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Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 …

 

 

International Women’s Data

8 Mar

What would I like most for International Women’s Day?  I’d like better data on women’s lives.  Last year Melinda Gates gave the global gender data gap a boost by pledging funds to improve data collection and to set priorities for countries to record information on women’s health, economic and social contributions and their unpaid work.  It may all sound a bit wonky, but how can we set the record straight on women’s rights if we don’t count what women do?

Globally the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give a focus for collecting more and better data on women and girls, and there is a specific goal for gender equality, SDG number 5.  But it is striking how little we know in many areas, and how patchily data on women is collected throughout the world.  A report from 2014 identified key areas where gender data gaps exist, and the main types of data gap – gaps in coverage, gaps in international standards, gaps in complexity, and gaps in granularity (the ability to separate out data on men and women in large datasets).

Among the many topics in health, education, economics, politics and human security, it is quite telling which areas have all 4 types of data gap: employment mobility, agricultural productivity, access to childcare, access to ICT, women’s participation in peace and security processes. All of these areas highlight aspects of the invisibility of women lives – women are much more likely to be in informal employment throughout the world, their activity unrecorded and their ability to transition into formal work unaccounted for.  In agriculture, women’s work may be vital, but hidden in remote places, or beneath the umbrella of household productivity, which doesn’t show which people did what.  Access to childcare is crucial for women’s participation in all activities outside the home, and the fact that there isn’t consistent data, demonstrates both how undervalued childcare can be, and how service provision has not been a major priority in many countries.  Access to ICT is now a crucial part of everyday life, and mobile phones and the internet are transforming services and access to markets in both low and high income countries.  And yet, where there is information on access by gender (e.g. here ) it shows that women are disadvantaged when it comes to connectivity. Finally, women’s participation in peace and security processes has been shown to be crucial in rebuilding post-conflict societies and making settlements last, and yet it may often be overlooked.

So as we look to Make Work Visible on International Women’s Day, let’s remember to record all of women’s contributions to society. Women must be counted when they stand up.

 

Does it matter what kind of man is on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

14 Dec

Last year I wrote a blog which asked ‘Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Committee?’, and I concluded that it probably did.  While it is entirely appropriate that the majority of members of the committee are women, the absence of senior male MPs could be construed as indicating that powerful parliamentarians are not much interested in women and equalities issues.  And there could have been a danger that those on the committee might be left to get on with ‘their’ business, apart from issues widely considered to be more part of the political mainstream.

Since then, following the General Election, a second man joined the Committee. More recently, The Good Parliament report was published, looking at how to make parliament more representative, diverse and inclusive. Recommendations included making single gender committees prohibited, and that issues of representativeness be borne in mind in Select Committee membership. These recommendations make a useful counterbalance to the fact that the most prestigious committees tend to be overwhelmingly male, and, that at one point, the House of Commons ended up with a Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport which was entirely white and male.

Fast forward to the news that has just emerged that Philip Davies, an MP with a record as an ‘anti-feminist’, has been elected unopposed as a new member of the Women and Equalities Committee.  Is this a problem? It could be, as he pronounced on the Daily Politics today that he saw his position as similar to UKIP members sitting in the European Parliament – they disagree with everything the institution stands for, but are there to hold it to account.  For a Committee whose purpose is to hold government to account on issues concerning women and equality, it seems odd to join in order to challenge its raison d’etre.  Davies has asserted that it should be called the ‘Equalities Committee’, dropping the reference to women altogether.  This indicates he thinks that gender equality has been achieved, which, given the continuing lack of equal political representation or equal pay, and the continuing unequal share of unpaid and caring labour – to mention just a few persistent gender issues – is a view which flies in the face of everyday evidence. Perhaps even more bothersome, though, is the fact that no-one stood against him to fill the vacant place.  This would suggest that the Conservatives have attached little importance to membership of the Women and Equalities Committee, or to wider perceptions of such an unconventional candidacy.  You might have thought that they would have produced a candidate who believes that the Committee needs to exist, and that women’s voices should be heard. On the anniversary of the day women voted for the first time, and just when women have reached the 30% mark among MPs in parliament, you would have thought that what the politicos call the ‘optics’ would matter.

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 ….

 

Trump Topped?

7 Aug

Now that senior politicians have reached the ‘how could you?’ stage in addressing Donald Trump’s supporters, it seems like a good moment to turn the question around. Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump?  And more particularly, given his particular brand of unabashed sexism and empathy-free haranguing of women, why would any woman vote for the potential President Trump?

2016 has been a year of the unexpected where politics is concerned, so it’s important to consider every eventuality. The eventuality of a Trump presidency is still possible.  No-one expected the Trump nomination would happen, but here we are. And we are here because Republican women did vote for Trump – in April 44% of Republican women supported him  – higher than female support for other Republican candidates at that stage.  In spite of frequently running into ‘woman problems’ – over issues as wide-ranging as insulting female journalists, proposing punishment for abortion, discussing ‘hotness’ of female family members – Trump has his nomination. He faces Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee in American history – about whom he has said just about everything. Most recently he has cast her as the devil.  But even as his poll ratings have tanked over the last week, it would be foolish to underestimate his core support.

Politics in the US and Europe has taken an anti-establishment turn.  Lack of economic growth and any improvement in living standards for many people is a major issue. However, this is not just about economic inequality, but wider concerns around values and identity and distance from power – successfully wrapped up here in the EU referendum campaign under the banner of ‘taking back control’.  Donald Trump connects to a similar sentiment among American voters who perceive their country changing negatively, when he talks about ‘making America great again’.  On both sides of the Atlantic, appeals to national sovereignty – and perhaps also to a better past – have been viewed as mainly gaining support from working-class men.  Newsflash: women can feel forgotten too. Feeling ‘safe’ under a strong leader like Trump, is one of the factors cited by women who would vote for him.  Whether they actually believe in his wall to stem immigration at the border – paid for by Mexicans – the idea that a President will act directly to address cultural concerns, may be persuasive, if you think that politicians aren’t routinely listening to you.

But why would women support a candidate who is so frequently sexist?  Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is seen as plain-speaking, voicing his own thoughts rather than scripted policies.  Many female Republicans think their party is a ‘boys club’ with little time for women supporters, so may take the view that he is simply expressing what others think, but don’t say. Perhaps the very public rows that result from Trump’s comments are more entertaining or immediate, than dry coverage of Washington policy positions.  Or maybe some voters don’t even notice that he has said things – e.g that women who are harassed at work should change jobs; or that a Muslim woman who lost her soldier son may have been told to say nothing on the platform she shared with her husband – because they get news from sources that are Trump-supporting –  or may not follow news at all, and simply turn up at the rally for their man.  A recent article in the Guardian found that Trump supporters variously hadn’t heard about the controversy over his comments about Ghazala Khan, or were not offended by them.  In another piece, a woman from Tennessee declared that it didn’t matter much what Trump said at the moment as most people were on holiday and would vote for Donald come November.

After all, it’s still only August and a lot can change over a week – let alone a couple of months – in politics.  We found that out in this country as the polls moved around in the lead-up to the EU referendum – and still the result came as a surprise to the ‘elites’ who lost on a campaign based on facts and fear. (Though how old-Etonian Boris Johnson or gold-plated billionaire Trump are not also seen as establishment men is a moot point).  If other American politicians don’t want Trump to be President they need to show some emotion and positivity, not just a list of statistics.  One American commentator recently summed things up with the view that ‘we’ve brought fact checkers to a culture war’. While Hillary Clinton appears to have gained from a positive convention, passion is hardly her middle name.  She may yet need to find some – especially as distrust in her is a factor both for ‘soft’ Republicans, and for Sanders supporters who need some indication that their man has changed the Democrats’ agenda.

For all that Trump’s support base continues to show resilience, there are signs that he needs to do a lot more to secure victory.  In light of widespread anti-establishment feeling, it may be less important that many of the Republican great and good have begun to withdraw support, and more important to concentrate on electoral arithmetic.  Pollsters have homed in on the key demographics where the election will be decided.  Inconveniently for Trump, a critical group is white college-educated women who are leaning Democrat.  The question that really matters may actually be, why would these women vote for Donald Trump?  Candidates’ daughters have been brought in to address this group, but Ivanka may not be a good enough answer.  If we don’t want Trump as President, we have to hope they want to go to Chelsea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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