A Cabinet of curiosities

10 Apr

Maria Miller’s departure from Cabinet this week created a vacancy for the portfolio for women, as well as for her role as Minister of State for Culture Media and Sport.

The incoming Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan – a woman – unlike Miller’s replacement as Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid. He will apparently take over the equalities brief, working on areas apart from women’s equality. In a remarkably ham-fisted set of announcements, it was confirmed that the new Minister for Women will report directly to the Prime Minister, thereby reversing an initial perception that the Women’s Minister would have to answer to a man en route to influence in Cabinet. But Nicky Morgan will not have a full seat at the table, as the Minister for Women now enjoys only ‘attends Cabinet’ status.

It has been reported in the Guardian that ‘Morgan will only attend [Cabinet] when issues pertaining to her brief are on the agenda’. This rather suggests that the Government does not consider that issues affecting women are a part of every Cabinet meeting. For a Prime Minister and Government already widely accused of having a ‘women problem’ this seems to confirm the message that ‘women’s issues’ are an occasional add-on to the mainstream of Cabinet business.

As she has a child, Nicky Morgan helps the Prime Minister avoid having a Cabinet devoid of mothers.   It seems a salutary reminder of the ways of the world that whilst the majority of male Cabinet ministers are fathers, none of the three fully-fledged female Cabinet ministers (Theresa May, Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers) are mothers. Given that less than 10% of children attend private schools (and only a small minority of University students go to Oxford or Cambridge), but around 80% of women have children, the current Cabinet seems a very odd reflection of reality indeed. The UK now ranks 20th out of 28 EU countries in terms of the proportion of women at ministerial level, and more Cabinet ministers attended one Oxford college (Magdalen) than there are women ministers. These statistics should ring alarm bells not only for politicos advising on the government’s electoral strategy, but for female voters who wish to call their ‘representatives’ to account.



From the Mumsnet election to the Gransnet budget?

19 Mar

The 2010 General Election was dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’, with the future of public services for families high on the agenda, and politicians from across the spectrum keen to engage in webchats on the site.  Fast forward to today’s budget, and the talk is all about pensions and savings rates – predominantly benefiting the older population.

Granted, yesterday’s childcare announcement made some difference to working parents; but there is debate about the extent to which these changes accrue to those most in need.  The decision to enable parents in receipt of the new Universal Credit to claim 85% of their childcare costs is welcome – but does not happen until 2017; the tax free £2000 of childcare costs on offer will benefit higher earners the most.

And who are the savers in Britain?  According to the Resolution Foundation, half of low- and middle- income families have no savings, and two-thirds have less than one month’s income put away to fall back on.  And most of these people have either a frozen pension, or no pension at all.  So it looks like the squeezed middle in the middle of life are not the prime beneficiaries of today’s changes.

Meanwhile, those with more substantial savings (the relatively wealthy, the old) have been thrown bones in terms of enhanced ISAs, and more freedom to draw down or invest pension pots as they choose.  We’d better hope they do so wisely, or any savings to the State may be limited.

In another sign that the lower-income working parents are not George’s Osborne’s target audience, the benefits cap –  unveiled in detail in today’s speech –  does include maternity and paternity and adoption allowances, tax-free childcare costs and Child Benefit, but leaves pension income outside the cap.

The message seems pretty clear:  pensioners’ interests matter, because pensioners vote in large numbers and are well-represented in Parliament. As I’ve noted before, younger people (especially women) are less visible in Westminster, and younger age groups are less likely to vote.

In the run-up to 2010’s election Gordon Brown ran into a little local difficulty when Mumsnetters asked him to name his preferred biscuit.  With the focus of today’s budget on wealthier savers, I’m guessing that Mr Osborne’s favourite is the Hob-nob.

Women of the World – a call to action

11 Mar

On Friday I attended the policymaking day of the Women of the World (WOW) festival on the Southbank.   It covered topics from all aspects of activism, women in politics, women in the public eye, the state of feminism today.  An impressive array of campaigners, journalists and successful women from many spheres, gathered to share their expertise, opinions and experience.  Above all, they were there to discuss the possibilities of power, and the scope to act for change. (I blogged about WOW’s brother event, the recent ‘Being a Man’, here).

I’ve compiled some of my favourite quotes from two sessions at WOW – videos are available from the links here and here.

From the Women and Power session

‘Power [ is not] the man-shaped thing we have, which then is picked up by women – that’s useless, that won’t get us anywhere.  It’s got to be the power to make real changes in society where women and men are seen as both having to contribute’         Baroness Shirley Williams (politician)

‘sometimes men … are more assertive – they step up and say ‘Yes I can do that’ – they don’t have any more knowledge than us’                Maggie Aderin-Pocock (space-scientist)  – on experts

‘if a political leader is sitting there trying to make a decision and there’s a lot of different constituencies presenting subtly different points of view, it’s very difficult to come down on the side of one decision. But if you work together to keep your ask very clear, very loud and very straightforward, it’s hard for somebody who’s got their moment to make a decision to hold all of that at bay’    Sarah Brown (campaigner) – on making a difference

‘only three of them [the women interviewed for Women’s Hour Power List last year] said that they thought of themselves as powerful – and I was one of them’  Jude Kelly (Southbank artistic director)

‘The word ‘ambition’ is always used to insult women’     Jane Garvey (journalist, Women’s Hour presenter)

From the Activism without Borders session:

‘The ability that we have now through social media, through e-mail and through the world wide web of course, to be able to learn instantly what’s happening around the world is a very precious tool and one that we would all say unreservedly has made things better for us. … Knowledge is one thing, but the ability to be an activist on an international scale is another thing.’                                                                       Anne Summers (Australian feminist)

‘If we roar together one of us might be silenced, but we cannot be silenced collectively’

Nimco Ali (FGM activist)

‘If you do a story and you don’t change a life then it’s not a story at all’                                                                                                                                                                      Judy Kosgei (journalist)

‘What activism takes: one element is persistence, to keep going, but the other is engaging risk….  Because we know that there’s tremendous risk in challenging dominant power, because dominant power wants to stay dominant’

Jessica Horn (feminist activist) – on themes from panel

The message I got from my day at WOW is to embrace power and make change – and don’t be afraid to be challenging – or to be challenged.  Reaching out in ‘real life’ is still important in the age of social media.  Women of the world, shall we do it?  Given recent headlines over the lack of affordable childcare and the persistent gender imbalances in pay, domestic labour and political participation – all of which were raised  throughout the day -  we really should….

Here comes the science part …

10 Feb

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has released a report damning the poor proportions of women at senior levels in science professions.  Quite right too.  It is a national problem, and an issue on which the Leninist question remains: ‘What is to be done’?  As ever, the ‘doing something’ part is where the problems start: how, when and where should we intervene to ensure greater gender equality in science careers?

One aspect of the report which is genuinely infuriating, is the declaration that efforts to encourage females into science at school are ‘wasted’ if women do not then go the whole hog and adopt science disciplines as undergraduates, postgraduates and eventually as highly skilled workers inside or outside academe.  Never mind the structure, feel the process – can you imagine a world where it was said that effort to educate white working class boys at school was ‘wasted’ because they are not statistically likely to end up at the top of the tree? No, me neither. In other arenas this might be termed victim-blaming.  But science is above all that.   The Science and Technology report deserves praise for going on to include observations about rewarding and retaining women as careers progress.

So how do women ‘fail’ to meet their potential in science?  Well, they don’t actually fail so much as find roadblocks on the way.  The report is quite strong in identifying transition points which work against many women sticking at a science career:  such as the unstable short-term contracts which dominate post-qualification ;  the need to publish regularly, which makes no allowance for career breaks – typically taken to have children.  The combination of lack of long-term employment rights and perceived lack of publishing presence over a time period, stymies progression for many early career female scientists.  The report is right to suggest that these issues should not only be examined as women’s issues, and that fathers who have achieved in science should also be recognised as having to reconcile work and family life.  But when the share of females (let alone mothers) in senior positions remains so low (17% professors in STEM subjects) it is clear that the odds remain heavily stacked against women’s life trajectories.  Furthermore, the report is very open about the fact that scientists’ own unconscious bias has a role in appointments, whilst at the same time senior scientists can tend towards a view that their professional standards of objectivity render any recruitment biases null.  Research studies, however, consistently demonstrate that panels will recruit males over females, when the only difference in submitted CVs is the gender identity of the name at the top.

So back to the ‘what is to be done?’ question.  Notwithstanding all the difficult issues already raised – and this report’s own view that it is presenting nothing new – there are some grounds for optimism.  All attempts to quantify the benefits of including women in science at every level appear to pull in the same direction: having women on board improves science produced.  Economically it makes no sense to exclude women scientists because we need a strong and diverse science workforce to produce innovation and wealth.  The government should be interested in women’s participation in science as a rights issue, but even if they are not, there is a short answer as to why they should be: because we’re worth it.

Reflections on Being a Man

3 Feb

I spent Friday Being a Man, at the widely-trailed festival at the Southbank.  True to the wonk in Wonklifebalance, this was the Policy making day, where representatives of charities, services and campaigns in the man zone came together with young men themselves to discuss issues relating to fatherhood, education, prison, gang culture and feminism.  For £12 it was a good bang for the buck.

First instincts might say this was a valuable learning experience, but as Ziauddin Yousafzai (Malala’s Dad) eloquently summarised, campaigning for gender equality and change is often a matter of ‘un-learning’.  Un-learning, or leaving behind, the dominant narratives of men as potent guardians of resources and permissions, and women as vessels of received knowledge without independent opinions, means, or role in the world.  Re-learning around tolerance and social justice is the key, with education the engine for change.

Jon Snow chaired a session on fatherhood which covered a wide range of experiences: men opening up to emotion through having children; sexuality and father-child relationships; change in high income countries and the developing world; the irrelevance of paternity leave to young excluded fathers; a call to arms for men to be engaged in care worldwide (phew!). As I have what the ex-offenders in a subsequent session might term ‘form’ in this area, this discussion was of particular interest.  When asked about prospects in 30 years’ time Ziauddin Yousafzai was optimistic, as the ‘global village’ means that even in the most remote and traditional societies there can be change, and there is an awareness of alternative cultures.  Michael Kaufman beat the drum for men being involved 50:50 in caring for children, as a desirable and necessary response to the feminist revolution.  But I couldn’t help thinking that if feminism has taught us anything, it is that progress is not always directly linear – more happening in waves over time, with the possibility of backward as well as forward movement.  If women’s progress in the public sphere in the last few decades is anything to go on, one might expect that in thirty years’ time men will do a quarter of care work (as UK women currently occupy about a quarter of parliament) and that accompanying a growing primacy of fatherhood in men’s lives, will be countervailing trends in body politics and objectification, and movements in support of male breadwinners.

Panels on men behind bars and gang culture were particularly successful because each included young men with experience of crime and time.  Ex-prisoners who had gone through programmes using the arts to explore issues of masculinity and identity talked movingly about how these had aided going straight and breaking free of hypermasculinity prevalent in prison hierarchies.  The possibility of prison as a transformative experience was also addressed – how monotony and powerlessness lead to anxiety and closing down of emotions – how creativity and involvement with women can provoke change.  As an audience member pointed out, the experiences of Mandela and Ghandi indicate that prisoners who develop a critical and political perspective can survive inside and achieve outside. The ex-prisoners agreed that critical engagement with their situation inside, and how outside was going to be for them as men, led to personal transformation, a political act.

Perhaps my favourite definition of being a man came from a former gang member, extricated from gang culture with assistance of Kids Company, the charity led by the indefatigable Camila Batmanghelidjh.  In a surprisingly philosophical discussion of ‘gang culture’ an ex-member said that being a man in a gang was a matter of ‘ego and credentials’ – just as it might be in many conventional groups, such as City professionals who are involved in parallel models of legitimate trading. ‘Ego and credentials’ are also often judged differently when the person demonstrating them is a woman.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, and the men who benefitted from her organisation’s work to change their lives, highlighted the absence of care in these young people’s backgrounds and the capacity of gangs to provide a family with different norms from conventional society.  To break free from the brutal aspects of gang existence, required finding potency from behaviour other than violence, and an understanding of what care really means.  However, although implicit in much of what was said I would have liked greater discussion of the identity of caring with femininity and ‘women’s work’.  The fact that care is not economically valued, and is often invisible labour, is an important element in why traditional male power has overlooked its significance, and downgraded the centrality of emotional understanding in everyday life.

Southbank’s director, Jude Kelly, commented on the power of having prisoners, gang members and young fathers themselves involved in the day – change has to be about hearing and understanding ‘people who we are not’. I am not a man, but I found much food for thought here.


Alternative reflections on Being a Man

I arrived at the Southbank Centre on Friday all ready to take part in the Being A Man festival – except it wasn’t there.  I went to the Royal Festival Hall, entering under a promotional poster for the event and passed by the ticket office where a blackboard with the event’s insignia reassured that it would be taking place at some point that day.  The space beyond opened into a large foyer space, chairs in serried rows facing a blank projector screen, and off to one side, a range of man-friendly charities were – quite literally – setting out their stalls.  It was almost 9.30 – start time on my ticket.  There was no-one at the ticket office and the rows of chairs were empty.  After a little further exploration I asked the nice woman from the Samaritans if she knew what was going on.  ‘We’re just setting up’ she said ‘the event must be going on downstairs’.  I went downstairs into further emptiness and decided that I should, in the spirit of the day, do what any man would do. So I aimed for the doors and a better phone signal and began to load the venue details into the web on my Blackberry to find out where I should be.  After a few minutes of waving phone about and the tedium of a ‘Loading’ message stuck at 10%, I realised this was a highly inefficient means of information retrieval and headed back upstairs to find a person.

Back at the information desk a lovely female East European receptionist looked at my ticket and confirmed that it didn’t say anywhere on it where in the Southbank centre the event was taking place.  Meanwhile, the previously blank projector screen had come alive with an image of Jude Kelly introducing the festival – but from where??  The receptionist took up her walkie-talkie and asked a man at the other end whereabouts the first event was taking place.  He seemed unfamiliar with the principles of communication and after a couple of non sequiturs she gave up.  ‘It’s here somewhere’ she smiled.  I did as any woman would do and headed for the door to find another human to ask.  A security bloke at the entrance was vaguely attempting communication with a gaggle of people pressing their ‘Being a Man tickets’ to the glass doors, which he was endeavouring to unlock so that they could hear each other. ‘Oh, it’s in the Queen Elizabeth’ he said, helpfully pointing the way.  I joined the gang of muttering latecomers and we rushed to the other Southbank venue, where a woman pointed out to the ticket collectors that the tickets did not say where to go and this might be an idea for the future.  Turn up, tune in, indicated the eyebrow – onward to the event!

At 4, full of a day’s man-related info we were encouraged to go to random workshop tables to discuss the themes of the day.  My table was hosted by a facilitator who wanted us to loosen up physically before we shared with the group.  Cue a dozen strangers manfully shaking out (some doing great expellation roars) before we talked about constructs of masculinity.  We got on to rites of passage and it was all getting a bit Iron John… A participant recounted how he thought of masculinity in terms of pioneering uncharted territory, and how he ‘fucking hated’ satnav, because it told you where you were going and he wanted to find his own way.  His female partner loved it.  ‘With a map I can find my own route’ ‘I don’t care if I get lost, I do it my way’ he said.  As a woman with no idea of the lie of the land, I felt that this was a good time to ask a person a question.  It seemed like a good way to find the route from here …

A different state of affairs

15 Jan

The tangled love life of Francois Hollande has generated a tidal wave of coverage – much of it abroad.  As has been extensively observed, the French do infidelity differently; a private passion is just that – private – even if those allegedly involved occupy the highest public office.

There is much to be said in favour of this approach – a relative lack of prurience in the media, a respect for what are personal choices, a clear line drawn between professional responsibility and private life.  Why should we know who the President is allegedly sleeping with as long as he (and in France it has always been he) is doing his job and paying attention to the best interests of his country? The case against – more likely to be expressed in the UK and USA – is one which views an affair as a sign of untrustworthiness (‘if he cheats on his partner will he cheat on the country?’) and of distraction from duty (‘if he’s involved with a new woman he won’t have his mind on the job’) – hence the public interest in making such relationships public knowledge.  It simply wouldn’t be possible for a British or American politician to conduct a press conference in the face of such revelations – as Hollande did yesterday – without detailed questioning from the media and without a coherent story to tell of either return to the fold, or separation.  Hollande did not do any of this because in France private means private.  He was standing there doing his job, outlining his programme for the country and that was all people needed to know.

All apart from the fact that his ‘difficult moments’ meant that he would in due course clarify the position of Valerie Trierweiler as First Lady in advance of his official visit to the USA next month.  The French take on public interest has seemed to revolve in part around explaining how (and by whom) the publicly-funded role of First Lady should be played.  In France, the nature and future of the role itself seems to have been discussed as much as the personal fortunes of the incumbent herself – an unlikely scenario in Britain.  But is our approach any better?

From the BBC news website I gather from the glossary of terms used to describe the President’s activities in the French press that Hollande would s’exfiltrer (smuggle himself out) through the Grille du Coq – an ornate entry to the Elysee topped by a cockerel.  As we view everything through a sex filter, in Britain this would surely be Cockgate.  Vive la difference as the cliché goes, but perhaps we should be joking a little less about privacy these days.


Unkind cuts? – Why mothers are needed in the mother of Parliaments

8 Jan

As George Osborne announces protecting pensioners’ income whilst seeking further cuts in welfare from those in work or of working age, the papers are full of debate.  On one side are those who agree with the Chancellor that austerity must prevail until the deficit is paid off, and that ‘hard choices’ must be made; on the other, those who agree with Nick Clegg that £12 billion worth of cuts to welfare will be a ‘monumental mistake’, unfairly targeting the working poor and the young and  vulnerable. Newspapers across the political spectrum note that Mr Osborne’s line is not unanimously supported in his own party, so this discussion around where cuts should fall seems likely to move beyond straightforward electioneering.

It is striking that Messrs Osborne and Cameron have justified their ‘triple lock’ on pensioners’ income as part of their true values – the belief that those who have worked hard all their lives are deserving of State support.  No mention here that some pensioners may have been more hardworking than others; that some may simultaneously be comfortably off and entitled to State support.  These ‘values’ concerning entitlement are absent or reversed when it comes to discussing welfare for the young and/or employed.  Here, the rhetoric is about distinguishing between those under-25s who have independent housing and receive housing benefit, contrasted with the ‘hardworking’ others who have to live at home until they can afford their own home.

There is no discussion of the fact that these two groups may be far from interchangeable: young adults who live ‘at home’ often have parents who can subsidise their children in their early careers – they can afford a house with sufficient space for the young adult, and they get on well enough for such an arrangement to be successfully (or at least tolerably) negotiated.  Those under-25s living in rented accommodation and receiving housing benefit,  often have neither supportive parents nor a family home to rely on – and many of them will be struggling on low wages, rather than ‘shirking’ on benefits.  Another possible cut envisaged by the Chancellor is on support for those on higher incomes who live in social housing – in high-rent, high-priced inner city areas, even those on decent incomes can struggle to afford their own homes, because of the prohibitively high deposits required in the current mortgage market.  Making such tenants pay more could have major implications for their costs of living and working lives.  If you are living in social housing with children, you may not be able to afford a rent rise; if you move to a cheaper area, any saving might be cancelled out by increased commuting costs and extra hours of childcare if you are a working parent.

Thinking about this differential treatment of the youthful and the elderly in terms of entitlement to government support, my eye was caught by an article in the Independent about Jo Swinson, the Equalities minister who has recently given birth.  In it, she laments the long hours and lack of family-friendliness of the House of Commons.  Rather wonderfully she sums the situation up with the observation that rules relating to the Commons voting lobby mean that ‘You can take a sword through there but you can’t a baby’.  I have also been reading Lord Norton’s suggestions for how to solve the problem of the burgeoning numbers in the House of Lords.  In the absence of reforms, and without any obligation to retire, their numbers have now swelled to a Chamber-busting 800+.

These parliamentary issues show that parents of young children (and especially mothers, given that only around a quarter of MPs are women) are largely invisible to those in power, whilst older people (again notably men) are well-represented in the corridors of power.  The government might find it less easy to burden the young with cuts if more of them were around them every day.  If parents were better accommodated in parliament, government might be more inclined to listen to their needs.  The older population is entitled to its representation, and to be recognised as a powerful voting bloc – but we should be able to say the same about parents.  The needs of young families and young adults should not be eclipsed by the legitimate concerns of the old.  We must make the mother of parliaments listen to younger mothers and fathers too, and make better prospects possible for their children. They might even grow up to vote ….


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