Category Archives: The gender divide

Pretty as a picture?

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Alexander Carter-Silk, the senior partner at a law firm who was taken to task by a strident feminist when he mistook the business networking site LinkedIn for a dating website. It’s an easy mistake to make. In response to a connection request from human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman, he messaged back, ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!’ The hapless Carter-Silk – whose over-zealous use of exclamation marks surely reveals his benign intent – was promptly outed by Proudman on Twitter for his sexist behaviour. Can’t a lady take a compliment?

Carter-Silk gave his online audience an insight into the subtle workings of his legally-trained mind when he sought to clarify his intentions: ‘Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.’ Let’s gloss over Carter-Silk’s sloppy comma splice and incorrect use of a subordinate clause, not to mention his gutless refusal to accept responsibility for the offence he caused. Could he just explain why he acknowledged that it might be viewed as ‘horrendously politically incorrect’ to make what was, after all, an innocent observation about the professional quality of Proudman’s photograph?

As Proudman rightly pointed out in her response to Carter-Silk, comments like his are a means of exercising power over women and detracting from their professional achievements. Objectifying a woman for her appearance is just one example; I could cite many instances of blatant sexism from my own working life. Once, at a job interview, a recruitment consultant enquired as to whether I was married. When I asked why this was relevant, he explained that my husband might be annoyed if I had to work late. On another occasion, a senior civil servant suggested that a post in the Department for Education would be ‘a nice job for a lady lawyer’, the implication being that HM Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were strictly for the chaps.

There are a thousand other ways in which women are judged, stereotyped, undermined and silenced at work. Those who say they have never experienced workplace sexism might consider how often male colleagues have talked over them or ignored their presence at a strategy meeting or a client drinks party. When women are sidelined in this way, a small internal voice whispers that it’s because they have nothing interesting to contribute: must try harder. By contrast, the standard male response would be simply to turn up the volume.

The subtle, pervasive nature of the attitudes revealed by such incidents is the reason why idiots like Carter-Silk need to be called out. I’d like to think that he has now been reprimanded by his firm and that his fellow partners will seek to distance themselves from his comment. Knowing how the law works, though, I fear this incident will simply bolster his client following and furnish him with an amusing dinner-party anecdote (cue much male guffawing at the humourless feminist who dared to speak out). In the meantime, he might want to take some advice from a PR consultant on how to frame an apology, as well as a refresher course in the basic rules of grammar.


There was an old lady…

Earlier this month, I finally caught up with Luca Guadagnino’s highly stylised film I Am Love on DVD. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the elegant, ethereal matriarch of a privileged Milanese family, so it was unfortunate that I spent much of the film pondering the implausibility of her alabaster forehead and flawless complexion. Although entirely appropriate to the role, her striking looks were a distraction, mainly because she appeared to be twenty years younger than she is.

If youthful good looks seem incongruous in a middle-aged woman, consider the alternative. Those of us not blessed with Swinton’s natural, ageless beauty seem to disappear as we grow older. Like many women, I’m far more assertive and outgoing in my forties than I was as a solipsistic twenty-year-old. I also feel I have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to impart, especially after a few glasses of red wine. So why does there appear to be an inverse relationship between my increased confidence and my ability to get served in pubs? Why do strangers fail to grasp that a muttered, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you,’ only adds insult to injury when (as happens with increasing frequency) they elbow me aside at the checkout or veer into me on the pavement?

Some women of a certain age try to shrug off this cloak of invisibility by making an effort with their appearance. But all those visits to the gym, beautician and cosmetic surgeon seem like an enormous waste of energy when time is running out and there are many more important and interesting things to be getting on with. And it’s always a delicate balancing act: the ageing woman who strives to be noticed risks ridicule for trying too hard. As a man, the fifty-something artist Grayson Perry looks attractively rumpled; as a woman, with his frou-frou frocks and stencilled eyebrows, he resembles a pantomime dame.

The sidelining of older women is particularly obnoxious in professions where maturity might have been thought to be an asset. Where are all the female Jeremy Paxmans and Jon Snows? I recently came across an illustrated magazine article in which a number of eminent fifty-plus television presenters – among them, Joan Bakewell and Miriam O’Reilly – debated whether the BBC was guilty of discriminating against its older female staff. Depressingly, their photographs were styled like a fashion shoot, their heavily made-up faces and dyed hair serving only to perpetuate the ageist, sexist culture that they denounced.

Are we to understand that grey hair and gravitas are acceptable only for men? Do women bear some degree of responsibility for reinforcing this attitude, or is it excusable if they doctor their appearance in whatever way seems necessary to preserve their livelihoods and social standing? I have no answers and can’t help but bring my own prejudices and skewed perceptions to the debate. One thing, however, seems increasingly clear: while my male friends mature into elder statesmen or silver foxes, my own ageing process is likely to involve a steady loss of status, recognition and perceived attractiveness. This is no country for old women.

Parent wars

There’s nothing quite like the arrival of children for bringing out the latent inequalities between men and women. Before my sons were born, I worked full-time in an office and felt equal in every way to my partner (to avoid the slightly self-conscious clunkiness of that term, let’s call him Bob). I’d like to say that we shared household tasks fifty-fifty but, even if that’s not quite the case, at least I felt entitled to object if he failed to take on his fair share of household drudgery. We frequently went out together for dinner or to the cinema. I also made my own, separate social arrangements, often at short notice, and felt no obligation to consult him before doing so.

Fast forward a decade, throw in a couple of kids, and things look a bit different. I now work part-time in a job that fits in around school hours. I am responsible for supervising the boys’ homework, booking their numerous after-school activities and arranging their social lives. On the rare occasions when I can’t collect them from school, it’s up to me to arrange childcare. I do the shopping, cooking, washing and tidying; sort the recycling and put the bins out; organise plumbers and builders; buy birthday and Christmas presents; and pay the household bills out of our joint bank account. And when I want to go out with my friends, I effectively have to ask permission, because it’s assumed that I’ll be at home in the evenings unless otherwise stated.

Bob, meanwhile, has taken on the role of provider, working in a stressful, intellectually challenging job that frequently demands long hours. His work fulfils a useful social function and lots of people depend on it, so I can understand that it sometimes has to take priority over our family life. In fact, Bob focuses almost exclusively on his job during the week, knowing that I’m here to deal with the children. If paperwork has to be done at the weekend at short notice, he knows I’ll be there to take the boys off his hands. And whatever time he comes home, there will always be dinner on the table.

Most couples I know fall into this traditional set-up, or something quite like it, once children arrive. It’s an arrangement that often breeds resentment. The women feel undervalued and complain about their husbands’ ineptitude when it comes to doing the housework and organising the kids. One friend, frustrated by her husband’s failure to wipe the table after their toddler had eaten breakfast, scrawled ‘Weetabix + time = concrete’ on the kitchen whiteboard. Another tells of the occasion when her husband, on lone childcare duty one evening, forgot to give their small daughter her dinner and sent her to bed on an empty stomach.

These conversations with women create a sense of solidarity and allow me to give vent to my own domestic issues. On the rare occasions when he rolls up his sleeves in the kitchen, Bob specialises in partial washing-up, inexplicably leaving a small selection of crusty plates and greasy saucepans for someone else to sort out later. It almost goes without saying that he never wipes the kitchen surfaces. When I’m in one of my more curmudgeonly moods, it occurs to me that if he did his job in such a half-arsed way, he wouldn’t last five minutes.

Now that the family’s social calendar has become my responsibility, one of my particular frustrations is that it’s almost impossible to pin Bob down in order to fix dates. I have been known to chase him through the house clutching my diary, pointing out that, although it may suit him to make arrangements on the hoof, life doesn’t work like that when you have a young family. And I can’t help but notice that he’s very good at carving out leisure time for himself – the Saturday morning bike rides that are apparently essential for his physical and mental well-being, and the mind-expanding evening classes that take place while I’m hanging wet washing and packing schoolbags.

Bob and his friends, no doubt, would say that they feel under scrutiny by their wives when they attempt any household tasks; that nothing is ever good enough, so it’s no wonder that they eventually stop trying. They might point out that their partners seem to find plenty of downtime themselves, sipping lattes with their friends while the children are at school, and slipping away to pilates classes in their Boden sweatpants. I normally find it remarkably easy to ignore such accusations, but in a recent exchange of words with Bob, when I was berating him about his domestic failings, something he said brought me up sharp. He said that he envied my life and asked, ‘Would you seriously want to do what I do?’

And I have to admit that, no, I wouldn’t. The stress, the long hours and sleepless nights, and the pressure to earn enough money to support a family I’d see for only an hour or two at breakfast and bedtime? No, thanks. I’ve sometimes sensed a slightly disapproving attitude towards the mothers at my sons’ school who work full-time and send their children to after-school club. But those women aren’t doctors and lawyers, who largely work by choice and can afford nannies. Many of them are public sector workers – teachers, midwives and social workers – struggling to fund a decent family life on a relatively low dual income. Some are single parents. And most of them look knackered.

The fact that I don’t have to do that – that I can keep my work within reasonable limits, be here for my children most of the time, and take an active interest in their daily lives – is an enormous privilege. In fact, I’d say that, between Bob and me, I’m the one who has the better end of the bargain. There, Bob – I’ve finally said it. Let’s just hope you don’t read this blog post.

What stinks more than pink?

My sons’ Sunday morning swimming lesson is a time I look forward to. It’s a guilt-free half-hour in which to read a book, catch up on emails or stare vacantly into space as I sit at the poolside, drowsy in the chlorinated heat (and, let’s be honest, often slightly hungover). But recently, my reverie was interrupted by another spectator stomping self-importantly into view with ‘Pink Stinks’ emblazoned across her T-shirt, and plonking herself down on my bench. She was surrounded – as she must surely have anticipated would be the case – by small girls in shocking pink swimsuits.

Maybe it shouldn’t have annoyed me as much as it did. Any sentient being who occasionally opens a newspaper can’t have failed to notice the backlash against the so-called ‘pinkification’ of our daughters’ childhood. I’m no fan of fuchsia and I broadly agree with the arguments put forward by the anti-pink campaigners, who object to the crude stereotyping represented by gendered merchandise. It’s increasingly hard to find any item marketed at girls that doesn’t come in a shade of salmon – or anything marketed at boys that does.

Indeed, I’ve long suspected that the cult of prettiness – bolstered by the baffling range of pink clothing and accessories available in the shops – encourages a form of female self-absorption that ultimately limits girls’ range of interests and risks shutting down their opportunities. By contrast, many of the boys I know seem less self-regarding and more outward-looking in their passions – which in this household include football, Minecraft and the endless regurgitation of facts about the world. (Yes, that was a crass generalisation, and of course I’m biased – I have sons.)

Nevertheless, it scarcely needs stating that the problem isn’t the colour pink, but something more insidious about the expectations to which girls are subject and which they all too frequently internalise. One small example. The girls’ high school I attended as a teenager ran a joint debating club with the boys’ grammar school over the road. Before each debate, the toilets in our sixth-form block were three-deep with girls preening in front of the mirrors. At the event itself, the boys would deploy their arguments cleverly and confidently, while most of us girls, it shames me to say, remained silent at the back of the room. We were too self-conscious to pay proper attention to the train of argument, let alone speak out – and there wasn’t a pink accessory in sight.

My objection to the mother at the pool wasn’t just her failure to recognise that pink is merely a recent symptom of this chronic malaise. It was that her message, viewed in context, seemed unnecessarily aggressive. Her T-shirt, I’d guess, was worn mainly to show other parents how radical she was. None of the children was in a position to argue back; the six-year-old girl sitting beside me, who’d emerged happily from the changing room moments earlier in a frilly pink costume, seemed perplexed by her father’s mumbled explanation. Isn’t a child entitled to feel confused when one group of adults markets piles of pink junk at her, while another group finger-wags about how she shouldn’t be buying any of it? And is there no room left for a girl who – er – just happens to like pink?

So, what stinks more than the colour pink? How about this: making a small girl feel uncomfortable about her appearance by wearing a provocative slogan at a children’s swimming lesson. If the woman at the pool calls herself a feminist, she really ought to change her top.

Dressed to impress – or frozen out?

The runaway success of Frozen, the Oscar-winning Disney cartoon, is hard to deny. On dressing-up day, the school playground teems with wannabe Elsas and Annas, primping and preening as they parrot their favourite songs from the movie soundtrack. Meanwhile, The Observer reports that spin-off merchandise is flying off the shelves, leaving parents desperately trawling shops and websites for overpriced dresses and dolls.

I saw the film with my children several months ago and found much to admire. Early on, there’s a cheesy solo by Anna about finding ‘the one’, provoking much eye-rolling from cynics like me who think they know what’s about to unfold. Then comes the clever subversion: the prince turns out to be a villain and the women are saved, not by a knight in shining armour, but by self-empowerment and their sisterly love.

But let’s not get too excited here. This is Disney, after all, and the film wouldn’t be the highest-grossing animation of all time without the presence of at least some familiar fairytale elements. So, inevitably, the two lead characters are bug-eyed beauties with impossibly cinched waists and hourglass figures, and there’s a handsome suitor waiting in the wings in the shape of the muscle-bound Kristoff. The message is clear: a woman can triumph in the face of adversity but she still has to look attractive to men.

Others have written much more knowledgeably than I could about the unrealistic physical proportions of Elsa and Anna and the message that sends out to the film’s young female audience. But what also struck me about Frozen was the sheer impracticality of the sisters’ clothing. Seriously – you’d pirouette across a frozen landscape in princess pumps and a full-length cape? Sashay up the steps of your ice palace in killer heels and a diaphanous off-the-shoulder number with a skirt split to the thigh? Personally, I’d have donned my Merrell snow boots and several snug layers, topped by one of those shiny padded jackets that make any woman over a size eight look like the Michelin Man’s obese brother.

But is Elsa and Anna’s preference for the stylish over the practical so very different from the attitude of real-life women? Let’s not even talk about our party outfits: what we wear to work is far more telling. Over two decades ago, I attended my first job interview in a fitted jacket, a tiny pencil skirt and pantomime heels. I could barely walk from the tube station and had to sit through the interview with my legs awkwardly crossed so as not to reveal my nether regions. It was a toss-up between embarrassment and relief when the dress code turned out to be jeans.

This heels-and-tight-skirt combo – which, frankly, looks a bit dated these days – is still favoured by many high-powered women: think Theresa May or Rachida Dati. But how easy is it to stride briskly along a corridor with a pair of four-inch spikes attached to your feet? Or to chair a meeting when the mere act of sitting causes your skirt to ride up around your armpits? Give it a moment’s thought and it’s hard to imagine a less professional get-up.

Let’s be clear: high heels and tight skirts are designed to exaggerate the shape and length of our legs, and thus to enhance our sexual attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, women should have the right to wear what they want, when they want. It just seems an odd choice in the workplace, to the extent that you have to question whether there’s some external pressure at play here. We’re increasingly expected to shimmy up corporate ladders and smash through glass ceilings, yet many of us still feel we have to truss ourselves up like a fairytale princess ascending an ice-sculpted staircase. Are we doing it for ourselves, or in order to conform to a male fantasy that should have no place in the professional sphere? To quote from another Disney classic, ‘go figure’.

Coming clean

I have a cleaner. As soon as I write that, I feel compelled to make my excuses. I know I’m lucky to have her. I treat her well and pay her more than I need to. She tells me she gains satisfaction from a job well done and, having seen her in action, I believe her.

I never contemplated paying someone to clean the house until I returned to work after maternity leave. I took her on partly because I was exhausted, and partly to save my relationship from corrosive bickering about whose turn it was to vacuum the stairs. Her hard work allows me time to do my job, be with my family and volunteer for a local charity.

So why do I feel the need to justify myself? If a single man working long hours were to hire a cleaner, most people would regard it as a pragmatic decision. They might even applaud him for caring about the state of his house. If I engaged a handyman to put up shelves, nobody would express a view. But a woman who employs a cleaner attracts criticism.

In my case, the snarky comments have come mainly from other women. (When it comes to berating women for their choices, sisters are doing it for themselves.) Some of my friends seem to regard it as a badge of honour that they occasionally wield a mop. One woman, who doesn’t go out to work, earnestly suggested that it was bad for my sons to grow up thinking that someone else would clean up their mess.

Well, yes – but it’s not as if the cleaner’s fortnightly visits absolve my children from wiping up their spillages or tidying their room. You might re-frame it this way: isn’t it good for them to see that cleaning is real work with an economic value, just as valid as their father’s office job, rather than something their mother fits in at the end of the day when she’s tired?

But cleaning is women’s work. That’s why a depressing number of men refuse to do it. That’s why it generally attracts low pay. That’s why the cleaner’s wages come from my salary, not my male partner’s. And that’s why I’m regarded as contracting out my duties and abdicating my household responsibilities. Absurd.