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A leaf from suffrage history

6 Feb

This is a picture of a flyer which hangs in my house. The campaign for Votes for Women was long, and fought on many fronts, and pamphleting was an important part of it.  One hundred years ago today, the first women (over 30, propertied) achieved the right to vote. You can see on this flyer that the President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies is listed as ‘Mrs Henry Fawcett’ – not as Millicent – who we have grown accustomed to hearing of, and to celebrating.  Soon there’ll be a statue in Parliament Square. Her listing here suggests that even for campaigning households, changing social norms in public could be a gradual process.

 

So how did I come by this little piece of social history? Probably not where you’d most likely expect.   A few years ago, I was up in the Highlands, and on a day when the weather was less than ideal for outdoor activities, we went to the book fair in the local town to pass a bit of time.  It was there that I found the flyer – under a few layers of unremarkable stuff, in a transparent pocket on an antiquarian’s stall.  I was intrigued and spent a bit of time reading through it – my kids came over to see what I was doing – ‘that’s so you’ they declared – finding something feminist in an unlikely venue.….

 

But should I have been surprised to find it in the Highlands, in a back-of-beyond kind of place? Turns out, not so much as you might have thought.  My artefact prompted me to find out a bit more about suffrage movements in Scotland, and what the word on the street, well North of Watford Gap, would have been.  I discovered that both suffragist and suffragette movements were, in fact, highly active North of the border. Edinburgh had one of the earliest suffrage societies, founded in the 1870s.  I’d not noticed before that Winston Churchill stood as an MP in Dundee, and was apparently regularly confronted by women campaigning for the right to vote in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, in comparatively provincial Perth there was a prison where women protestors were force-fed in the same brutal way as happened in London.  Scottish churches supported votes for women and spread the word, and women in Highland fishing communities were also activists. A bit of browsing online shows that there was a young female piper who played on marches for the Suffragettes, and a range of Scottish women who made their mark upon the movement – including Marion Wallace Dunlop, who was instrumental in the use of hunger strikes as protest.  My dip into the Scottish story shows that women everywhere in the UK played their part in giving us the vote.

 

On the flyer, the 14 reasons for supporting women’s suffrage make a vital connection between women’s experience and legislation – laws should be made by all those who abide by them, and reflecting the interests of all.  But the later reasons listed touch on something else as well – that women should have the vote because they desire it, and that objections to this are not based on reason.  The fight for votes for women put women’s agency on the agenda, and made the case for women’s place as full participants in public life.  One reason sums it up: ‘it is for the common good of all’. Representation really matters – on the pages of history, and in the corridors of power.

 

 

 

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Corporate models

24 Jan

Last week’s Presidents Club men-only charity fundraising event has now become notorious, thanks to the undercover reporting of a young female journalist at the Financial Times.  She, along with over 120 other ‘tall, thin, pretty’ women, was hired to be a hostess at a gala evening where all the invitees were men – not just any men, but captains of industry, entertainers and politicians.  The women were asked to wear black high heels and even black underwear, and were given ‘sexy’ outfits of short black dresses and corset-style belts.  The prospective hostesses were all asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before entering the event.  What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot apparently. The FT journalist reported a sexualised atmosphere.  The women were paraded before the guests before taking their seats, and, unusually, were permitted to drink, during an evening which proceeded to descend into groping and propositions.  Meanwhile, an auction of prizes took place, raising £2 million for children’s charities.  Lots even included one featuring the gift of plastic surgery to add ‘spice’ to your wife, among the more routine offers of executive-friendly luxuries and services.

Quite rightly, the response to these revelations has been outrage, that such blatant sexism still exists in the British establishment.  I share the collective revulsion at the event, but sadly, I’m not that surprised.  If you’ve ever worked in hospitality, you’ll know that women in service are frequently viewed as quasi-public property by clients, and often hired on appearance: from the name badge I had to wear as a student waitress emblazoned ‘here to care for you’, to the egregious spread of ‘Hooters’-style restaurants, it’s pretty clear which sex is paid to please which.  And sleazy overtones are not just the preserve of relatively low-paid service industries.  At corporate conferences and exhibitions the world over, it is quite normal to find companies paying young, well-made-up women to entice delegates to their stalls, or to ‘work’ the networking sessions in order to generate interest in products and services, in their overwhelmingly male audiences.  Think of ‘brand ambassadors’ – how many male ones come to mind outside the world of sport and watches?

Since the FT report came out, charities listed as beneficiaries on the Presidents Club website have been quick to distance themselves from the event.  Great Ormond Street Hospital has gone so far as to say that it will return all donations received from this source.  The charity beneficiaries were not responsible for the nature of the event, nor would they wish to be associated with it. It’s certainly not conventional for charities to host ‘men-only’ events.

However, charities are not immune from wider corporate trends. I remember coming across an agency a while back which offered ‘spokesmodels’ among its services.  What on earth is a ‘spokesmodel’? Well, a brief google search showed that it means a very good-looking woman (sometimes a professional model elsewhere) who can be trained up in the details of your cause and campaigns, and can be employed at events to encourage pledges and donations from invited audiences. The assumption is all too often that the people with money are male, and the people who attract them to think about spending, female.

The whole corporate system still revolves far too much around these unhealthy dynamics.  And the damage is not restricted to the young women fondled at events like the Presidents Club, it seeps into professional life so that women often tend to remain in revenue-generating, not revenue-controlling positions.  The charity sector, like so many others, has a majority of women in its workforce, but a male-dominated executive layer, often accompanied by man-heavy boards of trustees.  So when I heard the about the President Club, I was sad, but not completely surprised.  After all, it’s only a short while ago that the UN appointed a comic book character as an Honorary Ambassador in support of empowerment of women and girls …

 

Shutting the door on 2017

18 Dec

A couple of weeks ago I read about a charity initiative to start a ‘reverse advent calendar’ – a great idea for donating food and household supplies to foodbanks. Instead of receiving a little gift from behind the date on your calendar each day, you pick something you can give away daily, and then pass your collection on to your local foodbank, to help people in need over Christmas.

I’ve always enjoyed the build-up to Christmas, so the concept of ‘reversing’ the calendar appealed to me.  I’m also old enough to remember when the excitement of advent calendars was simply in finding a new picture behind the flap – which star-strewn image would be revealed? Which winter wonderland would I enter today? This led me to think about another way of reversing the calendar. Instead of opening a door into a colourful new world, what would you like to shut the door on and put behind you, each day?

2017 has been another turbulent year, so the nominations come thick and fast.  Here are some suggestions from me, feel free to add your own …

 

I’d like to shut the door on:  Silencing women

It’s been a big year for women speaking out.  From the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration, to the new openness in discussions of sexual harassment following the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, it has been a time for hearing long-neglected women’s voices. The tide turned sufficiently for Time magazine to name the ‘Silence breakers’, the women who spoke out about sexual harassment, as their Person(s) of the year.  But as Mary Beard reminds us, silencing  women has deep roots in our culture, with women in the public sphere facing constant pressures to shut up. Let’s keep talking.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Non-apologies

2017 has proved a masterclass in the public utterances of ‘sorry not sorry’.  In response to revelations of sexual harassment, many high-profile men have abjectly failed to apologise properly. It’s nicely summed up in this piece for Vox. My own favourite example is Louis C.K.’s notion that he was ‘so admired’ that he didn’t realise that asking first didn’t make showing his private parts to colleagues ok ….

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Threatening language in politics

The Brexit juggernaut has rumbled on this year, with divisions of opinion running to the top of our political parties.  In the midst of heated debate, the atmosphere has sometimes turned nasty.  There have been headlines calling judges ‘enemies of the people’ and Conservative rebels ‘mutineers’.  Most recently, the vote to give parliament a meaningful say on the outcome of negotiations with the EU, has resulted in MPs being termed ‘traitors’.  Members of both the main political parties have now seen demands for de-selection from other members of their own parties.

The essence of a strong democracy is being able to express opposing views and argue the case in a civilised manner. Labelling those you disagree with stupid or ignorant, or worse, sliding into threatening discourse, does not help. In 2018 let’s have some calm.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Fixing women, not systems

2017 has seen the gender pay gap highlighted as an issue, and gender inequality in sectors such as broadcasting and technology brought to the fore.  As the inequities in these industries have been exposed, there’s also been a repetition of arguments around how women’s ‘choices’ explain differences in outcomes between the sexes.

A fine example came up this week, in reporting of a study which apparently found that teenage girls aimed for lower-paying jobs than boys, so that girls’ aspirations were perpetuating the pay gap. This analysis pays no attention to the social forces underlying occupational choices, nor to lesser value often attached to ‘feminine’ or female-dominated jobs, irrespective of the actual skills and knowledge required to carry them out.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley it’s been a year of reckoning for gender inequality in technology. The infamous ‘Google memo’ (which I blogged about here) kickstarted the ongoing debate around diversity in tech, and the widespread failure of tech companies to recruit, retain and promote female and non-white staff.  Many voices support the notion that cultural issues in the sector are deep-rooted, and affect women and minorities at all stages of their career, rather than resulting simply from life choices such as area of study, or having children.  Issues of unconscious bias also affect investment decisions amongst venture capitalists who fund tech start-ups as shown here.

It’s time to address structural and cultural factors underlying inequality, rather than focussing relentlessly on individuals.

 

I’d like to shut the door on: Bad awards choices

I seemed to spend half of 2016 discussing poor choices in award winners (e.g. here and here) so I was hoping for better form this year.  2017 may indeed have risen above the dubiousness of making Bono a ‘Woman of the Year’ as really did occur last year, but at the close of play we have another clanger.  It’s been announced that Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘youthquake’ Word of the Year. This news has attracted some raised eyebrows, as few would identify it as a commonly used piece of vocabulary. The rationale seems to be that usage did increase this year, and that it’s a ‘hopeful’ word in uncertain times.  Hmmm… a word that few use, to describe something that hasn’t quite happened – perhaps that sums up 2017 after all….

 

As someone who shares a house with teenagers can I also suggest that slamming doors becomes a thing of the past?   May the door of 2017 now close peacefully behind you.

 

 

Ushering in change…

18 Nov

It’s hard to think of an instance where shutting a door in a woman’s face represents progress, but in this week’s appointment of the first female Black Rod, we have one.  Every year Black Rod comes to public attention as part of the ceremony attached to the presentation of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament.  In accordance with tradition – representing the independence of the Commons from the monarchy – Black Rod arrives at the doors to the House of Commons, and is symbolically snubbed: the door is slammed shut, and Black Rod must knock three times with a lion-topped, ebony staff, in order for the door to be opened. MPs then accept the invitation to move to the House of Lords and hear the speech.

But the job has a wider remit than that.  Black Rod is essentially a kind of CEO of the House of Lords, and has the accompanying title of ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’. As the first woman to occupy the role in over 650 years, Sarah Clarke is to be styled ‘Lady Usher’ when she takes up her post early next year.  Historically, Black Rod has often been a military man, as was the current incumbent, David Leakey. Sarah Clarke’s background is more one of military precision – the kind required to organise Wimbledon, or to be a major cog in putting on the London Olympics.  Such a background seems suitable as it involves dealing with the needs of Royals, high-status professionals, and the public.  Among the many duties of Black Rod, is responsibility for the royal areas of parliament, such as the robing room, and organising the State visits of foreign luminaries.  Black Rod also has a meaty security portfolio, including major incident response and contingency planning, should the House of Lords become unusable.  As Big Ben stands covered in controversy-generating scaffolding, and the plans for renovation of parliament remain undecided and yet urgently required, this might become a more high-profile aspect of the job.

There are those who might say that Black Rod represents exactly the kind of anachronistic flummery Britain could well do without. But as the Republic seems some way off, and we have a surfeit of constitutional issues to resolve over the next few years as the UK leaves the EU, perhaps there is a little consolation in knowing that Black Rod’s duty of ‘fostering diversity and inclusion’ in the House of Lords will at last be performed by a woman…

Political shorthand – for men?

30 Sep

I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on Twitter about ‘Centrist Mum’.  If you’re politically inclined, you’d have to have been out of the country/under a rock not to have heard of the term ‘Centrist Dad’ which reached peak public awareness during the Labour Party Conference last week.  So who is ‘Centrist Dad’, and why, as in the online conversation, is there no apparent female equivalent?

 

Well, the ‘Centrist Dad’ label grew up in the Corbyn-inspired (younger) Left to describe the kind of (older) man who is not happy about the contemporary direction of the Labour Party.  Not only is he not happy, he takes it upon himself to speak up about it, and to provide Corbyn supporters (especially younger women) with the benefit of his experience.  The essence of ‘Centrist Dad’ is summed up here, where commentators point out that ‘condescension’ is a key element of the brand:  middle-aged men endeavouring to impose their opinions on the young. The article also points out that 25-44 year olds (a key parenting age group) are more likely to vote Labour than older age groups, and that women in this age bracket are even more likely to vote Labour than men.  Meanwhile, older age groups are more likely to vote Tory, and this piece shows how some Labour-voting children in their twenties and thirties converted their more right-wing mothers to Labour in the General Election.  I looked for a Dad equivalent, but have not found one*….

 

So, perhaps ‘Centrist Mum’ hasn’t caught on because Corbyn has a greater female following, and fewer women are in fact on the right of the Labour party (though of course the ‘raw’ Labour vote by gender does not tell us exactly which type of Labour male or female voters voted for….).  I realised that I had a vague memory of a group called ‘Mums for Corbyn’, whose existence would add ballast to the argument that women in the parenting demographic may be more likely to identify as Corbyn supporters.  A brief search established that there is indeed such a group, and that they attended the Momentum World Transformed event, in parallel to the main Labour conference.  A member of Mums for Corbyn is quoted in the Times as saying that the group grew up partly in response to ‘lad culture’ on the Left, to make a space for activists who are also mothers.

 

So we, have Centrist Dad who is at least in part defined through a patronising attitude to younger female Left-wingers, and Mums for Corbyn arising partly as an alternative to lad culture.  Meanwhile we have examples of mothers persuaded to vote Labour by their children, but fathers not so much …. Maybe we have the answer as to why there is no Centrist Mum:  political space is often male-dominated and not infrequently sexist. Why label women if they are not seen as having immutable opinions, or as integral to the culture?

 

 

* there are a couple of pre-election articles on persuading grandparents to vote Labour, presumably because over-60s are the most Conservative-inclined of all

Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….

 

 

 

 

 

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