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Let’s (not) have a heated debate …

20 Apr

After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.

Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think.  And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual  member of the public.  But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?

Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered.  But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not.  This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way.  Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future.  There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.

And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life.  Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility.  Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman.  For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.

Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents.  For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election.  That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised.  If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views.  Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …

 

 

Pro Bono?

1 Nov

I can’t quite believe that this is the third blog I’ve written this year about dubious choices for awards; but – like a lot else in 2016 – the apparently simple act of rewarding women with prizes, seems to have gone awry.

First up was the Pretty Curious Challenge. This was a science and innovation competition for girls, which mysteriously elected part way through the process to include boys too, and ended up with a male winner by popular vote; next, just a couple of weeks ago, the UN was in hot water, over the choice of fictional character Wonder Woman, as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. What could possibly be number 3? Well, Glamour magazine have just announced that one of the nominees in their high profile Women of the Year Awards is: Bono.  Yes, that’s right, U2’s frontman, and indubitably male philanthropist, is one of their Women of the Year – except he’s a kind of token man award winner, added in amongst the women. If you’re not speechless yet, the justification given for his award might just get you there:

‘when a major male rock star who could do anything at all with his life decides to focus on the rights of women and girls worldwide—well, all that’s worth celebrating. We’re proud to name that rock star, Bono, our first Man of the Year.’

Yes, imagine, a famous and talented man has actually thought about women – he could have done anything, supported any cause, but he decided to devote some time to the cause of women in poverty.  How telling is this statement about the secondary status of women? Women, it would appear, in Glamour’s world, are fantastically lucky if powerful men give them so much as a fleeting thought ….

What makes this all the worse, is that this reasoning behind selecting Bono, is preceded in the awards blurb by mention of the United Nations’ ‘HeforShe’ campaign.  This is fronted by Emma Watson, an actual woman, and a major actress who could have done anything, but decided to make the case for involving men in women’s rights across the globe.  So, if the shtick is, as Glamour put it, that ‘these days most women want men—no, need men—in our tribe’ why not give the award to a famous woman encouraging just that, instead of creating an additional place for a man? I cannot think of any convincing reason why not.

Awards that should be given to living, breathing female role models this year, have repeatedly been handed out to a man or boy, or a fantasy character.  This might hover just slightly above the indefensible if it was a case of ‘job done’ in terms of women’s equality.  And yet, over and over again it is shown that while there has been progress, women’s position in society is far from equal with men’s.  Only last week the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index showed that worldwide it will take an average of 83 years for women to reach parity with men, across economic and political power, health and education.  In spite of similar or better educational attainment, women still aren’t reaching the highest echelons of professions, and women remain disproportionately in low paid and undervalued jobs, and doing the bulk of unpaid domestic work and caring.  This means that awards for women should remain spaces where women who have achieved against the backdrop of continuing gender inequality are celebrated.  So, no, I am not pro Bono’s prize – why should a privileged man be rewarded here, in an award for women, for thinking about women’s plight, when so many women live and breathe the cause all the time?

EmPOWerment of women and girls

14 Oct

The UN has announced that Wonder Woman, the comic book superhero, is to become the Honorary Ambassador in support of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Whilst undoubtedly iconic, Wonder Woman remains a fictional character, which you would have thought might pose a few problems for a campaign about giving real people greater self-determination.  Is the idea of girls and women having power still in the realm of fantasy?

Coverage of Wonder Woman’s ascendancy has been more favourable at the geeky end of media, with both Wired and the Mary Sue emphasising Wonder Woman’s credentials as a strong female figure fighting for justice.  The Mary Sue went so far as to say that Wonder Woman represented the possibilities for females in a ‘world free from patriarchy’.  This might be going a little far for those who see her outfits (buttressed cleavage, hotpants) as an embodiment of exactly how patriarchy envisages powerful women ….

Newspaper commentary has been more sceptical, pointing out that an actual woman might have been a better inspiration for empowerment in girls.  Given that the UN has its own issues in terms of promoting real-life women to senior positions, going for the fantasy option seems unlikely to suggest that actual women have a chance of real power any time soon.  There is also an issue with the Ambassador’s role in speaking out around issues of violence against women, when Wonder Woman has been known to deploy high kicks and punches as conflict resolution techniques.

All in all if I had a lasso of truth I’d be tempted to fling it around UN headquarters and ask the powers that be if they see no problem with this decision.  Wonder Woman will be needing her indestructible bracelets to deflect the criticism of her appointment ….

 

Power dressing

26 Sep

One way or another there’s been a lot of talk about dress codes lately. Last week law firm Slater Gordon released a survey which found that female workers are still scrutinised on appearance to a much greater extent than men, and that some are even actively instructed by bosses to change their clothing for the sake of business.  What changes are women expected to make? To wear high heels and make-up in client-facing roles, sometimes with the explicit suggestion to be ‘sexier’.

In 2016 it’s pretty depressing that expectations of female appearance should still centre around a particular version of what it is to be female.  And the real trouble is that senior staff (predominantly men) still find it acceptable to tell working women how to dress.  The point is that it should be up to women themselves how they choose to present themselves, within the levels of formality demanded by their role.  Dress is performative – we show aspects of conformity, individuality and identity through our choices – it can be a manner of showing all sorts of things about who we are.  To be told how to be is not a good look for the modern workplace. Nicola Thorpe’s campaign earlier this year to prevent employers from imposing the wearing of heels, gained high profile and made an important point about how expectations of appearance can turn into compulsion, which is a bad thing. Campaigns in support of flats shoes at work have followed, and have been good at showing how stylishness can take many forms with no relation to professional competence, but have sometimes tipped towards telling women not to wear heels at work. This seems like falling into the enforcement trap again.

It all got me thinking about how we negotiate our work appearance in the light of personal preferences and social cues. And it’s not just an issue for women.  Back in August research was published showing that City firms could pass over male candidates who wore the ‘wrong’ shoes with their suits.  Men without experience of mixing in these professional circles, often those from less advantaged backgrounds, might turn up for interview in brown, rather than black shoes, a potent indicator of lack of ‘polish’ which could cost them a job offer.  Like junior women being told to wear more make-up by their bosses, these men are in less powerful positions than the senior people assessing their presentability.

So what of the powerful men?  What are they wearing as they pass judgement on their more junior staff?  The answer is, of course, the suit.  The suit is the ultimate signifier of authority, the sign of the professional who means business.  Its subdued colours and ubiquity confer a kind of invisibility, and we forget its roots in military history, the jacket vents for horse riding, the shoulder line for epaulettes – reminders of established male power. When we think of leadership, we picture men in suits.  As Grayson Perry has written ‘The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man’.

And this notion of seriousness is at the heart of the problems with dress code.  Women can find it particularly hard to win on this one.  ‘Power dressing’ is often a matter of taking on the suit mantle – tailored jackets, dark trousers.   Or adapted via a pencil skirt or a dress under a jacket into a more feminine version of the same.  The paradox is, that should a woman take up advice to wear more make-up and heels, she may meet one set of criteria for ‘smartness’ but lose on another to do with being taken seriously. The men in suits still rule, and they can still look at the world with a male gaze.

Coverage of the dress code survey included examples of women negotiating this minefield – a barrister drawing sceptical looks and not being taken seriously when wearing a colourful dress in court, hospitality staff being asked to tone down make-up that was seen a ‘too much’ for highbrow clientele.  And you don’t have to look far for examples of academics or of MPs being underestimated because they happen to be presentable and female while doing their jobs.  Tonight Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet in the first of this year’s presidential debates, and Hillary is likely to be wearing one of her infamous pantsuits, her solution (like Angela Merkel’s) to the ‘what do powerful women wear amongst all the men in suits?’ conundrum.  Tomorrow we should be talking about what she said, and not about her pantsuit.  That would be presidential.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.

 

 

 

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….

Should there be a Power List for women?

7 Nov

The Woman’s Hour Power List: is this really a case of too much of a metropolitan good thing?  Perhaps the ‘Power List’ of 100 influential women would be less problematic if we women actually had more of the stuff it’s measuring. A Guardian article recently described the list as ‘patronising’ which seems overdoing it in a context of high female unemployment, and sexual harassment figures which indicate it’s by no means a matter of ‘case solved’ for British women. The collective sense of women as disadvantaged used to be a rallying point, and this sense of disadvantage does seem to have shifted, which is a good thing.  But shifted to what?  A situation where as long as you are educated and childfree you are all right? – lapse in either or both, and access to any Power List becomes much more precarious for many. Even this year the gender pay gap stands at 15% in the UK.

The Power List can show that women (some mothers) are achieving highly in the workplace and in terms of status; the real breakthrough will be when it doesn’t matter whether they are women or not.  We don’t seem to be in that place yet, which is why we still need reminding.  There are women out there – not necessarily always in the CEO posts –  but who are at the heart of how and why their workplaces operate effectively, and who have innovated in specific fields, and the list should show them up.  With more equally-shared  parental leave (as in Scandinavia) more fathers and mothers could work more flexibly and spend less time in separate spheres. Then we might have a more level playing – and paying – field.  In terms of future prospects perhaps I have to trust my son who’s in secondary school.  He says that ‘in my generation we don’t think gender matters’ …. I’ll believe it fully when he can still say it aged 40. Until then keep reading – and discussing –  the Power Lists.

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