Tag Archives: women

Real Women and Policy

The Lib Dem womens’ policy paper has now been published so the ‘airbrushing’ debate can now move away from what is being said in the media and onto what the policy paper actually says.

The paper has a total of 40 policy proposals, many of which are already policy. The two that have garnered media attention are:

21. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising

22. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to clearly indicate the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women

The first thing that should be noted is that nowhere do the words “airbrushing”, “Photoshop” or “ban” appear. The clauses are much less prescriptive than last week’s hype might have lead us to believe.

I still have two significant problems with these clauses however. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence whatsoever to convince us that this would be an effective remedy. Not even a footnote (there are footnotes and anecdotes for other proposals).

Secondly, it fails to explain why advertising is being singled out here when the magazines that such adverts are to appear in are not. There does not currently exist a regulatory body to control what can appear on the front page of magazines. All the time they continue to pump out idealised images of women (and they do that because it sells) then why get worried about what appears on page 92?

When you break it down it appears like a fairly meaningless sop. Having read the paper I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem at all. As such, I fear that this is selling short the very women and girls that the paper is seeking to protect.

For completeness, I should point out here that the paper does have a number of other proposals when it comes to body image:

23. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types
24. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week
25. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects
26. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools

23 and 24 are surely unobjectionable as they are simply urging best practice and not even regulatory. For non-libertarians, 25 seems a pretty common sense measure, aimed at providing people with useful information. 26 is all well and good, but I have to say I question the wisdom of adding to the already long list of things we make teachers cover in schools; I thought we were demanding a bonfire of the curriculum as recently as March this year? Either way, I am sceptical how a lesson one afternoon in school is going to achieve much.

In short, I can’t help but feel this is just scratching the surface of what is a much more complex issue.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has just written this:

[The main problem the Green Party faces is] it’s open and democratic approach to policy-making in which any member can put forward a policy, call for vote and get the policy accepted into the party’s manifesto if it prove popular with members too readily militates against evidence-based approaches to policy making, particularly in a party that typically attracts considerably more than its fair share of proponents of pseudoscience.

He’s writing about the Green’s anti-science policies but before we get to smug about their often loony ideas we should pause for thought about how the Lib Dems are often subject to the same forces. I don’t agree with Unity and Martin Robbins that the problem is democratic policy making processes; Labour has torn up its democratic structures but its policies are if anything less evidence-based than the Lib Dems’. But people need to be wary of voting at party conference in favour of “nice things” and demand a more rigorous approach. It is notable that the party’s Federal Policy Committee has failed to demand this itself in this instance. Perhaps this is a good example of how the policy paper model, imposed during the merger period by the SDP wing, doesn’t particularly work very well. Certainly the rules about policy papers having to have specific word limits works against a more evidence-based approach.

How dominant is the “blokeosphere”?

Rowenna Davis writes about her experience as guest editor on Labour List on Comment is Free. What interests me about this experience is that while I think the so-called “blokeosphere” is out there, it isn’t universal across political blogs and, as a “bloke” bores me to tears as well. A few observations:

It is hard to see how you can infer a wider principle from LabourList. With Derek Draper at its head, LabourList is one of the most testosterone-fuelled blogs out there. It has reached its existing readership primarily by picking fights with people. I have to admit that even then I was surprised to learn that it has an all-male editorial board (and presumably will continue to have an all-male editorial board after today), but it does figure.

If you want change, you need to more than have a guest female editor for a couple of days. This was an oddly patronising way to mark International Women’s Day – bring the women out for the special occasion and then put them back in their box. LabourList has been significantly more interesting with her as editor (weirdly, I understand she isn’t a Labour Party member) than with Draper and there is every sign that we will be back to business-as-usual in the next couple of days. Indeed, with LabourWomen now established, the boys will be left to it. Only in the Labour Party is such a phenomenon seen a progress.

You can make a systemic shift – and the Lib Dem blogosphere proves it. I don’t wish to over-emphasise this as I am hardly in a position to claim to have expunged macho blogging, but eighteen months ago the Lib Dem blogosphere was as male-dominated as the Labour blogosphere. For whatever reason, it became apparent that there was a distinct increase in female bloggers, seemingly as a result of the relatively high profile blogger awards at the Autumn Conference and the excitement surrounding the leadership election. And that increase has proven itself to be relatively sustainable: the party’s top blogger is a woman, Lib Dem Voice has a good mix of men and women on its editorial team and most blog meetups that I’ve attended have been equally well balanced.

Why is this? I suspect it is a combination of the fact that a certain critical mass was reached and the fact that we talked about it. Much derided at the time, the Campaign for Gender Balance’s decision to launch its own awards in Spring 2008 helped create that dialogue. A great many women seemed to feel patronised by the awards and several men howled with outrage; as a result I (as one of the instigators) didn’t particularly push for a 2009 event. But I do think that the awards – or more precisely the debate that surrounded the awards – helped create a shift in attitudes.

There are plenty of female political bloggers out there – they just aren’t labelled as political. This is a point that Jenny Rigg makes repeatedly, and she’s absolutely right. Partly this is because of how women perceive themselves, but a lot of it is down to the different way they seem to get labelled, as opposed to men. My blog, for example, has always been a mix of politics, film, comics, television and general toss; yet I’ve always been regarded as a political blogger. As Jenny discovered, by contrast she tends to be regarded as an “other” by default and even feminism is assumed to not be political (as opposed to something to do with women’s bits).

Some of what Rowenna says is arrant nonsense. Sorry, but the idea that only Harriet Harman and other female politicians gets personally abused on the internet is simply not the case. Google “Nick Clegg” or “Menzies Campbell” if you don’t believe me. And “Cif is a good exception to the rule” of political blogs being male dominated? I don’t even follow the comments threads on my own articles on Cif because they are so full of bile and the first three comments in response to her article have been censored presumably because of their sexist content – if that is what Rowenna considers to be a feminist utopia she needs a wakeup call. It is hard to shake the impression that Rowenna is little more than a tourist when it comes to this subject and hasn’t really explored the blogosphere outside of LabourList at all.

Girlguides fail their policymaking badge

I hope Jane Merrick doesn’t feel that by quoting two of her articles in half an hour I am actually stalking her. But the Independent reports a new paper published by Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the BYC today about how our political system is failing young women:

More than a quarter of girls are put off by a lack of information about how they should take part, while 17 per cent believe it cannot make a difference.

Nearly half of young women say they would like to be more involved in volunteering, but when this comes to local or national politics, the figure drops to 28 per cent. Domestic violence, gangs and knife crime, bullying and equality at work emerged as the most important issues for young women.

The report calls for a new Youth Green Paper, including a demand for one person under 25 to be on every parliamentary shortlist, and the ability to vote by text message or through social networking sites such as Facebook.

I hope the Guides won’t be sewing their policymaking badges on their sleeves just yet (incredibly, the badge shown above is the real deal, and the global umbrella for guides is called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts or WAGGGS). Are they really serious about youth quotas for candidate selections? Is this based on any experience of candidate selection processes whatsoever?

Gender quotas for candidate selections have done little to increase women candidates, as I believe the Fawcett Society themselves argue from time to time. Imposing a quota does not magically increase either the quantity or quality of the women wanting to stand as parliamentary candidates; all it tends to do is eat up time and energy spent on bureaucracy.

What we need is not a quota, but supply. Again, since the Lib Dems recognised that in the case of gender we have started making (slow, due to the fact that the relevant schemes remain under-funded) progress. If you want to increase the supply of young people in political parties, you will have to focus on developing their youth wings – all of which are various degrees of basketcase at the moment. The Guides could help actually, for example by working with the youth wings in a cross party way to promote active citizenship and encourage young women to explore their political interests. But that would mean not treating the youth wings of political parties as the pariahs of youth politics, as they currently are. A bold move; do the Guides have the guts to support it?

As for voting by text message or Facebook; words fail. This might make good faddy copy, but the implications for stolen elections are unbelievable, as even a cursory glance of the relevant literature shows. Elections held online are essentially unauditable and open to being hacked. Once again, if they are going to make bold pronouncements about how elections should be run, why didn’t they seek a partnership with a relevant youth organisation with an interest in such things, such as X-Change? If they had, they might actually have raised a far more important policy issue: that under our current electoral system all these gimmicks will fail to achieve much while it is clear that the system is rigged from the start.

Today at the Lib Dem Conference, Howard Dean made a startling claim: more under 35s voted in the US elections last November than over 65s. In fact it sounds so startling that I want to go away and factcheck it, but either way the level of youth participation has shot up in the US and it has been achieved not by having token youth candidates or letting them vote by mobile phone, but by offering them real politics and a chance to make a difference. The Girlguides should be paying more attention to that than trotting out the same old tired tropes.

Caveman politics from Fawcett

Has the Fawcett Society gone quite mad? Yesterday, they published the report Are women bearing the burden of the recession? Now, I’m quite open to the argument that the answer to that question might be yes. Fawcett goes further however, claiming that “this is, literally, a man-made recession.” The report itself qualifies this slightly:

It is important that the argument about why this is a problem is made without descending into simplistic caricatures of women and men’s behaviour (i.e. that men are testosterone-fuelled risk takers while women are risk averse and compassionate). We would argue that the problem lies, rather, in the fact that these institutions have drawn their senior gures from one narrow demographic. This means, rstly, that they are by denition missing out on the talents of 52% of the population. This clearly compromises their search for the best talent. Secondly, engaging only men – and frequently only white Oxbridge educated men – at the very top carries a high risk of creating ‘group think’ within the institution. Where decision makers are drawn from the same background they are likely to have a similar world view, the same sources of intelligence and are less likely to challenge one another. Thirdly, women and men continue to have different life experiences and their needs and interests are often different as a consequence. Better governance comes when a rich variety of life experience is reected among decision makers. Not surprising then that studies have identied that the most creative and innovative institutions arise where there is a gender balance in the senior teams (McKinsey 2007; Catalyst 2007).

The most obvious problem with that argument, apart from the fact that it is clear that the simplistic caricature is exactly what Fawcett sought to invoke as part of their press strategy (after all, since this is probably the least important aspect of the report, why make it the headline issue?), is the last thing the financial organisations that have brought us economic ruin could be accused of is a lack of creativity. It was creativity, finding ever new ways to lend the same money and to speculate on the speculation of the speculation of shares, that got us into this bloody mess.

I’m relatively open minded about the idea of gender quotas on boards. It has worked in Norway. The one thing that has made me wary about it though is the realisation that far from expanding the diversity of the boardroom, the new places have been taken up by a narrow group of businesswoman holding several directorships at a time. Reading this article last year, I was struck by how divorced the interviewees seemed to view their roles from the actual business of doing business. If it happened in the UK, I see no evidence at all to suggest that such a law would replace those accursed “white Oxbridge educated men” with anything but “white Oxbridge educated women.” For Fawcett, that may be progress, but not for me.

But before I get denounced as an unreconstructed misogynist, let me give the last word to Catherine Bennett:

To see the reality of male-female sex difference, in all its wonderful complexity, we need look no further than the British cabinet. Women have a nurturing and cautious influence? Didn’t every woman in the cabinet vote to invade Iraq? An innate aversion to risk and short-term greed? Must we return to Jowell’s bribe-funded mortgage, of which she still claims she was ignorant, or Smith’s second home scam? Are women more co-operative, more calm and less hierarchical than men? With Blears jabbing at Harman, while the latter plots against Brown for the leadership?

Just as the banks rewarded horrible behaviour in a particular subset of men, the higher echelons of politics appear to encourage the antics of a particular sort of second-rate, power-obsessed, preachy yet surprisingly unprincipled woman.

It is quite natural to find such women repellent. But would any of them be better if they were John Prescott?

F***in’ Ada!

(with apologies for the title – in my defence I was chanelling the spirit of Ian Dury at the time)

I enthusiastically signed up to Suw Charman-Anderson‘s Ada Lovelace Day pledge and now I have a dilemma: who do I blog about?

I’m wracking my brains to think of someone and am struggling. This in turn presents me with a second dilemma: do I suffer in silence or admit to my failure and ask for help?

I’ve opted to go for the latter. Can anyone help me?

Lembit Opik: real men hate women

I wasn’t going to blog about Lembit’s new column (fnarr! fnarr! snork!) – I figure I’ve fulfilled my quota of Lembit bashing for the year. But then he went and said something stupid:

“This is part of my own stated objective to reach beyond the normal political limits to people who may not be particularly interested in Parliament, but will find it interesting if the info is presented in a non-pompous or technical way.

“That’s my goal, and I hope anyone who values the benefit of a politically informed society will agree with this approach.

“It’s politics for real people, and, thanks to the Sport, I’m glad to have the opportunity.”

How does one define “real”? If by “real” you mean people who aren’t obsessed by politics, fair enough, but that doesn’t make Daily Sport readers “real” by definition. The Sport has 80,000 readers. That’s less than half the readers of the worst selling UK “quality” (I would demur from this description) daily, The Independent. If he was claiming to be reaching out to people that mainstream politics usually ignores, that is true as far as it goes. But suggesting they are ordinary and typical of the man in the street is not merely factually wrong, it is demeaning to the typical man in the street.

Whichever way you dress it up though, the Daily Sport is misogyny. We can argue about whether porn can be empowering or not until the cows come home, but there is no fuzzy grey area where the Sport, Nuts and Zoo are concerned. The days when it used to get away with presenting itself as a UK version of the National Enquirer (double decker found on the moon!) are long gone. I wouldn’t ban it, or even insist it is on the top shelf, but letting it crawl into a corner and die would be a thoroughly good thing for society. Is Lembit going to challenge that misogyny or just go along with it? We shall see.

One of the things I find remarkable about all this is how even criticising the Sport and other soft porn titles as sexist has somehow become socially unacceptable. The debate on Lib Dem Voice skirted around the issue (I have to admit to failing to get my outrage on there), merely focusing on whether Lembit’s decision to do this would do the party more harm than good. The argument – from Julian H, Iain Coleman and others – went that, so long as it didn’t actually harm the party electorally, and potentially reached out to new voters, it was unimpeachable.

I can’t help but suspect this phenomena is all too closely related to Emily Benn’s avowed post-feminism. Lembit, lest we forget, is Liberal Vision’s “most liberal MP” – liberalism, we are to believe, is now to be graded according to which Early Day Motions you have signed. If British liberalism really has become so timid and self-conscious that it feels it cannot even criticise (as distinct from ban) the illiberal, then it is lost.

Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

One anniversay, two very different ways of covering it. The Today programme opted to mark the 90th anniversary of the first woman elected to the Commons by interviewing the son of a hereditary peer and his granddaughter. Both of them poured cold water over the idea of all women shortlists altough, this being Tony Benn, he then instantly contradicted himself by calling for a system of doubling up constituencies to ensure they were all 50% male and 50% female.

Emily Benn, I’m afraid, rather drew my ire by describing herself as “post the 1970s, 1980s feminist agenda.” So, that would make you anti-equal pay, anti-choice, pro-casual sexism in the workplace and pro-domestic violence, then? If not, what was the 1970s, 1980s feminist “agenda” you consider so irrelevant? What do they teach in that school of her’s these days?

As someone who spent a lot of time in youth politics in the 90s, I found Emily’s “I am not a feminist” stance wearily familiar. In fact, she reminded me a lot of the 19 year old Jo Swinson. The older Jo Swinson however is much wiser, and on politics.co.uk has this to say:

“It’s not harder for women. It’s just harder for carers.”

“The division of family duties in society is still very unequal. This is what we find all the time. Women get involved in politics in their twenties and then in their thirties they say ‘I’ll take time out’. But men don’t take that time out.”

This is an absolutely crucial point, and one which so often gets missed or glossed over – sadly all too often by organisations like Fawcett. So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.

Emily Benn may have very little chance of getting elected as the next MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, but if she chooses to stick with it, she is all but a shoo-in for the general election after next, largely thanks to the family name and the other advantages being a member of a family which has provided her with a stable family life and a good education. I hope that, as she grows older, she will gain an insight into that advantage instead of using the platform that advantage affords her to belittle the cause for women’s rights.

As I’ve written before, the BBC does not have a “liberal” bias per se, it has a middle class bias. Their coverage of this anniversary is an excellent case in point.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.

And the award for most patronising bollocks aimed those plucky ladies goes to…

Women in Public Life Awards '09Well done to Scottish Widows and Dods for coming up with what is possibly the most ridiculously patronising design for a website aimed at women in public life I’ve ever come across (and as one of the organisers of the Campaign for Gender Balance Awards last year I speak from experience). It isn’t just the sheer pinkness of it all, it’s the flower design and the sheer flowiness of it all. As one of my colleagues suggested, it looks like a tampon advert or possibly some kind of pregnancy test.

Do designers really have to use such cliche when designing websites aimed at women? Personally speaking, if I do anything political aimed (directly or indirectly) at women, I eschew pink for purple and green as it has rather more resonance, but I accept that even that is cliched. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a website aimed at women by women that looks like this. Even Politics And The City, at the rather extreme end of the spectrum, goes for “fabulousness” rather than “Timotei.”

Fundamentally, doesn’t it all come across as rather weak? Is that the message they want to convey about women in public life? Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t call it Women In Management and Public Life (WIMPL) and be done with it.

Will Dunn win the by-election after all?

What is one to make of Politics and the City, founded by Gavin Whenman’s secret girlfriend June Sarpong? I’m tempted to dismiss it as vacuous fluff, but it isn’t aimed at me and it has kept going. Is this a quietly succesful tool for engaging women in politics? Will academics be praising it in the year 2050?

Glancing at it today, I notice they have launched a new “comedy” series about a ditzy female reporter called Sally Dunn (not relation to Jody we can presume) who “accidentally” becomes an MP after the incumbant has a heart attack and dies when she “accidentally” gives him a handjob. With hilarious consequences, no doubt.

Is this what passes for comedy these days? I can’t help but feel I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. Is it really empowering to suggest that women who get into politics are vacuous airheads obsessed with shoes and fat arses?

Watch it and weep or, if you live in Bizarro Sarpong World, laugh like a drain and be inspired.