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“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.

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:

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

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.

Women of Britain: please vote!

6 May

Rocking the vote in Florida, 2004

Whatever you do,  wherever you are today,  please go and vote; a hundred years ago,  you wouldn’t have had the option.

A hundred years ago,  women died, were imprisoned, starved themselves in prison, so that we, their future daughters,  would have the right to go to a polling station and exercise our vote alongside our husbands, fathers and brothers. 

Voting,  particularly for women,  is not only a right,  it is a hard-won privilege. 

If you think that “politics doesn’t apply to me”,  as I have been told so many times by so many women – then think about all the things in your world, in your life,  which do apply to you:  the environment, education, hospitals, employment, medical care, crime.  By voting today,  you are  using your voice to make a conscious choice about how your country is run and by whom.

Please – make time to vote today, whether it’s because you want to have a say in how UK plc is governed for the next five years or in memory of the brave suffragette fighters who suffered so terribly so that we would have the rights which they were denied. 

Here’s an extract from the 1909 diary of suffragette Laura Ainsworth,  in which she describes being force-fed:

“They hold your arms and legs … You have a towel wrapped around you. One doctor kneels at the back of your right shoulder and forces your head back.  He forces your mouth and the other doctor pushes the tube down your mouth about 18 inches. You have a great tickling sensation, then a choking feeling and then you feel quite stunned.”

(For more on these brave women and the debt owed to them by 21st century women,  check out “The Ascent of Woman: a History of the Suffragette Movement” by Melanie Phillips).

Spring is springing …

2 May

…. and the Gender Blog is back up and functioning,  after a brief April hiatus, which saw me spending ten days in France, having a multitude of interviews for all manner of global diversity jobs (at last! Finally! Is this proof that the economy is on the move,  if companies are once again prepared to invest in senior level diversity roles? I think so) and agreeing to undertake some gender balance writing work for leading Australian company Emberin.

(Emberin founder and CEO Maureen Frank,  the woman I have previously described as “so charismatic she could found her own cult”,  has just published an updated version of her bestselling book “You Go Girlfriend” and has sent me some review copies – so I’ll be reading and reviewing it later this month and offering up a couple of copies to anyone who … OK,  I need to think about that.  But anyway.  Free books,  imminently).

Whilst in France,  I spent a week at this magical place,  the Circle of Misse, on a fiction writing “boot camp” course. Although I’ve been blogging and writing non-fiction for years,  the last time I wrote a “story” was at school and so the disciplines and techniques of writing fiction were a complete mystery to me.  But I came back from Goa a few months ago with a story and a host of characters who just wouldn’t go away – what was I to do with them,  how could I bring them alive on the page?  Just as I was wrestling with this,  I received an email flyer offering a 10% discount on the Circle of Misse “Get Writing!” course and,  before I knew it,  I’d signed up and committed myself to sending through a sample of 3000 words of fiction to the tutor ahead of the course start date.

(c) Circle of Misse, with grateful thanks

In the context of A Room of One’s Own – I discovered that maybe I can write,  a bit. The course, hosts and setting were fabulous; Aaron and Wayne run writing, painting and cookery courses at their beautiful house in the Loire valley and I whole heartedly recommend the Circle of Misse experience for anyone interested in those disciplines who wants to perhaps do what I did – take a kernel of an idea and run with it – and see where you end up.  In my case,  I arrived with a concept,  a few characters and my 3000 words,  and left with closer to 20,000 words,  a fully formed plot and a far greater understanding of the techniques of novel writing.

(I think I’m still rubbish at writing dialogue,  but at least I now know that and can focus on improving those skills.)

Of course,  whilst I was away,  we had VolcanoGate and yes,  I got caught up in it – although it did mean that I still haven’t flown Ryanair,  which perhaps isn’t so bad after all. In common with thousands of other people,  I was stranded in France when my flight back from Tours was cancelled and so we (me and N, the guy from my course) had a highly improvised journey home consisting of a five hour car journey to Le Havre, courtesy of the C of M team, a NINE hour ferry crossing and a two hour drive back to London. And,  although the ferry crossing was e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y slow and it was frustrating to have that “so close but yet so far” feeling,  from a writer’s point of view, it was a fascinating experience. 

Subsequently,  I described the boat as a ship of stories, because I heard so many tales of life on the road from people squashed onto the upper deck with me.  The ferry was absolutely heaving with a vast cross-section of travellers,  who had quite literally ended up there from all over the world.  I chatted to one family of four (this was on a Sunday evening) who had left Florida the previous Wednesday, expecting to fly Orlando to Gatwick, change there and fly home to Edinburgh. Five days later, they had flown Orlando to Detroit (?), Detroit to Amsterdam, caught a train from Amsterdam to Brussels,  another train to Paris and then hired a taxi to get them to Le Havre. After we disembarked the ferry,  they were collecting a hire car in Portsmouth and then driving through the night to get back to Scotland.  They hadn’t seen their cases since Florida,  they had only what they were wearing or carrying as hand luggage and Mum reckoned that this “adventure” had cost them in the region of £2000 – more if you add on the fact that their dog had had to stay in kennels for a further 6 days! 

I also met a very dishevelled Irish man in a suit,  who’d flown to Frankfurt the previous Tuesday for a 48 hour trip (he sold sandpaper … but I expect that that was the least of his worries) and who had hitchhiked, trained and bussed his way across Europe to Le Havre; from Portsmouth,  he was catching a cross-country train to the Welsh coast from where he would catch another ferry back to Ireland. So I guess that N and I got off very lightly,  all things considered,  although I am still c. £200 out of pocket and will doubtless remain so unless and until Ryanair cough up a refund for my cancelled flight.

Apart from getting news updates from TLS on volcano and travel related issues,  I was in a complete news avoidance bubble whilst I was in France and I’m still catching up.  It’s a mere four days to the UK’s keenly anticipated General Election and,  in some ways,  nothing much has changed:  the debate is still between three main parties,  led by three white guys,  who all still use the sound bite of “hard working families” (yes, Lib Dems,  even you) at every opportunity.

The Labour Party’s campaign has been challenged by one woman, namely Mrs Duffy from Rochdale – and the current shape of the media is indicated by two things: Mrs Duffy has her own PR rep and the Tories are streaming their anti-Brown Twitter feed onto a moving billboard on London’s A40 (westbound,  just before Hanger Lane,  if you should happen to be stuck in traffic there this week).

And mentioning Twitter …. check out the hilarious #nickcleggsfault hashtag on there … he’s responsible for everything, apparently, according to the right wing press,  including having been spotted poking an Icelandic volcano with a stick in early April.

Busy guy.

Meanwhile,  the Fawcett Society’s What About Women? campaign has been doing a sterling job of keeping women’s issues and concerns front and centre,  even if the all-too-frequent references (not by Fawcett) to this election as the “Mumsnet Election” serves to enrage those of us who aren’t mothers and,  as pointed out in this extremely tart and on-point Guardian column … “reinforce gender stereotypes”  by making women’s concerns focussed on childcare …or Sarah Brown’s footwear.

The Gender Blog  is now streaming to a newly established website, Missive, which has been set up to bring together women who write about politics.  The two founders, Caroline and Sarah,  aim to make it a way for women who write about politics to reach a wider audience.  If you can think of any female bloggers who ought to be on there – please let me know via the Comments function below.

UK politics, 2010 style

18 Mar

As the UK prepares to approach May’s General Election,  I was pleased to see an update on the Downing Street Project,  now in its second year, on the Huffington Post

Here’s an extract from founder Indra Adnan’s article:

This is a call for the whole field of gender politics to be expanded, not just shifted in a new direction. We want more involvement of people – men as well as women who have never thought of themselves as feminist – as a complement to the vital work being done already by women’s organisations everywhere. Our plan is to host facilitated spaces for men and women to work together, gender-consciously, on creating a new understanding of how gender impacts the whole of society. More dialogue than debate, more play than delivering clear objectives. We’ll be starting a model Downing Street Cabinet – 51% women, 49% men – giving participants the powers to add or subtract government departments..”

Given that,  according to the Centre for Women & Democracy’s research,  the UK is now in position #73 (out of 187) in the international league table of  women’s representation in parliaments, it seems clear that interventions of this type are critical if we are ever to change the make up of our government and have it more closely mirror our electorate.  

When I checked out the prospective Parliamentary candidates for my own constituency,  I was dismayed (but not surprised)  to learn that the three main parties each have a man of the same ethnicity running … so we’re lacking racial as well as gender diversity in this bit of west London, unlike in Brighton where one constituency has an all female candidate list.

This is one of only ten constituencies where the candidates are all women as compared to 205 where the slate is entirely men only. Check out the Fawcett Society’s What About Women? pages for more on their campaign to make sure that women’s voices will be heard in this election.

More on IWD … and the continuing global gender gap

11 Mar

And so to the House of Commons, to celebrate International Women’s Day with the Plan team, assorted MPs, the Royal African Society and Plan’s supporters.

On the way there,  I read the Mirror’s IWD supplement,  guest edited by Sarah Brown; on the way home, I saw that President Obama had also celebrated IWD at the White House; both huge, mainstream improvements on the way in which IWD is now globally recognised and acknowledged.

Chaired by Labour MP Sally Keeble, the event was about celebrating IWD, discussing women’s issues in Africa and highlighting the impact of women on economic empowerment. I sat at the back of the room and scribbled,  so saw a lot of backs rather than the speakers and their associated slides – but here’s what I heard …

Plan CEO Marie Staunton (a really fabulous speaker and such an impassioned advocate for girls and women) opened up the debate with the statement that “Girls are invisible” – their work is unseen, taken for granted, doesn’t count,  doesn’t contribute to GDP – and yet where would many societies be without it? And, in a recession,  girls suffer more than boys: they are more likely to be pulled out of school early in order to contribute to the family income,  with all the future repercussions of that (outlined here,  at the launch of Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” book in January). 

But,  continued Marie, each year of completed primary school  adds an additional 10% onto an adult girl’s future earnings; and girls who go on to complete a full ten years’ worth of education are more likely to have smaller families and break the cycle of poverty.  Plan are tracking 142 girls in 9 countries and these preliminary findings add a huge amount of value to their work overseas, as do insights such as learning that girls who are menstruating and have no sanitary protection can’t go to school – so something as relatively simple as providing them with sanitary towels can have a massive impact on their capacity to gain an education, recognise their rights, gain a voice and empower their communities.

A speaker (I unfortunately missed her name – Tipi …?) from Comic Relief told us that the charity has a specific programme funding women and girls, and that their research has shown that,  “when women and girls prosper, communities thrive.”

Focussing on education, anti-violence campaigns and women’s issues (such as programmes which emphasise the benefits of later marriage) all support the wider community in countries all over Africa and elsewhere.

Finally,  we were joined by two amazing girls from a Walthamstow secondary school – Rhiannon and Ronan.  They had won an essay competition and had,  as their prize,  spent the recent half-term holiday with Plan in Ghana, helping to raise awareness of the issues which affect girls’ education. These two 15 years old blew me away – so confident,  self-assured, witty, compassionate.  It’s no small thing to stand up in front of a room full of “grown ups” and talk about your recent trip – and yet they did,  and were amazing. 

“Boys are prioritised in Ghana”,  they announced.

“Girls are expected to help at home rather than go to school.”

As honoured guests of a high school near Accra, our girls presented the prizes on school sports day – which, as they told us to laughter and applause,  also consisted of handing over boxes of “Always” to the winning girls’ teams.

(“What are ‘always’?” – asked the man standing next to me … and then rather looked as if he hadn’t when he received the hissed answer of “Sanitary towels!”).

I loved these girls; as a member of the Plan team said to me afterwards: “Young voices are so important – not only do they talk sense but they capture an audience …” 

Anyway,  R & R were accompanied by a Guardian journalist;  read more about their adventures here.

Elswhere,  I’ve had a couple of comments made to me as to the “need” to have an International Women’s Day in 2010; to those people,  I’d refer you to the just-released World Economic Forum’s annual Corporate Gender Gap report,  which shows that,  even in countries such as the US,  where awareness and resources are far higher,  the numbers of women in the workforce at all are not,  actually,  that high – and as for India? 

(My use of bold)

Taken from the press release ,  we can see that:

The United States (52%), Spain (48%), Canada (46%) and Finland (44%) have the highest percentage of women employees at all levels among the responding companies. India is the country with the lowest percentage of women employees (23%), followed by Japan (24%), Turkey (26%) and Austria (29%). At the industry level, the findings of the survey confirm that the services sector employs the greatest percentage of women employees. Within this sector, the financial services and insurance (60%), professional services (56%) and media and entertainment (42%) industries employ the greatest percentage of women. The sectors that display the lowest percentage of women in the 20 economies are automotive (18%), mining (18%) and agriculture (21%).

Female employees tend to be concentrated in entry or middle level positions and remain scarce in senior management or board positions in most countries and industries. A major exception to this trend is Norway, where the percentage of women among boards of directors is above 40% for the majority of respondents. This is due to a government regulation that mandates a minimum of 40% of each gender on the boards of public companies.

The average for women holding the CEO-level position was a little less than 5% among the 600 companies surveyed. Finland (13%), Norway (12%), Turkey (12%), Italy (11%) and Brazil (11%) have the highest percentage of women CEOs in this sample.

But,  in Norway,  where there’s been a mandated quota system for a couple of years now, we see a more marked shift,  which leaves me wondering why so many countries (and companies) run scared of interventions such as quotas and targets.  There’s more on this in a political context on my friend Lee Chalmers’ excellent blog.  And Lee also links to and comments on the recent Economist article on gendercide … read this and then make the case that we no longer have a need for International Women’s Day, OK?


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