GALs and Visonaries*

As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve just finished reading Mary Beard’s ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’ (which has now been book-napped by my mother, and I will be taking back for a second read very soon!) It really took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to have such light sharply shone on things about the relationship between women and power, or how women in power are treated, that I’ve either never noticed or had never thought about the implications of.

On Friday I wrote about how powerful women through history were often made more ‘masculine’, or effectively had their femininity removed, in order to make them more acceptable, just like the ancient Greek goddess Anthea. I mentioned there was one other thing that had struck me reading the book.

That was the discussion about women speaking about women’s issues. And how Mary brings into question whether this is done just because women want to, or because this is the ‘safe’ space we are allowed to comfortably occupy, front and centre, in the public sphere. She looks back – obviously – to the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the few examples of women who were allowed to “publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole” and even then only in “extreme examples”. She also points to a few more modern-day examples where the public speeches made by women which we hold up and laud are often women speaking about ‘women’s issues’. The implication being that the well known speeches made by men in contrast are much more diverse.

This was one of the sections that hit me the most:

I also suspect that we are not being quite straight with ourselves about what we want women in parliaments for. A number of studies point to the role of women politicians in promoting legislation in women’s interests (in childcare, for example, equal pay and domestic violence). A report from the Fawcett Society recently suggested a link between the 50/50 balance between women and men in the Welsh Assembly and the number of times ‘women’s issues’ were raised there.

I certainly do not want to complain about childcare and the rest getting a fair airing but I am not sure that such things should be continue to be perceived as ‘women’s issues’; nor am I sure that these are the main reasons we want more women in parliaments. Those reasons are much more basic: it is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care.

I have been talking to some of the amazing women that I work with recently about forming a loose group – otherwise branded a ‘women’s network’ – to talk about issues at work that we care about. We are all passionate about getting more women into bigger roles, mentoring younger talent, and actually just supporting each-other. I also had a wonderful night recently for ‘Galentines’ (single females look it up, its genius) with a some other fabulous early 30-something women where, amongst other things, a lot of our chat turned to on our respective experiences as we became more senior in our often male-dominated respective workplaces.

Reading Mary made me reflect on whether we were focusing on ‘women’s issues’ or whether it was broader than that. And also whether if it were ‘women’s issues’ only would that be bad.

It remembered a much earlier moment in my working career when it seemed like all the debate on flexible working was very geared towards mothers, and if you were being generous, fathers but really only as an afterthought. As a single 20-something it seemed bizarre to me that my colleagues hadn’t clocked that the 9 to 5 didn’t work for many of us, parenthood aside. My cats may not need to be taken to school, but they do occasionally need to go to the vet, and when my boiler breaks down I don’t have a partner who can wait at home. My gender didn’t come into it.

I realised that actually much of what we are passionate about isn’t about what perhaps are traditionally deemed women’s issues per se, or at least not just that alone. My colleagues and I talked a lot about the first time you become a manager and are promoted above your peers, the challenges with managing people who you were once side by side with and how isolating that can be. I am speaking at a roundtable event hosted by the technology recruitment firm Harvey Nash in a few weeks on gender diversity and pay in technology roles, a sector noted for its woeful lack of female representation. In the prep call today, we touched on how people can be supported to career change across into tech, even if they didn’t learn to code (not least that because for many of us that wasn’t really on offer at school!) That equally goes for career progression in many different sectors.

Mary raises the idea of needing to “change the structure”:

It is also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few – mostly men – can own or wield… on those terms, women as a gender – not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have the change the structure. That means thinking about power differently…It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the word, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually.

I actually think that’s getting to the heart of what my colleagues, friends and I have been talking around. We just didn’t have the right words to explain it.

I will end by saying that I completely agree that women speaking up in support of other women is still critically important, and I by no means intend to stop, but Mary did, in her brilliantly sharply observant way, slightly catch me off guard and make me question whether I am unconsciously sticking to women’s issues because that is safe ground. And that maybe it would good to swim.

* GALs – was for Galentines, newly acronym’d ‘Government Affairs Ladies’ (I’m still an honorary member it seems of that society) and Visonaries is the random name that my colleagues and I have set up for our ‘women’s network’ Whatsapp group, poorly named because we 1) didn’t want to have women’s in the name and 2) I can’t actually remember.

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