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The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.




Armchair or action? : the question posed by the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit

11 Jun

In all the hype surrounding this week’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit it’s not surprising that the significance of the event has been questioned. From accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ in the Guardian – centring on the poor treatment of refugees on our own doorstep, whilst William Hague and Angelina Jolie highlight the plight of victims in far-flung fragile states – to Jeremy Paxman’s sceptical tone on Newsnight when he remarked that the perpetrators ‘wouldn’t be there’, dissenting voices have been heard, amidst cautious optimism from the organisers, NGOs and rape victims themselves.

It is important to accept that such an event cannot do everything to solve complex and often intractable problems: critics point out that there is rape and sexual violence in all cultures, not just ‘over there’; that misogynist attitudes occur globally and are hard to change; that establishing a rule of law on sexual violence in conflict does not mean that such laws are upheld, or that victims routinely get justice for the crimes meted out against them – crimes often perpetrated by authority figures. Others ask, why not seek to stop the wars themselves instead?

However, in spite of logic, these can all end up being arguments against doing anything at all. What’s the point if wider issues in sexual violence and conflict are not addressed? And in doing so these arguments miss some important points: to see perpetrators as absent from the scene is not quite accurate – they are there in victims’ testimony, and, according to the Independent, interviewed in a documentary screened at the summit. Representatives of governments and agencies worldwide are attending the event, and have the power to influence the training and behaviour of both military and peacekeeping forces, so that the idea of impunity is made increasingly unacceptable, and sensitive treatment of victims encouraged. Laws and UN declarations may not in themselves eliminate sexual violence, but they do send out a strong signal that such behaviour should be brought to account through justice systems. Surely the message counts for something?

Ever in search of some evidence, I looked at a Briefing from the Institute of Development Studies which neither shies away from the complexities, nor absolves the situation of hope. Since the Bosnian war there has been recourse in humanitarian law for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, but the researchers recognise that there are particular problems faced by displaced populations, who may or may not be in official camps – if not in camps they are less likely to see humanitarian laws against sexual violence enforced. Documenting experiences of displaced people and of vulnerable populations over time – after wars have ended but sexual violence still occurs – means that much more is known about the magnitude of the problem and about what potentially helps.

Meanwhile in the Washington Post, researchers note that not all conflicts are associated with widespread sexual violence. This means that we can learn about the particular factors which escalate its risk, and this opens up the possibility of preventive strategies. And States which tolerate sexual violence perpetrated by their armies can be named and shamed. So, shall we sit in our armchairs, critiquing from the sidelines, or join the trending opinion on Twitter that says ‘Time to Act’? Change will not occur overnight, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing at all.

In praise of invisible women

27 Nov

Overlooked and over there – until this week this may have been the only kind of description of Baroness Catherine Ashton, the frequently derided EU diplomat, you’d be likely to hear.  And yet, powerful men of all persuasions have now queued up to lavish praise on her for her pivotal role in delivering the first steps towards a settlement with Iran on the delicate matter of nuclear policy.

At the stimulating and entertaining event that was Secret Forum’s Sunday Papers Live at the weekend, Jon Snow of Channel 4 news alluded to how poorly she was often viewed whilst quietly getting on with complex negotiations.  She has been busy brokering agreement not just between Western powers and Iran, but also in the lower-profile area of the Balkans, where her work helped ensure that Serbians took part in elections in Kosovo for the first time. 

Praise for these efforts has since been echoed since in the broadsheets (e.g. here and here), with Ashton noted for her ‘emotional intelligence’ and perseverance in bringing parties together and keeping the communication going.  Influencing work is often a matter of tidying up – collecting and encapsulating evidence and making sure it is seen by the right people at the right time; presenting competing agendas in such a way as to keep opposing representatives interested, and dialogue preserved.  It is just as much about process, as about structures or final results – the ongoing matter of keeping everyone in touch and keeping conversations going; finding points of leverage, using the right language to keep feet in the door. It is the unsung backroom activity behind the big announcements, the hard labour behind the polished photoshoot: no wonder, one might say, that women are often good at it; un-flashy women at that.

So next time you see the leaders of the world gathered at the podium to deliver the latest headline news, remember the work it took to get them there. Chances are someone like Baroness Ashton played a part along the way:  listening, learning, persuading, analysing, communicating – but rarely courting the limelight.



The Lady Vanishes …

20 Aug

It is in the nature of freelance work that there are periods of plenty and periods of quiet; the silence on this blog of late is testament to a busy year. 

Wonklifebalance is fortunate to have the flexibility to work from home for much of the time – a job judged by productivity and results rather than presence at all times.  As for all working parents, the long summer holidays complicate routines, but with sufficiently flexible working arrangements (and sufficiently old children) you can balance a bit of getting work done when the kids are around, with time in holiday schemes for the children, and roping in the grandparents here and there. 

At the beginning of the holidays I found myself saying that I was about to ‘disappear’ whilst organising a roster of pre-summer meetings while the kids were still in school.  On reflection, though, I wonder if this is doing us part-time and flexible types a disservice?  What happened when I ‘disappeared’?  Well, like many other families we took a two-week holiday. And for the rest of the time I did everything else I normally do – wrote documents to deadline, went into the office for key meetings (see arrangements above) and conducted a great deal of business by e-mail.

Part-time, flexible work can have its downsides in terms of stability and career progression, as well as the ups of being able to organise a schedule independently, fitting in and fitting around family needs.  It’s easy to feel invisible when not going into the office every day; but the work is out there in the public domain.  So next summer (contracts permitting) I will not be ‘disappearing’, instead I’ll be ‘working a couple of extra days from home’…

Dinner at 6? If only …

13 Feb

My heart sinks at Yvette Cooper being quoted as saying that Ed Balls ‘would have starved’ if he was the kind of husband who expected ‘dinner at 6’.  Why? Because in most even moderately senior jobs the idea that anyone, man or woman, would regularly be home in time to cook a dinner served at 6 has become a pipe dream.  In term of work-life balance, dinner at six is just not the issue any more; how either or both parents manage to fit in any family life at the end of each day is what matters.  A man ‘expecting dinner at 6’ would not only be frequently disappointed, he’d be a dinosaur.   Whilst I am very much in support of the idea that we should all be able to read about how people ‘at the top of their game’ sort work-life balance, I’m not sure this kind of comment is either realistic or helpful.  Let’s face it, how many evenings is Ed (Shadow Chancellor) let alone Yvette (Shadow Home Secretary) really home at six? If their reality reflects that of senior echelons of corporate life in terms of hours and responsibility, then the answer must be ‘rarely’.

The idea that dual-earning heterosexual couples might find that the main obstacle to equality is his desire for an early dinner, really should be given its own early bath.  Most ‘work rich time poor’ couples might be grateful if dinner were regularly possible at 8 (and cooked by either party).  The issues for most men and women whose jobs earn enough to justify absence from the six o’clock tea table, are how do they afford the child care to cover this gap in the timetable, or who is going to take the career hit to get the flexible hours which might accommodate feeding their children at six, if not the whole family.  In fairness, I haven’t read the whole piece and maybe this quote is taken out of context, but it does a disservice to both men and women to suggest that sitting down to a full meal at six is really the main issue here.  Long working hours, perceptions of prestige and the inequalities imposed by the gender pay gap keep many of us arguing until midnight, rather than expecting dinner at six.  

2013: a year for action on gender equality?

1 Jan

Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. On that basis, 2012 was something of a triumph for women’s issues – violence against women, rape and the need to achieve greater gender equality the corridors of power,  all remained high on the public agenda.  However, in terms of rape and violence against women, the talk often reminded us how jawdroppingly sexist many powerful men remain (I blogged on this in August); and in terms of gender equality in business and politics, the talk has been accompanied by little concrete action –  in this country at least. We now have a smaller proportion of women in the Cabinet than before the re-shuffle, and attempts to introduce quotas for women in boardrooms throughout the EU have been thwarted for the meantime.

Against this backdrop, it was something of a tonic to read the UN’s gender equality timeline   for the year, which shows that there has been some progress in women’s position in society and in power in many parts of the world.  Among the highlights, Algeria and Senegal have significantly increased the proportion of women in their parliaments to just over 30% and 43% respectively (the UK falls in at 60th in the world, equal with Malawi, with just over 22% of parliamentarians being women). The Council of Europe adopted a Convention of Preventing and Combating Violence against women and Domestic Violence which has been signed by 25 member States, but still requires countries to ratify it in order that it may come into force.  In October, the first International Day of the Girl Child highlighted the costs of child marriage and measures being taken to prevent it.  And just before Christmas, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution banning Female Genital Mutilation – a practice discussed here in July.

So, sometimes slowly and iteratively, sometimes more rapidly, progress in gender equality can be made.  As India confronts its poor record on sexual violence and Pakistan donates to a fund for girls’ education named after Malala, we should all resolve to make 2013 a year of action in gender equality.

Turning round the oil tanker: parental leave and flexible working reforms

18 Nov

Recent reforms of parental leave entitlements, and the extension of the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees, may be seen as an attempt to change the culture of work/life balance in the UK.  Attempts at culture change are often contested and incomplete, and this one – born out of a restive Coalition – is no exception.

Many have pointed out the possible shortcomings of changing mothers’ basic entitlement in maternity leave to 2 weeks: possible expectation of early return to work; difficulties maintaining breastfeeding; inadequate recovery time following birth. However, mothers do remain entitled to extended parental leave beyond this brief maternity leave. Men’s entitlement to parental leave can only come to them via employed mothers who return to work and transfer remaining leave to them – this has been identified as a lost opportunity for greater sharing in parenthood. Both sets of concerns are worth voicing, but it is the second which is likely to prove more decisive in terms of (lack of) impact on the ground.  In practice, without independent entitlement to parental leave, the number of men taking up the opportunity to care for their infants is limited. In practice as well, all the evidence is that women will continue to take a substantial period of leave in their children’s early lives. The Scandinavian countries show not only that ‘daddy months’ work effectively to encourage fathers to take leave, but also that women continue to take up more parental leave.

Why does this matter?  Anyone interested in gender equality has to acknowledge that the ‘traditional’ pattern of men-as-workers, women-as-carers has a long reach.  For all our progress, it is still all too easy to assume that men remain worker-providers first, whilst women have a ‘choice’ between paid employment and full-time motherhood, or some mix of employment and childcare spread over the working week.  In reality, of course, both men and women balance lives as people, partners (or not) and parents, and employment enables families to survive economically. Yet the ‘working father’ is barely a concept.  Meanwhile the ‘stay-at-home’ mother or father can be labelled as variously yummy, unproductive, emasculated or just plain ‘lucky’ in an economy and society which fails to value unpaid work,  and which is often judgemental about those not in paid employment.

You could say that the ‘flexible working for all’ aspect of the reforms is welcome, ‘de-stigmatising’ requests for flexibility from the ‘mummy track’.  But of course, it is still only a right to request flexibility, rather than an obligation on employers to provide it, so we will have to see how fast the culture of long hours and presenteeism can be turned around. Holding your breath may not be the best strategy.  The reforms have at least wakened up the debate around the possibilities of remote working, or, more radically, the greater distribution of employment throughout society, if shorter hours became a norm.  But some jobs can never be done anywhere except on-site, and we still have the problem of maintaining adequate earnings, made only greater in a climate of wage stagnation. There’s a lot of attention on providing more childcare in the pre-school years to facilitate parents’ employment, but there’s still a big gap between school hours and working hours which creates a whole other problem, lasting over ten years for most families.

All these issues are still confounded by the ‘standard worker’ being seen as a man who works full-time away from home, and whose period of maximum career and earnings progression coincides with the peak years for childbearing.  If we really want equality, we have to enable men to take breaks for parenthood, as well as encouraging women to maintain positions in employment. That way unpaid work becomes everyone’s work, and paid work can be sustained more easily, even with breaks.  There’s still a lot to do.


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