Wednesday, 27 July 2011

what's the point of hiring women?

THIS morning's fuss over news that the prime minister's chief strategist suggested scrapping maternity leave isn't, luckily, quite what it seems. Steve Hilton is famous for having nine faintly mad ideas for every good one, and most of the time his madder ones don't see the light of day: it's just that this time someone has apparently decided to embarrass him.
But it's his underlying argument - that parental rights hurt women, by discouraging employers from hiring them - that is more widely shared on the right and ultimately more dangerous. What really needs tackling is the mistaken idea that it's perfectly rational for employers to refuse to hire anyone biologically capable of having a baby (and that therefore women need to be stripped of all those pesky off-putting rights), since it is in fact completely self-defeating to blacklist half the talent pool under 45.
So here, just for anyone who hasn't quite grasped that argument, is a random selection of female talent that would have been lost to the world had the fact that they were of childbearing age put their early employers off.

1. Margaret Thatcher: she was 24 and didn't yet have children when she fought her first general election (for a safe Labour seat). She went on to have twins three years later: Thatcher was a few days short of her 34th birthday, and the twins were six, when she finally got elected in Finchley.
2. Marie Curie, the double Nobel Prize winning scientist, who was 26 when she first started work in an industrial laboratory. Four years later, she had the first of her two daughters (who incidentally grew up to become a Nobel Prize-winning scientist too).
3. Sally Gunnell, who was 26 when she was sent out to Barcelona as part of the Olympic squad. She won her first Olympic gold and went on to become world number one, before retiring from competitive sport and going on to have three children.
4. Samantha Cameron, who was 25 when hired as creative director by Smythson and went on to have four children while with the firm. Doesn't seem to have worked out that badly for Smythson, which was sold for £18 million in 2009.
5. Rachel Whetstone, 38 when hired by Google as head of communications and public policy: two years later it emerged she was expecting her first child with her partner, ahem, Steve Hilton. Google seems to have got by somehow. And she's now a vice president.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Why some men hate women

WHEN I started this post, I thought I wanted to write about why neofascists so often hate women. It's impossible, after all, to read the deranged manifesto left by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik without being chilled by its vitriol not just against Muslims but against women - or at least, the sort of women he considers to have fatally weakened men with their addiction to political correctness, Sex and the City, and turning men into 'a never-criticising soulmate to the new age feminist woman goddess.'
And so it's difficult not to nod along with those commentators arguing that his rage against women must have had something to do with the otherwise senseless massacre on Utoya, that his fear of being 'femninised' perhaps led him to express a warped idea of uber-masculinity through violence. And it's easy to draw an older parallel between the far right and misogyny, from Hitler claiming that the emancipation of women was dreamt up by the Jews to modern BNP candidates' distasteful views on rape, domestic violence and 'feminazis'. The far right prospers in times of high unemployment, so the idea of forcing women back to the kitchen sink - and therefore reducing competition for jobs - is undoubtedly comforting to some men anxious about their economic futures. Hitler, after all, campaigned for election on a promise to get nearly a million working women back into the home.
But then I began to wonder if I'm simply seeing what I choose to see here. Human brains like to pluck order from chaos, to see a tidy pattern where there isn't really one, which is perhaps why so much of what I've read so far on Norway's tragedy seems to involve the author conveniently seeing their own pet ideas reflected in this massacre.
So for the former teacher Katherine Barbalsingh, it's somehow about the killer's parents divorcing 31 years ago (nevermind the countless Norwegian children who experienced their parents' separation without becoming mass murderers). For the over-40s, it's about that newfangled internet, enabling one crazed loner to find others who share his warped ideas. For the left, it's about inflammatory language by rightwingers legitimising hatred of immigrants: for the right, it's about liberals failing to crack down on terrorism. But it would be more honest, if duller, to admit that nothing yet explains precisely what brought death to Utoya: and that the answer - if there is one - will more likely come through long, painstaking psychiatric interviews of the killer than from wild journalistic speculation.
The main reason, however, I'm uncomfortable with misogyny as a catch-all explanation for Breivik's actions is that there is nothing particularly extraordinary in his views on women. He says nothing I didn't see regularly in my postbag as a journalist, nothing you won't see in the comments on pretty much any high-traffic blogpost by pretty much any woman mentioning the word 'feminist', and no doubt most are written by men who will never resort to mass violence.
It's a shock for women to realise that even a small minority of men do genuinely hate women, fear women, blame women for the economic and social blows they've suffered. It's not pleasant either to think that the current combination of a recession, plus a longer-term shift away from men as main breadwinners (and therefore domestic powerbrokers), may only deepen that hatred. That may turn out to have nothing to do with what happened on Utoya. But I doubt it's without long-term consequences, all the same.

Monday, 18 July 2011

cometh the hour, cometh the woman

LAST week, I chaired a meeting at the House of Commons on the perennial topic of why there aren't enough women in politics. We were running through all the usual stuff - lousy working hours, sexist colleagues - when a woman in the audience asked a genuinely interesting question. Why, she said, were there women leaders in developing countries like Liberia, but vanishingly few in supposedly mature liberal democracies like ours?
I've been thinking about the answer the Labour MP Gisela Stuart gave her - basically that women often get their chance only when men have made a spectacular mess of it, as in wartorn Liberia - for days, because I think it goes much wider than politics.
Think of the two senior policewomen, Sue Akers and Cressida Dick, who have respectively taken over the phone hacking inquiry and the job of Met deputy commissioner following the weekend's mad flurry of resignations (it's rumoured the departing head of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, may also now be replaced by a woman). Think of Christine Lagarde, becoming head of the International Monetary Fund after her predecessor was accused (he says falsely) of raping a hotel maid. Like Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected after years of civil war and violent repression, these women are powerful symbols of a break with an old, tarnished male order. But why do they get called on only when it's time to clean up?
Perhaps it's partly explained by the so-called 'glass cliff' theory, which suggest women often get to run big companies only when the share price is crashing, male rivals steer clear, and boards become desperate enough to take the 'risk' of hiring a woman (imagine! ladies in charge!)
Or perhaps it's a variation on the classic Westminster reshuffle trick: stick a woman in a government job no woman has previously held, and hopefully the headlines will be more about shattering glass ceilings than why someone else got quietly fired. No doubt it also sends a useful signal, in industries that have clearly sailed too close to the wind, to hire a woman since women are seen as more cautious and conscientious than men (although as the arrest of News International executive Rebekah Brooks may or may not go on to prove, women have no monopoly on sainthood).
But I suspect the real reason women sometimes profit from a crisis is that they however high they climb, women often don't quite break into the inner circle: the lone senior woman in a clubbable, all-boys-together office is often not quite 'one of us'. That holds her back in good times. But when being 'one of us' suddenly means being tainted by association, nothing looks more desirable than an outsider: however briefly, everyone sees the point of having someone who thinks differently from the rest, who questions the way things have always been done, who isn't so much 'one of the lads' that they overlook the casual bending of the rules.
We saw it after the City crash of 2008, when there was much discussion of whether macho bank traders had developed 'groupthink' which blinded them to the risks involved in subprime mortgages, and we're seeing it now in the unravelling of the Met. But when the immediate crisis blows over, will anyone remember that it doesn't always pay to be one of the guys?

Friday, 8 July 2011

in defence of the yummy mummy

LIKE most people who occasionally sneer at them, I'm still not really sure what a 'yummy mummy' is, apart from universally scorned. I vaguely think of them as women with blonde highlights (tick); sunglasses on top of their heads (um, tick); who don't work full time (oh dear, tick); are glamorously high maintenance (phew: this I'm not) and wear lots of Boden (never). And according to my former boss and now Times deputy editor Roger Alton, they also sit around drinking Fair Trade tea (um, tick) and eating organic shortbread and boycotting the News of the World, thus costing other people jobs.
What many women seem to have heard in Roger Alton's words was the old ugly inference that women in general and mothers in particular shouldn't have opinions or influence beyond the home - although having never been exactly short of opinions myself, and having worked happily for Roger for many years at the Observer, I don't buy that.
But leaving aside the tabloid ethics, since I've already said what I think about that, the bile heaped on yummy mummies intrigues me. It's partly about money, of course: yummy mummies usually accessorise with enviably rich husbands. But when the term is applied so sweepingly - here as shorthand for Mumsnet users, many of whom are far less privileged than the stereotype suggests - then I think the real envy (because nothing generates hatred like envy) is of what they have that so many of us don't: time.
Time to make their own organic shortbread, time to glam up for the school run, but also time to read the papers and get worked up about things: time to go online and wind their friends up about those things and - well, what might happen then? Because the thing about mothers and indeed fathers, yummy or otherwise, is that they do sometimes ask awkward questions.
You don't have to have kids to care about a fair deal for tea growers, or global warming, or about dubious commercial values. Parents have no monopoly on caring about other people: indeed, are sometimes too obsessed with their own little darlings to put other people's concerns in perspective.
But having children can also turn you from someone who merrily shoves all their recycling in the dustbin into someone at least vaguely concerned about the world in which they may grow up. You start signing petitions, worrying about stuff out of your control: threats to other people's children - from drought and famine to abusive parents - can't be so easily dismissed. You complain more, meddle more, are doubtless far more irritating, since the flipside of parental concern is nimbyism and hysteria.
But you also, occasionally and in small ways, do some good. You volunteer for stuff, even if only the school fete: because you now use public services more, you get involved when the library's threatened with closure or the hospital's going downhill. On maternity leave was the first time I became in any sense connected to the community I was ostensibly part of, but had previously left at 8am and returned to only after dark. Parenthood, and the sense of solidarity it brings with everyone else in the same knackered and sick-stained boat, is the first time many of us really understand the power and responsibility we might have as part of something bigger than ourselves. Easy to satirise: harder, I think, to dismiss.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

the true cost of news

UNTIL now, I can't remember a time I haven't felt proud of being a journalist. We can't all be heroes, of course, so for every Watergate, there's a million parish council reports: for every atrocity revealed to the world, a heck of a lot of diet book serialisations. But still, you could usually kid yourself you were part of something that mattered. Less easy now.
And that's about more than one's obvious revulsion over journalists hacking the phones of missing children, or eavesdropping on the grief of terrorist victims. It's about thinking that this kind of thing only happens in a dying industry.
I've worked in national newspapers for 15 years, 13 of them on staff first for the Daily Mail and then the Observer and now freelance for whoever. I've never hacked a phone - I can barely access my own voicemails, frankly - nor been asked or pressured to do something illegal for a story. So I'm one of the lucky ones. I got yelled at sometimes, sniped at sometimes, for missing stories, but I was never told - as some journalists (and doubtless their managers) across Fleet Street regularly are - that I'd be fired if I didn't beat X to a story, or shouldn't bother coming back to the office tomorrow if I didn't land Y scoop. I've never been bullied into choosing between mortgage and conscience. Hopefully I'd have chosen well, but luckily I never had to find out: thanks partly to the people I worked for and partly to writing about politics, where you can still get stories simply by talking to enough people and reading enough boring Hansard. And it's partly thanks to working in parts of journalism whose economic model wasn't totally bust.
Tabloids basically sell via scoops - those jaw-hits-floor, have-to-buy-the-paper-so-I-know-what-everyone's-talking-about stories nobody else has got - and juicy gossip. But scoops are labour-intensive, expensive: they mean letting a reporter spend months digging around before they can produce a single word, always with the risk that they'll find nothing much worth printing. The News of the World has done its share of these stories, in fairness - remember the 'fake sheikh' sting that caught out Sophie, Countess of Wessex? - but filling a paper every week like this takes very deep pockets in an industry suffering steadily falling sales and advertising (thanks to the growth of free news online).
And that's why almost nobody now does really serious long-term investigative journalism, except sometimes the Sunday Times (most recently on alleged corruption in football) and the Guardian (which broke the phone hacking story). The posh papers rely on features'n'fluff instead to drive sales - star columnists, lush magazine supplements, acre upon acre about what celebrities are wearing - which costs far less than months of undercover investigation and sells more reliably. And we now know that the less posh papers (for I would be amazed if it was only the News of the World: everyone's under the same commercial pressures) kept chasing jaw-dropping scoops but used cheap and dirty shortcuts to get them: hacking phones, paying police officers, rifling bins, who knows what else.
The features'n'fluff tactic is, of course, nothing like the moral equivalent of hacking: it's dumb but it's legal, and relatively harmless (although the relentless emphasis on celebrities' weight and looks has arguably had consequences for teenage girls especially). But they're both sides of the same financial coin.
So now what? If the outcome of this week's horrors is that newspapers are regulated out of using dirty tricks, then newspaper proprietors either have to pump money into proper scoop gathering again, or invent completely new ways of driving sales. And that's really why News International is fighting this so hard: it's not just protecting individuals like Rebekah Brooks, but a whole business model.
My guess is the longterm legacy could now be a quicker death for print newspapers (or at least tabloid ones): most News of the World readers won't stop buying it because of what it's done, but may well stop buying it if the juicy stories dry up, because the paper's no longer allowed to do what it used to do to get them.
What we're really seeing here is just how much it costs to produce ethical, but still interesting, newspapers. Just as we've had to learn that a £3 Tshirt may well be made by a seven-year-old in a sweatshop, or a dirt-cheap chicken probably had an utterly miserable life, we now know whose grief is exploited and whose privacy trampled to bring us cheap news. What's not clear is whether we're still willing to pay for old-fashioned, slow, labour-intensive journalism without the collateral damage.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

on househusbands

IF you want to get ahead, maybe get a househusband. Or so, apparently, says the woman behind a new initiative to get more women into the boardroom.
The City fund manager Helena Morrissey, whose own husband Richard decided to stay home after their fourth child was born, reportedly told the Sunday Times yesterday that 'the idea that a woman can have a family and friends and hold down a difficult, high octane job when both partners work full-time — that is a very tall order. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a bit unrealistic.' Something has to give and, it seems, that something is increasingly husbands: men staying at home was, Morrissey added, 'one of the things that definitely helps unlock that pipeline of women' into the top ranks of business (she founded the 30 Per Cent Club, dedicated to getting more women on boards, which holds its first meeting today).
Admittedly the Morrisseys aren't quite your average family: they have nine children and she manages funds worth almost £50 billion, putting her pretty much at the extreme edge of working motherhood. But still, it's hard to argue with her logic: there are some jobs that can't be done unless you have someone at home doing all the domestic backup. You can't work an 80 hour week and be willing to jump on a flight to New York at an hour's notice unless you have either a fleet of nannies working around the clock, or a spouse at home taking care of absolutely everything. Once upon a time that would have been a wife, but as more and more women start doing these kinds of punishing long hours jobs in the senior reaches of business, law and politics, you can see why househusbands are proliferating: as far back as 2001, the American magazine Fortune found 30 per cent of the women at its Most Powerful Women in Business summit had househusbands. And for some couples it undoubtedly works, so long as they're both doing what plays to their natural strengths.
But there's something about this argument that troubles me nonetheless. To say that men will only get to the top if their wives stay at home sounds snortingly reactionary: we assume nowadays that women are perfectly entitled to careers of their own, thanks very much. So why is it fine to suggest that women can only get to the top by pushing their husbands back into the kitchen?
The real question is surely whether it's fair for a job to consume quite so much of anyone's time that they need a second adult devoting their lives to making that job possible - perhaps at the expense of their own ambitions. Should families have to reorganise themselves around the kind of schedule Morrissey describes, rising at 5am and putting in 60 hours a week? Or would it be healthier to reorganise the crazy hours instead? I can't help wondering whether the rise of the executive househusband is actually letting some employers off the hook.