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Why women? A few suggestions

17 Oct

Yes – still here,  still blogging and prompted to do so again by noting that there’s a link to the Gender Blog on my new employer’s intranet – so hello, new colleagues from the Women Professionals Portal!

Here I am in my new hard hat,  as handed out during induction on Day One a couple of weeks ago.

My next post will be about what I’ve been up to in recent months but here in the interim is a useful reminder,  courtesy of Forbes Women, as to the value women bring to leadership positions.

List compiled by Magus Consulting.

• “…. Companies with three or more women in senior management functions score more highly on average (on nine dimensions of company excellence). It is notable that performance increases significantly once a certain critical mass is attained, namely, at least three women on management committees for an average membership of 10 people. “ (Women Matter, McKinsey 2007)

• “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.” (Catalyst, October 2007)

• “A selected group of companies with a high representation of diverse board seats (especially gender diversity) exceeded the average returns of the Dow Jones and NASDAQ Indices over a 5 year period.” (Virtcom Consulting)

• “An extensive 19-year study of 215 Fortune 500 firms shows a strong correlation between a strong record of promoting women into the executive suite and high profitability. Three measures of profitability were used to demonstrate that the 25 Fortune 500 firms with the best record of promoting women to high positions are between 18 and 69 percent more profitable than the median Fortune 500 firms in their industries.” (European Project on Equal Pay and summarized by researcher Dr. Roy Adler in Miller McCune).

Women and the 1911 census

28 Mar

If you’re in the UK,  did you fill in your census form this weekend?  I did,  and it made me think … about how much my life has changed in the last 10 years (I got married,  moved to my current house, have done all sorts of things in work terms) and also about what stories my house could tell if it could talk.

It was built in 1909 (here’s a rather wonky photo of the street from an old book of the era)  and so the house would have been quite “new” at the time of the 1911 census.  I wonder who lived here then and what they did for a living? How many people lived in this house and how did they keep warm? What did they wear, what did they eat?

Of course,  assuming that there were female residents,  one thing they couldn’t then do (or, indeed do for between the next seven and seventeen years) was to vote,  given that women were then denied that right and the UK was in the grip of the suffrage movement. My friend Rachel shared a link to this fascinating article from The Times,  published back in the glory days of 2009 when access was free,  which details how some 1911 women used the census forms to make a protest, as part of a coordinated boycott over their continuing lack of the right to vote.

“The documents show how women refused to fill in their names and left comments in the margins. One suffragette taking part in the boycott arranged by the Women’s Freedom League wrote: “If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper.”

“Another glued a poster over the form stating: “No votes for women, no census.” A piece of paper stuck to the form suggests that the women stayed away from households where the census was taken to attend a protest in Trafalgar Square.”

As I often do when considering history, progress and change, this has made me reflect upon the privileged era in which we live. How lucky we are today that we can use the 2011 census form as just that – a tool to capture socio-economic data about the world in which we live.

What’s on my mind?

27 Mar

Facebook are always exhorting us to share, with the question “what’s on your mind?”

So here,  in no particular order, is what’s on MY mind.

Thought for the day … is the concept of dressing for success only a female thing?

I’m currently doing some interim in-house corporate communications work around connecting the employee engagement and diversity agendas.  Part of this has entailed helping the company to set up a women’s network, which launched earlier this week (hence, no blogging).  At the same time,  we’re also working to plan some events for the rest of the year and debating what they may be and who best to involve.  One suggestion has been that we co-create an event with the community affairs and philanthropy team,  and perhaps do something together which will benefit a women’s group or charity.

Now obviously,  I love this idea and am looking forward to the meeting where we can discuss this a bit more.  Another suggestion has been that we do something around the concept of “Dressing for Success” and do something for or with the charity of that name … and that made me wonder if such a concept even exists for men?

DfS (who I think are fabulous and do great work,  by the way – I’m not having a pop) was “set up by women to help other women get a job and become financially independent”.  But in all my years in the corporate world,  I’ve never seen anything similar for men – have you?

Imagine it:

  • a poster campaign in the lift and around the office
  • – which asks men to donate their unwanted suits and ties.
  • Men providing other men with interview advice

Is this because men don’t need this help,  don’t want it or some other reason?  Is the help in question perhaps provided more casually?

* * * * *

Also on my mind … an article from last Sunday’s Observer, which has been circling around and around ever since I read it. Dr. Abhay Bang’s programme to reduce infant mortality in Maharashtra has achieved dazzling results but they –

“.. owe little to the orthodoxy of western medicine and everything to his team of neonatally trained rural women.”

Click here to read more.

* * * * *

I went to hear Sonia Gandhi deliver the Commonwealth Lecture in central London a few weeks ago.  The theme of her talk (and of this year’s programme of Commonwealth activities) was “Women as Agents of Change”, which celebrates women whose work has made a positive difference to the lives of others and emphasises the message that, by investing in women and girls, we can accelerate social, economic and political progress around the world.  My big “wow” moment from the talk – which you can read here – was to learn that 60% of all women in the Commonwealth are in India.

* * * * *

And finally … when I was in Mumbai in December,  I met a very interesting man called Abhi Naha,  who is working, through his company Zone V,  to develop a mobile phone for use by the blind.  Abhi told me that over two thirds of the 415 million blind and partially sighted people in the world are women, which is why he is so passionate about empowering blind women through mobile phone technology.  Zone V‘s motto is:

Imagine a world where lack of sight does not mean lack of vision”

– and Abhi certainly doesn’t lack vision,  in any sense of the word.  A few days ago,  he texted me and asked – “If you could have an ’empowerment button’ on your mobile phone for women in developing countries, what would you make it do?”

I replied:

“I’d use it to educate the 62 million girls around the world who don’t even get to go to primary school.”

How about you – what would YOUR empowerment button do?

“Feminism is the unfinished revolution …”

13 Mar

– declared Natasha Walter in The Guardian earlier this week,  in her column about the centenary of International Women’s Day. Meanwhile,  back in my spiritual home of India, Dr Elizabeth Menon‘s piece in The Hindu reminded us that equality for some is still very elusive.

For me,  IWD was all about spending the day at a university,  at which I spoke and chaired an event called “Breaking Glass”.  I heard about the glass ceiling as it exists within academia and learned,  not altogether surprisingly,  that the issues faced by female staff at universities (reasonably high numbers at entry level, falling away at a career mid point,  subsequent difficulties in progressing to the top tier) mirror almost exactly those faced by their sisters in the corporate world.

I used the centenary of IWD to structure my talk around the way in which the world has changed for women since 1911 and the key events and people who have made those changes come about.  My brief had been to “make it light”,  so I peppered my slides with a few key quotations – some of which I share now.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women …”

– Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, 1997 – 2001

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what a feminist is.  I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

– Rebecca West, writer, 1913

“Well behaved women seldom make history …”

– Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor at Harvard University

“I wanted to work there because I wanted to become a writer. I was quickly assured that women didn’t become writers at Newsweek. It would never have crossed my mind to object … It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be the exception to the rule.”

– Nora Ephron – writer, novelist, film director [on starting her career in 1962]

My favourite quotation,  which I didn’t use because I hadn’t then read the originating article,  comes from Mariella Frostrup in The Observer,  who,  in a blistering and truly excellent piece of journalism, reminded us that the struggle is far from over and that,  within the closed world of UK politics:

“… there are more blokes called Dave and Nick in government than there are women MPs. Women continue to hover at a steady 19% in the chamber, put off perhaps by a testosterone-fuelled climate where the last two prime ministers’ wives have given up high- flying careers to support their husbands or simply to satisfy the perceived demands of middle England.”

Check it out – one of the best and most impassioned articles on feminism you may read.

On the centenary of International Women’s Day …

8 Mar

… this very short film, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, voiced by Dame Judi Dench and starring Daniel Craig,  tells us so much about where women are in 2011.  We’ve come a long way, baby – but there’s still so far to go.

Desperate housewives?

14 Jan

I love (actually, maybe “love” is too strong – OK, I’m “interested in”) the way that Mad Men’s Betty Draper is now being used by picture editors as visual shorthand to illustrate articles referring to, variously, housewives, stay at home mums and ladies who lunch.

(Similarly, photos of Joan now inevitably accompany an article about “curvy figures”.)

Dr. Catherine Hakim’s recently published report – Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine: The Flawed Thinking Behind Calls for Further Equality – which concludes that mainstream feminist thinking is defective and that the UK government should stop trying to promote it (there’s an accurate, if somewhat right wing summary of her arguments here in this Daily Telegraph article) and that women tend to marry for money rather than love – has caused a rash of newspaper reports, published from London to Sydney and (probably) all points between – and the two highlighted here both feature lovely photos of the former Mrs Draper, as does a recent article along similar lines in Grazia.

Tanya Gold’s piece in the Guardian:  

“Inequality between the sexes is not a big deal any more, a new study tells us. That is only true if you are happy for women to have less than men …”

does at least make some fleeting Mad Men reference to the assumptions in the report, commenting that perhaps Dr Hakim’s work is:

“ … based on a weird, Mad Men themed dream she had on Boxing Day …”

Female writers across the world have decided that actually, it’s OK to want to marry for money, to not have your own career or income and to stay at home, surrounded by items from Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgwater (ironically, two women who manage to be married and have their own eponymous businesses). And of course, yes, it is fine, I suppose. But this lifestyle framework is surely only OK if there’s someone to fund it – and what happens if that someone isn’t there anymore – either through death, divorce, a change in their own or their employer’s financial circumstances?

(This rather gloomy article from 2008 suggests a potential increase in divorce due to the credit crunch, with:

“… about 80 percent of those surveyed believe that the turmoil — and lower bonus payments — will prompt more women to seek a divorce before their husbands’ wealth evaporates further.” )

Obviously, nobody goes into marriage or life as a stay at home mum thinking “one day we’ll split up or he’ll lose all his money in some huge, unprecedented global melt down and then what will happen to me?”.

But as this cautionary tale, Regrets of a stay-at- home Mom, recently published on shows, it can happen:

“Fourteen years ago, I “opted out” to focus on my family. Now I’m broke.”

(For more on the wildly radical idea that “a man is not a financial plan”, check out The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up too Much?  by Leslie Bennets on the Recommended reading tab above).

* * * * *

In other news … the flyer I designed for Educators’ Trust India has now been printed up and is ready for use – if you’d like to see what they’re giving out to tourists in Goa in order to raise awareness of the issues of child poverty and of the need for literacy programmes, you can take a look and download a copy from my freelance writing site, Collaborative Lines.

Anita and Jyoti’s story

23 Nov

One of the books I’ve read and particularly enjoyed (on my Kindle!) since arriving here in Goa has been Sanjeev Bhaskar’s account of his trip around India in 2007.  A second generation British born Indian,  Bhaskar had visited the country many times as a child on family holidays,  but decided to return (with a BBC film crew in tow) and see the modern India at around the time that the country was celebrating 60 years of independence.  He specifically wanted to see the area of the Punjab from where his family had fled at the time of Partition;  they were Hindus,  living in an Indian village which became,  overnight in August 1947,  part of the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan and so they left their homes and became part of the Hindu Diaspora migrating to India – passing on their way hundreds of thousands of Muslims making the same journey in reverse.

Other books (I particularly recommend Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelman, which I blogged about here earlier this year) cover the politics and history of this turbulent and tragic period of Indian history in more detail and context,  but Bhaskar’s wonderful book provides a human story and brings it alive – he’s a fine writer.

“… those of us born as second generation Indians in England are the children of Partition – it’s odd to think that without that tumultuous moment of upheaval 60 years ago, my family might never made the journey that brought my sister and me into being as the modern Britons we are today.”

A favourite feature of the Kindle is the way in which you can clip and mark sections of your books as you read them,  and I did this a lot with Sanjeev Bhaskar’s India.  When he described India as:

“ … a country that breaks your heart in a new way every day … fractures you in ways you didn’t even realise you could be broken …”

… it very much resonated with me. I had my heart fractured the other day when I met Jyoti and her friend Anita on the beach.  It was about 4.30pm and I was just considering packing up and heading back for a shower,  when a shadow fell across my sun lounger.  I looked up to see a small girl holding a large basket filled with newspaper wrapped twists of peanuts and packets of crisps.  Just as the words “no, thank you” were forming on my lips,  she laid the basket down and asked,  very politely,  if she could please have some water?

(This happens a lot on the beach,  and I usually buy an extra bottle of water for the kids whenever I buy one for myself).

Of course,  I said and handed it over. To my surprise,  she didn’t drink the water,  but instead put the bottle down, and removed first a plastic bag and then several layers of grimy, bloodied newspaper from her right foot.  She then poured the water all over her foot,  and attempted to clean it up with fresh newspaper. When I asked what she had done to her foot,  she showed me a deep gash in her sole – a cut which looked dirty and inflamed;  a cut which would have any one of us at the doctor,  asking for stitches and antibiotics.  She had cut her foot on a piece of metal (“I think,  from a boat?”)  whilst walking on the beach and of course, was unable to keep it either clean or sterile.  All she could do was keep it covered with her improvised bandage and hope it healed.

Her name is Jyoti and she is 11 years old.  I felt very helpless,  but I helped her to first clean her foot with some of my baby wipes and to then dress it with Savlon from my capacious beach bag.  She then re-wrapped it with fresh newspaper and a different plastic bag; I bought her a sandwich and a Fanta,  which both disappeared in an instant.  Whilst all this was going on,  her friend Anita (12) appeared with her matching basket of goods and showed great concern as to the state of poor Jyoti’s foot.  At no point did either of them attempt to sell me anything or to ask me for money;  they just seemed grateful for the rest in the shade of my beach umbrella and for the food and drink.  I bought Anita a Coke and gave them my remaining fruit (scrupulously divided between them both by Anita) and a bottle of water each.

“Do you go to school?” I asked,  almost knowing the answer.

“Yes!” said Anita, proudly.  “School is good.  Better than beach. But in Karnataka,  not here.  When we are here,  we must work.”

Further questioning elicited the fact that they each travel with their families to Goa every October and work on the beach during the season – so until May.  They then return to Karnataka and attend school for almost 6 months,  before taking a 19 hour bus journey back to Goa,  back to the beach.

Jyoti was clearly in some pain at this time,  and she curled up on an adjacent sun bed and went to sleep.  Anita,  older,  more confident and chatty,  told me the somewhat amazing story that she is one of SEVEN sisters and one younger brother.  She,  her parents and sisters all travel to Goa to work,  but her brother remains at home with an aunt so that he can continue his education.

Further proof of the (lack of) esteem in which girls and their education are held in this huge, bewildering, heartbreaking country.  Here’s the last word from Sanjeev:

“India remains a dizzying edifice of extremes.  Goddesses are worshipped and women have occupied the most powerful positions in the land,  and yet it is a male-dominated society.  It is the largest democracy in the world and yet a significant proportion of the population are illiterate.  The wealth divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is increasing dramatically as India becomes a global player.  The destitute number almost 500 million – and that’s a hell of a lot of ‘have nots’.”


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