Is becoming a woman a “messy process”?

Sophie Walker took part in a web-chat on Mumsnet this week.

I am a member of WEP, and have been since the very first day membership was available.  I acknowledged that it can be problematic – a very “top down” approach to feminism, but I really felt that it was something I wanted to be part of, and that no one organisation could be perfect or tick all the boxes I needed, but that this approach was a vital one

However, the statements made in this webchat in particular are causing me real problems.  Sophie Walker said:

“I am old fashioned enough to believe that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. The process of becoming a woman is a messy one, filled with contradictions and influenced by many different factors”.

And this brings me up short, as it almost feels like victim blaming.  I didn’t choose to be a woman, I am one.  And the point about the discrimination I face as a result is that it’s not based on my choices.  It doesn’t matter that I’m child-free by choice, I am still seen as a “maternity risk” by some potential employers.  Discrimination doesn’t start when we declare ourselves to be women; we know that girls also experience discrimination, just take a look at Pink Stinks or the testimonies on Everyday Sexism.  We can’t choose whether or not this is the case – the patriarchy is something imposed upon us.

I am really struggling to see what Sophie Walker meant by this statement.  What is the point of a Women’s Equality Party that believes women only face discrimination when they choose?  What is the point of a Women’s Equality Party that doesn’t really believe that women exist?

I am deeply troubled by these statements.  I haven’t made a decision about my membership yet, but I don’t feel that I can avoid that decision much longer.


Sexism, clothes and judging women

There was an interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour today.  It was a challenging interview, which touched on the racism that was faced by Batmanghelidjh, which is good.  But they didn’t touch on the sexism that she faced, which I think was an important factor.

This idea that she “mesmerised” people stinks of old fashioned “witch” accusations.  Surely if she’d been a man, she’d have been talked of as charismatic?

The interview touched on her clothes, and the influences from Iran, and the racism that she faced, but didn’t talk about her appearance, and whether a woman receiving “so much tax payer money” was part of the problem.

A man’s appearance can be commented on – I’m thinking here particularly about Boris Johnson – but somehow it’s not seen as indicative of whether he can actually perform his job.  Their clothes are seen as an affectation, a vanity, an eccentricity.  A reflection if personality perhaps, but not as reflective of their abilities.  Whereas I’ve heard more than once that “one look at her and you could tell she shouldn’t have been managing multi-million pound budgets” in reference to Batmanghelidjh.

This is bothering me particularly this week, as I shop for a couple of new outfits to start my new job (I do acknowledge the privilege inherent in this dilemma, but that’s something for another post).  One dress in particular, is awesome.  It’s black with flashes of bright orange, the skirt will be comfortably below the knee even when I’m sitting, the straps are wide enough to cover my whole shoulder and won’t show bra-straps.  So far, so professional.  And I love it.  But boy, it shows a whole lot of cleavage.  If I get impassioned and lean across a table, you could see straight down my top.  So I have this nagging feeling “is this how I want to be seen”?.  Which is driving me crazy.  I know how I’m seen in my profession – I’m capable, well known, full of good ideas.  One dress shouldn’t have any impact on my decade-plus in the sector.  And yet, I’m still having this persistent thought that people won’t see or hear me if I wear this dress, they won’t see anything but cleavage.

And while sexism is still alive and well, this issue is important.  The fact that the more senior people are, the more likely they are to be men influences this.  I know that the majority of people I come in to contact with will see an awesome dress.  But what about those people that know me less well?  Is this the first impression I want to leave them with?  Will they hear what I say, or will they just be thinking that I think my boobs are the most important thing?

For now, I’m going to fall back on asking my Mum about this dress.  I can count on her to give an honest opinion on whether the dress works, or whether the first thing that she sees is my cleavage.  But I wish we lived in a world where this wasn’t such a big deal.  Where our clothes are noticed – maybe even commented on – but not seen as a reflection of our ability.  A man’s world.


Female commentators, boys clubs and quotas

It’s not news that women are hugely under-represented when it comes to news commentary, professional panels and conferences – anything where expertise is valued. The excuse so commonly given is that the organisers just don’t know any women who are experts in x,y or z.  Which is why I am so thrilled to hear about @theWomensRoomUK, who are setting up a database to ensure that the media can always find a female expert.  Getting rid of the easiest excuse – that they just can’t find a woman – ensures that at the very least, organisers are left with just two options: to come out and admit to their misogyny, or to admit their complete lack of knowledge of their subject.

Which is exactly what happened to the organisers of a fundraising summit recently.  Fundraising has a good track record, with many incredible women achieving great things, and heading up well-known organisations.  So when challenged about why organisers couldn’t find women to speak at their summit, Giles Pegram stated it was because women weren’t the “thinkers” in Fundraising.  Which shows a brilliant lack of knowledge about the fundraising sector, along with a healthy dose of misogyny.  Is it any surprise that the event had to be cancelled – or did Mr Pegram really think that female fundraising directors would take a break from their tea-making-duties to come along to listen to what the men thought of their profession?

I have a feeling that the reaction will be written off as “hysterical” women and a problem with social media rather than fundraising.  But I do hope it gives pause to the next organisers of a conference.  Not “believing” in quotas is an easy thing to say when you’re represented.  It’s not so easy when you’re on the outside.  It can be very hard to know when you’re part of a club.  You may think of yourself as an outgoing and approachable person.  But if this cancellation can encourage organisers to look around at their panels, perhaps they will start to see that they are looking at the same faces over and over again.   Maybe when they realise this, they will look for a practical and simple solution – such as that offered by @theWomensRoomUK.

So I’m singing the praises of The Women’s Room in two different ways.  Removing the easy excuse, which will hopefully prevent laziness.  And making it easy for those that want to challenge a boys club to find a way to do it.  What a brilliant idea.

Equality isn’t one way

We now live in a world where car insurers can’t charge men more for being male. While I’m not jumping up and down with excitement at the thought of paying more for my insurance (and I’m not naive enough to think me paying more will mean my boyfriend paying less) I do think this is a step in the direction of equality. Ok, I’d have much rather other things came first – how about equal pay before equal charges? – but I really can’t gripe about a in the right direction.

Jo Swinson, Minister for Women and Equality described this change as “very unfair” in the Telegraph on Christmas Eve.   But her arguments seem to fall flat.  Rural transport is unreliable – just as much an issue for men as for women.  Using public transport can be dangerous at night – again, an issue for men as well as for women, and the idea that women shouldn’t use public transport is wrong – women should have the right to travel at night, they shouldn’t have some sort of public curfew.  Women also shouldn’t have the primary responsibility for ferrying children around.

Insurance does depend on risk assessment  which uses all kinds of information to judge you – your postcode, your income (you pay a lot less insurance if you have a garage, or a drive instead of having to park on the street), your occupation.  And I do understand the argument that women are statistically judged as being less of an insurance risk.  But I think we have gone past the point where people would think it acceptable to say that white people should pay more for insurance, or that Christians should pay less.  So why is it so acceptable to say women should be treated differently?

Finally, if there is any doubt that treating women differently for insurance purposes is sexist, take a look at this Ad from Diamond from late November:

Diamond Car Insurance

It shows all the things women are interested in – like lipstick and jewellery and smellies, whilst using juvenile text speak.  Guess what Diamond – women aren’t children.  Women aren’t childlike.  If that means I have to spend more on my car insurance…  Well of course I’m not pleased that I get to give more money to insurance companies.  But am I pleased that this is one area I won’t have to see sexist advertising in?  Yes.

The real danger behind the loud stupidity

Of course I’ve been angry about the stupid comments from George Galloway, Ted Akin and others this week, just as I was with the Ken Clarke comments last year. To me, it’s simple – sex needs to be consensual, anything else is rape. And I’m really not quite sure how that’s a contentious comment.

A lot of great commentators have written about these comments, and so I’m not going to rewrite them here.

These comments were at best misinformed, and people running for office (or sitting on the House of Representatives Science committee FFS) really shouldn’t be so misinformed. I’d go further and say these comments were dangerous – adding justification to any rapists that if they’re not holding a knife to a woman’s throat then what they are doing is ok.

The bit that I find really dangerous is when this kind of speak – from elected representatives – is seen alongside this report about representation in the senior ranks of the Civil Service.  I’ve already spoken a lot about how much our politicians are white and male, and they are now ‘rolling this out’ to the civil service.  While Gus O’Donnell managed to leave a Civil Service with an equal balance of men and women at the top, a lot of the women have moved on recently, and there’s now a real danger that these top posts will go to men again.

I do understand the arguments against affirmative action – that individual merit should be the most important factor.  Except it’s not all about individuals.  It’s about the group of people running the country, and them all looking exactly the same.  If the criteria that they use to recruit is valuing what they are already good at, then they will keep on recruiting people that look like them.  That doesn’t mean that people with different skills are less efficient, it simply means they are different.  And that is the problem with crying “affirmative action isn’t fair”.  It is fair in the wider sense.  It is fair to everyone, rather than just one.  And it’s fair in that it forces people not to look for the person most like them (as most recruitment policies do) but to look for people differently.

Please understand my argument before screaming about all the discriminated against white men out there.  I’m not saying a lesser-woman should get a role over a better-man.  I’m saying that when any organisation becomes so unbalanced that everyone looks the same, they are likely to need to be forced to consider ‘outsiders’.  I’m saying that an organisation that has looked exactly the same for hundreds of years is going to need a little encouragement to change.  It will need to be persuaded that change is needed and desirable.

And put this against the backdrop we are painting – of politicians who so misunderstand biology that they believe women can’t become pregnant from rape.  Of politicians who so misunderstand the law that they claim having sex with a woman who can’t give consent, or proceeding to force someone into another sex act because they’d already agreed to something else, wouldn’t be crimes in the UK.  Jonathan Freedland wrote brilliantly in The Guardian on Friday about how these incidents are part of a wider misogyny amongst politicians.  And if we were to let our other branches of government, including the Civil Service fall further into the hands of this group of privileged men, we are seriously putting human rights at risk.

Diversity or best for the job?

This week, Marketing Week had me bashing my head on my desk over this article – an inconvenient brand truth.

They took a survey which shows that having diverse boards will improve business performance, then looked at Super-Brand Apple with only white middle-class men on the board, and leapt to a whole bunch of stupid conclusions.
Here are the two reasons they are stupid.

One – an anecdote isn’t evidence. Just because Apple is doing well with an un-diverse board doesn’t mean diverse boards don’t work.  It’s not like they took two Steve Jobs,  gave one a company with a diverse board, and one a company with a board that looked just like him, and studied the results.  You cannot use one anecdote to refute a survey.

And Two – diversity isn’t something you do because “women bring different skills”. You do it because that way you get the best.  The whine-y comments underneath that it’s not fair on white middle-class men as the poor scraps can’t get a job any more only underlined this. Once you force boards to look for more diverse candidates, they suddenly realise that actually, people who don’t look like them can be even better candidates than those that do.

Diversity doesn’t penalise white men. Diversity creates a level playing feel, and then, what a surprise, it’s not always white men that come out top.

I’m not refuting the article’s conclusion that Apple is an exceptional brand, that has always operated in an exceptional way.  But why is this prompted by a survey about equality?  This article could have focussed on innovation, doing things differently, standing out from the crowd.  By choosing to focus on equality and diversity, the author reduced himself to simply being a white, middle class man moaning “what about teh menz” and completely missing his own point.  Poor journalism, based on the idea that a cave-man rally cry will get extra headlines.  Why couldn’t the article on equality have prompted Marketing Week to look at itself and the industry more widely?  Maybe start introducing a diversity audit for it’s own panel discussions and events?  Or have a think about why all their columnists are white middle class men?

This is the inconvenient truth – that pedalling and celebrating old stereotypes isn’t what drives anything forward.

Women not supporting women?

Another day, another list of top tweeters that pretty much ignores women.  And then this genius at the Independent decided that this must be because women are bitchy and unsupportive of each other.  And she concluded this because the stats don’t lie – this was scientifically analysed and so cannot be accused of gender bias.

Except – you can’t exclude gender bias by simply ignoring it.  How did they account for the bias within mainstream media and politics?  How did they account for the exclusion of women from politics, comedy and commentary?  They didn’t – and this is where the study was hugely gender-biased.  We also all know how much misogyny exists within twitter – how did they exclude this when deciding how much women were heard?  This study wasn’t gender-neutral, it took the gender bias from society and replicated it.

So of course, her conclusion that “we’re wary of other women’s success” is completely without grounds.

One of the things that so many people love about twitter is that it removes the bias we experience in the mainstream media and politics.  We can find other people who think like we do (or challenge us) and are not constrained by what is deemed by upper class white men to be important.  It’s been an absolute revelation for me to find sites like Womens Views on News that unearth important stories about women.  To find journalists like @Sianushka to offer a feminist commentary on news of the day.  To find campaigners like @theNatFantastic who are changing the world.  I don’t live or work in a town with a big feminist presence, and so to find out that my views aren’t quirky or extreme has been an incredible boost to my confidence.

Other women have supported me too.  I wouldn’t have learnt to tweet without the awesome @Trishie_D setting a great example and tweeting with me.  I certainly wouldn’t have started my blog without encouragement from @PitandPendulum.  I am also inspired by the support that women offer each other – for example when the #unilad scandal really broke, the women who were particularly targeted by offensive misogynists were, I know, overwhelmed by the messages of support that flew their way over twitter.

I could concede that perhaps men and women use twitter differently somtimes.  As much as it sticks in my throat to say this, hundreds of years of conditioning can still mean that men and women communicate differently.  And because of this (as well as the media bias I mentioned above) it’s vital that any study of influential tweeters considers these factors if they want to really look at who is influencing people. 

I’m going to finish with an anecdote – that’s all it is, I’m not claiming scientific objectivity.  Stephen Fry often comes out high in these influential tweeter polls, and I’ve heard charities say that one tweet from him, plugging their cause is worth about £10,000.  I’m never sure how they calculate this, but it seems to have become some kind of lore.  The other day, Sue Perkins made a real change in the world by calling a schoolgirl on a homophobic tweet, and contacting her headmaster to offer to go to the school and take an assembly.  Which person is really having the most influence on the world here?  And this is the crux of my point.  If you conduct a study, rewarding male styles of communicating, in a male-dominated society, of course more men are going to come out on top.

Please don’t then blame women for this.  Blame society, blame the study.  Blame yourself and go looking for more women if you don’t feel that your timeline has enough strong women in it – there’s plenty of them out there.

Twitter is full of AWESOME women, and I really do feel that they’re chipping away at society to make a real difference.  And twitter has enabled me to become a tiny part of that.