleterious consequences for girls' health, well-being and aspirations. Media that portrays female (and male) characters in diverse, rather that stereotypical roles offers alternative messages to consumers and can help shift public attitudes regarding gender, gender equality and feminism.

8. What projects are you up to at the moment?

I recently completed by PhD in social and developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge in England, where I studied the use of extracurricular math and engineering programs as a means of increasing girls' participation and persistence in STEM. I just finished helping organize a round table on women's economic security issues with Secretary of Labour Perez and Boston-area experts, am chairing a task force on gender inclusivity for the Society for the Psychology of Women, and design multi-media exercises for Macmillan that develop critical thinking in undergraduates. As ever, I'm always looking for gender-equality oriented projects!

Keep up to date with Inga's work below:
Twitter: @ischowengerdt
Linked In: