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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 salon.com 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’.”

PIN money in India – for some

7 Nov

(c) The Observer

Lots of stuff in the media about India this week,  primarily in the wake of the Obamas’ visit to Mumbai and Delhi.

Two wildly different stories caught my eye and reminded me of the contrasts which exist in this huge, disparate country.

On the one hand,  we have the fabulously charismatic Michelle Obama (for once, with those great arms all covered up) meeting street children in Mumbai, dancing and playing hopscotch.  I defy anyone to look at this filmed footage of her dancing with the children (see how they’ve really got those Bollywood moves nailed!) and not raise a grin:

… meanwhile, across the country in Bhopal,  we learn that:

“Tycoon Rajesh Jethpuria has installed an ATM at his home in Bhopal, India – so his shopalcoholic (sic) wife never runs out of cash …”

I fly to Mumbai a week today – and I am so looking forward to seeing Renuka and the children at Rainbow House for the first time since February.

Q is for Quota

21 Sep

There’s been a degree of press coverage of late around the suggestion, as put forward by Viviane Reading, who heads up equality and equal rights in her role as the European Union’s Fundamental Rights’ Commissioner, that European companies may soon be forced to implement a system of gender quotas at board level.

Predictably,  the Confederation of British Industry have responded to this with horror, thus:

“… the best and most sustainable way to promote diversity in the boardroom is by selecting candidates from as wide a talent pool as possible, and by making appointments based on merit.”

Well,  yes.  This is true.  But,  given that this “best and most sustainable way” doesn’t seem to be happening of its own free will, how about a bit of a push?

Read more about the back story, and what’s happening in other countries around the Q word, in my latest article for The Glass Hammer – by clicking here.

So when you blog and Tweet about …

21 Aug

… the current Australian Prime Minister …. I guess you shouldn’t be surprised if she then decides to follow you on Twitter:

Twitter.com

Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard) is now following your tweets (@TheGenderBlog) on Twitter.

100242-005_gillard_normal
Julia Gillard
Canberra, Australia
136 29,286 44,568
tweets following followers

The BBC are reporting,  as of this Saturday evening UK time,  that it’s going to be a hung parliament in Australia,  much as we’re currently enjoying here.  Nail biting stuff.

(If you’re following it on Twitter too, #AusVotes is a good hashtag).

Is Julia Gillard heading for the Glass Cliff?

20 Aug

(c) BBC

Tomorrow sees a general election in Australia, and the two main parties are currently neck and neck at the polls.

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, is facing a fight to the finish with conservative coalition leader Tony Abbott.  Ms Gillard became Prime Minister in June after ousting her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

But reports say that she faces a backlash at the ballot box over a range of issues,  including the way she replaced Mr Rudd as head of the Labor party and her policy directions on climate change and immigration.

If the Labor party,  currently just ahead in the polls at 52%,  does lose the election,  what will this mean for Gillard’s career? Will she be left to carry the can and blamed for the loss?  Or will there be an appreciation for the political status quo that she inherited so recently, at a time when the Labor Party’s popularity was sliding in the opinion polls?

Apparently, say the BBC, Kevin Rudd “surrendered without a fight” after realising that his support amongst government colleagues had collapsed.

That sounds like a poison chalice of a job to me – in fact,  it sounds like the roles described by researchers at the University of Exeter in their paper a few years ago as the “glass cliff”,  in which they suggest that senior women are:

“… more likely than men to find themselves in positions associated with a high risk of failure and are correspondingly precarious. … A female candidate is overwhelmingly favoured if the opening is described as difficult and involving a high risk of failure.”

The paper,  entitled “The Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions”, summarises the glass cliff position as follows:

  • While men are given safer and more secure jobs, women at all levels often feel that they have been “set up to fail”;
  • Such leadership roles can lead to increased stress for women leaders, and can contribute to larger numbers of women departing senior management positions;
  • Glass cliffs may also have repercussions for organisations, leading to poor communication and decision making

The research,  conducted in 2005 and updated in 2007, was conducted across a range of sectors which included business,  the law and, crucially here, politics. Significantly,  Julia Gillard was not handed the role of Labor Party leader/first female Prime Minister,  but actively sought it out – so in that regard,  the concept of being appointed to  a doomed, risky role does not apply to her.

However,  should her party lose at tomorrow’s election,  the blame will undoubtedly be laid at her door and you don’t have to be psychic to predict that there’ll be a media firestorm suggesting that the Aussie electorate didn’t vote for her due to her gender,  and/or because they didn’t want to have an elected (as opposed to an appointed) female Prime Minister.

Whilst,  as outlined here in this guest blog for Catalyst,  Australia does have a relatively high proportion of high profile, successful women in senior political roles,  the amount of media attention focussed on Gillard over the last two months has been intense and has been largely centred on her gender and personal life.

So, irrespective of whether she strode to the cliff edge herself or was parked there – I see that Australia’s first female Prime Minister is  poised on the edge of the glass cliff at the moment – and only the Australian electorate can keep her there or send her tumbling over the precipice.

However, on a lighter note,  just as we had Paul the Octopus making (ultimately) successful forecasts during the World Cup last month,  Australia now has psychic crocodile Dirty Harry making election predictions. Of course,  given that crocodiles are a bit more vicious and unpredictable in their behaviour than are our eight legged “friends”,  the selection protocol is a bit more feral:  this time,  Harry has to indicate the electoral winner by lunging for some raw chicken hanging below images of Gillard and Abbott.

Watch the video link here to see who he picks – and may the best crocodile win tomorrow.

On the Big diverse Lunch, 2010

25 Jul

This time last week I was sitting outside on a chair, eating cake,  in the middle of my street – just a normal, west London residential road,  a street of early 20th century houses, a street which is normally lined with parked cars and which serves as a useful cut through to the nearby tube station.

A street where, on regular days, people would doubtless think you’d lost your mind if you so much as sat in your front garden instead of around the back.

But last Sunday was different,  because me and my neighbours were taking part in the second annual Big Lunch – a day in which around one million people all over Britain sat down with their neighbours for a communal meal.  And so,  for just one day,  the road was closed,  the cars were relocated,  bunting and balloons were strung across the road and woven into the trees – and around one hundred adults and children came together in my street for a communal barbecue, followed by homemade cakes and puddings.

My street in London is very ordinary and is like thousands of others all over the UK – a row of terraced houses,  built in the Edwardian years at the turn of the twentieth century in order to house the growing middle class population of white collar workers such as bank clerks and office staff.  Some of the houses are owned,  some are rented;  some are single family units,  others are let out as individual rooms to a transient population of twenty-somethings from a variety of countries.  Most of the houses have now been updated from their original build and have had new kitchens, bathrooms or loft conversions bolted on,  although some do have the ancient 7’ x 11’ galley kitchen and prehistoric bathroom fittings still in situ (we inherited the original loo,  complete with overhead cistern and hanging chain, when we moved in in 2001).

Above all though,  we have a huge diversity and richness of talent in the street that I never really appreciated until one of my neighbours heard of the Big Lunch,  then in its early stages, last year and leafleted the street to see if anyone was interested in helping him organise our very own street party.  Before the 2009 Big Lunch,  our street was fairly typical,  in that some of us knew our immediate neighbours (and we are only a road of 27 houses,  so not a huge population) but nobody knew everybody.

I remember when there was a discussion a year ago over what entertainment to put on for the children and someone exclaimed: “What children?  Do we even have any kids living here?”

But we actually have nearly 30,  if we’d only known it at the time.

And diversity?  At this year’s lunch,  we had participants from the following countries: all four corners of the UK,  the USA, Canada, Poland, Bangladesh, Jamaica, India, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Russia and the Netherlands.

And this diversity of backgrounds also brings with it an amazing array of jobs;  a quick poll told me that amongst us we have a:

psychotherapist, a BBC producer, a professional sitar player,  an opera singer, an actuary, a CBT therapist, a vicar, an actress (who once had her own story arc in “Sex and the City”!), a motorbike salesman, some freelance musicians who teach drums and play in a band, an HR manager for a museum, a midwife, a man who makes models for film sets such as “Gulliver’s Travels”, assorted sales assistants, a primary school teacher, a management consultant and various people who “do things in IT”.

(And me).

What was great about the Big Lunch was not only the way in which this kind of event truly brings people together in a social sense,  but also the way in which people contributed their skills to the organisation of it all.

We had three barbecue stations on the go; Paul made us a playlist and plugged his iPod into someone else’s speakers so that we could have music.  I ordered all the food and took delivery of a huge Ocado order,  but that food was then stored overnight in multiple fridges up and down the street.  Wei-Hei used her discount card to buy the disposable plates, cups and cutlery at a great price from the cash and carry; Glynis spoke to a friend at a local church and arranged for us to borrow their tables in return for a small donation to the church roof fund (there’s always a church roof fund, isn’t there?).  Liz went up and down the street,  saying hello and getting people to sign up for the lunch; Russell used his great graphic design skills to knock out newsletters for everyone,  but particularly for those of our neighbours who don’t have email (which,  given that some of them are in their 70s and 80s,  is very much the case).

Astrid bought and stored all the drinks; Bevan collected the “Road Closed” signs from the local council depot; other neighbours contributed bunting (made out of what looked like old pyjamas), a gazebo, tables and chairs.  I did all the email communications with the Mayor’s office,  the local community policing team and our local ward councillors;  TLS was in charge of the budget,  on the basis that he’s great at getting money out of people and he also used his truck to fetch and carry various signs and bits of furniture.

Most crucially,  in terms of the atmosphere on the day,  our local musicians,  who form a truly fabulous band called Storey (check them out on iTunes and Spotify)  gave us a completely brilliant two hour concert.  They played their own stuff (with which quite a few of us are now familiar,  as we try to go to their local gigs when we can),  then went into some great covers and finally got members of the audience to join them on drums, tambourine and backing vocals.  Who knew that Mark was such a great drummer,  or that Ingrid could sing so well?

And I guess that’s the whole point of diversity – how do you know what skills people have,  unless you open up the doors (or the street) and include them?  I’ve had several job interviews (yes … still …) recently in which I’ve been asked: “What does diversity mean to you?” – and my answer is – it’s always all about the talent.  Just like the childless person who assumed that, like him, our road was childfree, I think that many unenlightened leaders think that having more people like them in the leadership team is the only way to lead the company,  or organise the street party.

But for me,  the Big Lunch events are a great reminder of a couple of things:

-       That I’m so lucky to live in this lovely street in this fabulously multi-cultural city;

-       That not sweating the small stuff is generally a great idea – and we will usually get there,  wherever “there” may be,  in the end;

-       And that the greatest outcome can always be achieved by having a mixture of talents and inputs from a wide variety of people.

Oh, and?  Street parties are way more fun when you get blue skies and sunshine (2010) rather than dark skies and rain (2009).

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