‘It means that you believe in equality’

Lucy Kellaway is pretty smart. She went to Oxford, makes programmes for Radio 4 and is an associate editor at the Financial Times. I am a fan: like the flake in a 99 Whip, I save her columns for last, looking forward to her straightforward, witty style as I trawl through the less sprightly items of the day.

It is therefore a little astonishing to read that it has taken 54-year-old Kellaway her entire life (minus a week) to realise that she’s a feminist. In her latest column she relates that until an advertisement for shampoo prompted the revelation last week, she ‘had thought that women who did professional jobs were a privileged group who should stop complaining’.

Granted, Kellaway gets marks for self-awareness and her nod to what the academics term awkwardly ‘intersectionality’ – the notion that gender cannot be considered in isolation from other aspects of our makeup such as class, race and sexual orientation. But she falls into a trap that snares so many professional women (including myself): that of either misunderstanding or simply forgetting that the basic principle of feminism is equality.

kate nash picYes, professional women are often privileged. Educated, employed, given choices. Yet quite frequently our male colleagues are more so. Think the UK’s 9.6 per cent pay gap in favour of men, laws which make women responsible for childcare and Kellaway’s own observation that cultural expectations of their sex mean that many women waste more time on their appearances than do their male equivalents. Kellaway need only have looked round the FT office for clues. Among the paper’s 20 heavyweight columnists, for example, there is a single woman, Gillian Tett. The men and women of the privileged professional class are not equal.

Like Kellaway, it took me years to acknowledge my feminism. I too saw the opportunities I had and was grateful. Calling myself a feminist seemed not only unnecessary, but an act of self-sabotage. I heard ‘feminist’ and thought ‘troublemaker’. It wasn’t a word bosses and colleagues wanted to hear. It wasn’t a word men wanted to hear. And why did I care? Because these people held the power, and behaviour which disrupted or threatened that probably wasn’t a good idea.

My gratitude for the chances which I have remains. Yet by stopping to understand that the essence of feminism is equality, it seems blindingly obvious that professionals can and should be feminists. Life might be pretty good for the professional woman – but that doesn’t mean it’s as fair as it could be, for women or men.

In moments of doubt I remind myself of a conversation between mother and daughter, overheard on a train, and relayed via Twitter (so long ago that the precise source escapes me, alas). It presents feminism’s drive for equality – and suggests that you don’t have to wait until adulthood to recognise it. It goes like this:

Daughter: ‘I’m not a feminist.’

Mother: ‘Do you want to own stuff and choose who you sleep with?’

Daughter: ‘Yes.’

Mother: ‘Then you’re a feminist.’*

*11.2.14 I’m pleased to report that my Twitter feed has just coughed up the source: @MirandaKeeling, to whom thanks and apologies for a slight misremembering. Keeling’s original reads thus:

‘Teenager on train: I’m not a feminist. Mum: Do you want to own things and decide who you sleep with? Teen: Yeah. Mum: You’re a feminist.’


‘City’, meet ‘Fringe’

On Monday, Jules Birch wrote a post questioning George Osborne’s choice of venue in which to claim the economy is ‘turning a corner‘. Was, Birch wondered, a luxury development on the edge of the Square Mile, arguably dependent by degrees on debt-fuelled government schemes, wealthy overseas buyers and ‘life support’ interest rates really symbolic of the ‘tentative recovery’ the Chancellor declared it to be?

Illustrating the point that the development, One Commercial Street, is more likely a sign of overseas appetite for prime London property than a resurgent UK economy, was this image from the scheme’s marketing campaign:

commercial st pic


The glossy, contrived picture – for all Osborne’s talk of ‘an aspirational society’ so distant from the lived experiences of most Britons, let alone those at the sharp end of coalition policies –  is a succinct visual representation of fears that Britain is returning towards a precariously balanced economy in which wealth inequality is given free rein. Yet the work done by this image does not stop there.

Equally striking are the gendered messages it transmits. On the left we have the immaculately groomed and clad young, implicitly able-bodied, white male. He stands afront a skyscrapered backdrop, gazing with quiet assurance at the opportunities which everything about his appearance tell us are his for the taking. This man, the slogan states, is ‘City’. (No pressure gents).

His opposite number is ‘Fringe’. Fringe, the dark shadows of her image suggest, comes out to play at night – presumably when City, pictured in broad daylight, can take a break from all that fiendishly complex finance-type work. We don’t know what Fringe gets up to during the day, but what is clear is that once darkness falls she doesn’t seem to need to wear clothes. Some strategically placed jewellery, some slap and an elegant hair-do are all the adornment she needs. Those and an alluring pose.

It is easy to dismiss iconography that portrays gender stereotypes as unimportant,  so removed is it from most of our realities (as Birch infers). Yet public awareness and opinion cannot remain untouched by the proliferation of such images, whether or not we are in the market for whatever they are selling. This example is particularly pernicious given the powerful combination of juxtaposed imagery and the taxonomy of its slogan. The latter provides a blunt reinforcement of unbalanced gender relations, identifying the man with ‘City’ – denoting wealth, power and status – and the woman with ‘Fringe’, suggesting ‘peripheral, decorative and marginal’.

Such powerful effects are among the reasons to query another blog post which appeared this week: Ed West’s defence of ‘Princess Pink’ toys for girls. West pits ‘ideology’ (as espoused by those who challenge gender stereotyping) against ‘business plans’ (‘capitalism has no ideology’, apparently) to argue that there’s a market for gender specific toys because most little girls like feminine things. ‘You can’t buck human nature,’ reads West’s provocative conclusion.

There are various problems with his argument, not least the failure to consider gender a social construction rather than a ‘natural’ given. Our ideas about gender and human nature come from somewhere; they are regenerated and reinforced by images like the one above – particularly when drawn to our attention and sanctioned as a positive economic symbol by a senior government figure. Likewise, West’s ‘business plans’ are not created in a vacuum. After all, the people designing, financing, marketing, selling and buying the toys are not immune to the countless ‘City meet Fringe’ messages that surround our daily lives and have their roots in centuries of ingrained thinking and socialisation as ‘men’ and ‘women’.

Just as Birch is critical of the Chancellor’s choice of the place ‘Where City meets Fringe’, so too we must move beyond a blind acceptance of the surface messages which constantly shape ideas about gender and, ultimately, our society.



More chairs, please

Gloomy news for genchair stackder equality campaigners in last Thursday’s FT. The newspaper reports a slowdown in female appointments to FTSE 100 boards, according to new data from the Professional Boards Forum.

Key findings include:

  • just 12 per cent of directors appointed in the two months to 1 May are women, compared with 50 per cent in 2012
  • the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards hasn’t budged from 17.4% since last August
  • a minute 5.6% of the group’s executive directors are women

It’s worth adding that all (four) women appointed to FTSE 100 boards in the two months to 1 May are white. Not that race, class or disability (and that’s just for starters) seem to enter the ‘diversity’ debate much – at least not when it comes to getting women on FTSE 100 boards.

Sadly, that state of affairs is hardly surprising when you consider the hash the very people pushing for change seem to be making of getting their message across.

Let’s begin with the Professional Boards Forum itself. Besides tracking the number of female board appointments to fill bleak column inches, the forum’s proclaimed mission is to ‘help chairmen find outstanding women non-executive directors’.

That’s right. Their raison d’etre is to help ‘chairMEN’.

Now I used to be one of those ‘chairman/shnairman’ type people, who’d shrug and say ‘it’s just shorthand, everyone knows it doesn’t mean it has to be a man’. But then I realised that, really, using a gender neutral term like ‘chair’ was probably preferable given that it didn’t invisibilise around half the human race.

Perhaps the PBF should have a think about that. What’s not to like about ditching an outmoded and sexist term which undermines their whole argument?

The media might also want to have rethink. The FT’s style is to refer to ‘chairmen’ and ‘chairwomen’, according to the sex of the office holder. A quick search reveals the BBC, The Telegraph, The Economist, The New Statesman, The Independent, The Guardian, The Express and The Mirror do likewise.

Clearly this is better than the forum’s approach, recognising as it does that both men and women can – and do – head boards. Yet it’s still problematic, not least because the rule is applied inconsistently, with women chairs frequently referred to as men. In a recent diary piece I wrote for The Telegraph, for example, Lady Barbara Judge appeared as ‘chairman of the Pensions Protection Fund’, despite being ‘chair’ in my original copy. Does anyone know of a male chair who is routinely referred to as ‘chairwoman’?

And even if the ‘chairman/woman’ rule is always followed, what about the people who identify as neither male, or female? Reinforcing gender binaries is not the way to go for those seeking genuine diversity – however remote that goal may seem at times.

Language matters. The words we choose have the power to include or exclude, to encourage or dissuade, to foster change or to promote more of the same.  By adopting the gender-neutral ‘chair’, groups like the PFB and the media have the opportunity to set a new, inclusive tone which sends the message that seats at the boardroom table are not just reserved for men.