So it’s finally general election day (again!) and in the build up you’d think that local canvassers would be hungry to win over voters on the doorstep wouldn’t you?
Sadly not if you are Asian. This week, I experienced yet again the “Mistaken for the Cleaner” scenario. Here’s what happened:
Door bell rings.
I answer it.
The canvasser looks at me and gives me a flyer (for the party that I support) and asks me to give it to the resident voter.
I am taken aback, because I would like to have a chat about the candidate that I am going to vote for, but the canvasser has already turned his back and is already exiting the gate.
I finally find my tongue.
“I live here. I’m a voter too you know? Aren’t you going to talk to me?”
Cue awkward back-tracking by canvasser on the hot foot.
*sigh* “Did you think I was the cleaner?”
“No, no, of course not, we get doors answered by all sorts of people, you know friends and so on.”
I’m not really buying this. REALLY? Someone opens the front door and the first thing you think is: this person is a ‘friend’ of the resident…??!!
“Do you want to know about our policies.”
“Don’t worry. I’m good.”
This is not a unique scenario. Not too long ago I laughed out loud along with the rest of the world when the images of Professor Kelly’s report on South Korea was unexpectedly hijacked by his kids. Yet the initial hilarity and empathy with Professor Kelly’s clip soon became soured by the comments that flowed beneath the video. If there ever was a hero of the piece, it was his Korean wife that sped in to save the day and heroically crawled back in on all fours to close the door to allow peace to descend. I immediately warmed to her as her casual wear and practical pony tail looked just like my own. My own response to such an eventuality with my own children would have been instinctively identical.
Why then was she presumed by many to be the Nanny/ Maid, and worse still, why were her actions defined as being “submissive” and “fearful”? What would the “proper”/ “non-submissive” response from a wife and mother have been? To walk in and wave at the camera? To leave her husband to battle it out with the children on-screen?
Whatever people may say to try to justify their gut reactions, I am without a doubt that the “nanny-assumption”, just as the canvasser’s “cleaner assumption” was based on our ethnicity. How can I be so sure? Because it happens to me (and I’m sure other Asian/ Latino women) all the time. Here are a few of my highlights:
• When I first started dating my husband (a 6 foot 2 white South African), many people expressed surprise, questioning “You are a strange couple. What do you have in common?” I soon realised this was a bit of code for “He’s tall, white and handsome and should be going out with a leggy blonde not a short bespectacled Chinese woman”. This line of thought was later confirmed by a sozzled old bufty we had the misfortune to sit next to at a wedding once who stated the quandry more precisely due to inebriated state: “How did you two ever get together? He has round eyes and you have slitty eyes.”
• My husband had invited some of his new, white, male colleagues over for dinner. At 5 minutes to specified guest arrival time, I’m still in my tracksuit pants doing the last minute hoover and cushion plumping because in London with the ineffectiveness of the transport links and the relaxed attitude to time-keeping, I’m figuring I’ve still got 20 minutes to get changed and slap on some lippy. But what-ho? There’s the door-bell! The damn husband had failed to mention that his new colleagues had meticulous talent for punctuality. Never mind, I do my hostess duties diligently: offering to take coats and taking orders for drinks. The guests are genial and I show them into the dining room, where I start to serve the food that my husband has prepared. Here I figure that since they have caught me in my casual garb that it would be affected to disappear upstairs and re-emerge tarted up, so I don’t bother with that pretence. It is only when I plonk myself down at the table amongst the gathering that I notice the strange looks from my fellow diners. There is a definite note of initial surprise that “the brazen cleaner/ house-help is joining us for dinner”, followed by a tinge of embarrassment when they finally clock that I am the wife.
• When I was on maternity leave and started being in my house in the day time, I couldn’t help but notice that each morning a troupe of Asian ladies would come up the road, disappear into various houses and then leave in the evenings. I could see them through windows dusting and polishing in various houses. I realised that I looked more like them than my actual neighbours. It was no surprise then that when unexpected callers came to the door (the gas man, electricity man, charity door-stoppers, election campaigners, the police) they would ask to speak to the owner of the property when they were faced with me. After a few times of indignant proclamations of “I am the owner of this property”; I realised that it was much more fun and expedient to actually pretend to be the Cleaner and this works fantastically well to get rid of a lot of people that I don’t have the time for. I don’t even need to speak. I just put on a puzzled look, shake my head and shrug my shoulders like I can’t understand English.
• One time on maternity leave I went to the Royal Academy of Art with my baby and a friend with her twin babies. I had access to the Friends’ room so we ventured in there to have a snack, but the tables were all full, so we were kindly invited to join a table that was already occupied by a sweet elderly couple. This was a blessing as we had 3 babies between us. As my daughter was asleep, I helped out my friend with one of her twins by rocking her in my arms, and my friend chatted amiably to the elderly couple. When along comes a posh old dame who comes over babbling with delight about how wonderful it is to see families enjoying a day out at the RA. She talked at length about her own daughter who “also had triplets”. At this point I clocked things from her perspective. Here was a family of white grandparents, white daughter and triplets. That left me, the Nanny.
• Add to this the countless times I have had to have my passport doubly scrutinised at airports (apparently because there are Chinese gangs providing all manner of people with fake British passports) or if I am with my children, all our passports doubly scrutinised (because of Chinese gangs child trafficking). Strangely enough, if I travel with my husband, or if he travels alone with the children, this never happens. The addition of a “jolly fine white chap” somehow legitimises the rest of us.
Like for Jung-a Kim, Professor Kelly’s lovely wife, none of the above particularly bothers me. The reason being that for most non-white females, we have acclimatised and adapted to these day to day occurrences. I believe that these days we are to refer to them as “micro-aggressions”, but in my day, they were just things we ignored/ laughed at or put up with. Annoying, petty stereotyping is not the preserve of non-white females. Although I have witnessed a myriad of advantages that my husband gets purely by being a “tall, white, male”: aeroplane upgrades, hotel upgrades, many, many people-that-ignored-me smiling and offering to help him, people hanging on to his every word (when he is actually spouting my rhetoric which would have been ignored if it were coming out of my mouth); I have also witnessed my tall, white-male husband frequently mistaken for a Bullingdon club posh toff/ arrogant Apartheid supporting South African/ Countryside Alliance fox-hunter/ Trust Fund elite just because of the way he looks – which I imagine can also be tiresome.
“What are you doing going out with him?” my Socialist Worker reading friend asked.
But scratch beneath the colour of our skins and you will see that we:
• Are both the youngest of 3 children
• Are both from close knit families
• Are both immigrants to the U.K.
• Are both originally from pariah nations (South Africa due to Apartheid; Taiwan due to Chinese diplomacy)
• Both have direct experience of the effects of racism and inequality
• Both have an interest in opening our minds and hearts to new people, new places and new experiences
• Are both happy with who we are
So where it matters, we are immensely similar.
And so, in conclusion I think that we should all do a bit more of looking beyond stereotypes. I have no problem with being mistaken for a Nanny/ Maid/ Cleaner, because consider the alternative: I absolutely hated travelling with my husband to Thailand/ Indonesia and other developing Asian countries in my youth, because if we ever got in a cab, went for a nice meal or checked into a fancy hotel; I was clearly always “The Hooker”.
I love Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign to get girls into sport with glossy ads showing ordinary girls and women of all shapes, sizes and colours enjoying sport. Set to high octane music it oozes adrenaline, power, energy and confidence. It’s about sport, but also ultimately about self-esteem. Its underlying message is that women should be confident about themselves and their bodies, which is a great message which is why the campaign has been so acclaimed. There have been a number of other positive Ad Campaigns empowering women to achieve, study maths and science, aim high, aspire and be ambitious. GREAT! Despite all that women have achieved in the last 100 years, I can attest that women still underestimate their ability in the workplace and this media encouragement is totally welcome.
However, it doesn’t work on its own.
How do I know this? Because I, and all girls that were fed through an ambitious, high expectation girls’ school in the nineties already heard this message and were already ambitious and aiming high. We flew the flag, but like the generations before us were cut down to size when we reached the higher echelons of our organisations, or the minute we fell pregnant. Many of us even felt bitter towards the encouragement that we received as young women because we were fed a dream that society could not yet deliver.
The bottom-line is that there is only so much women can change and society’s current solution of “encouraging women to change” (codified in encouraging women to become “more” confident/ ambitious/ this-that-and-the-other) in order to fit into pre-existing male oriented organisations and structures has not worked. Not only has it not worked, but it continues to perpetuate the myth that the reason that inequality has not yet been achieved is because women have not put in enough effort into changing “they do not put themselves forward”, “they shy away from leadership positions”, “they choose to opt out”. The implication is still “Women are not good enough”.
This perspective turns a blind eye to the fact that it is also institutions and their cultures that need changing. Women are being put off by bullying and macho cultures exemplified but not limited to the goings-on in British politics (men are driven to suicide by it, so why would women want to engage?).
And, if society wishes there to be a next generation, SOMEONE needs to look after the children. For many of us, we believe this strongly and fundamentally should be parents. If we continue to one-sidedly empower girls and women to take on rewarding and powerful careers, what is society’s solution to “parenting” and “family-life”?
What is the solution?
It may not seem attractive at first (but isn’t it the job of slick Madmen to make it so?), but I believe that for every “This Girl Can” ad that goes out; there should also be a “This Boy Can” ad. Footage of boys crying, talking about their emotions, helping another child, reading, drawing, dancing, dressing up as a Princess. Footage of men sticking on plasters, listening to the ideas of their female colleagues, talking to their daughters, nursing their elderly parents, helping children with their homework, picking up children from school, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, cooking the family dinner. These latter activities are the really important things that keep Britain going. The Engine of Britain is not just the boardroom, but the living room, dining room and kitchens across the country. Without the domestic engines, no one could get to work. As long as these activities, pivotal to family life, are undervalued and represented as “female” or lower order tasks, there can be no escape for women from the home and no “respect” for women overall.
Many boys and men already do these things and they need to know that their efforts are appreciated and the ones that are not doing these things need to be empowered and enabled to do so, else any women’s empowerment program will be futile. As long as we continue to view ambition, aspiration, hard-work, determination and ruthlessness as the only virtues worth rewarding and publicising, we are devaluing and undermining the equally valuable virtues of compassion, loyalty, understanding and sensitivity. As such we marginalise the fantastic people who possess these traits and create future generations with warped and unbalanced ideals. Much as I applaud campaigns to improve body confidence, body image problems in women will continue to be problematic as long as there are men who objectify women. While empowering girls is good, we must also focus on educating boys, and I feel that this part is lacking.
Whilst many may feel that traits are gender specific (typically masculine: ambition, determination etc.; and feminine: compassion, empathy etc.). I don’t believe this to be the case but that from a young age children are taught to emphasize these traits within themselves and suppress other traits to conform to gender expectations. While great Ad Campaigns like “This Girl Can” try to address this imbalance for girls, what we desperately need in concert is a “This Boy Can” campaign to empower boys to truly be themselves.
I really hope that someone steps up to the mantel and does it.
Whoa! Where did September go?
Apologies for going quiet for a month but things have been hectic, what with school start, new job and September being conference season for child psychiatrists. The last month has been about patch working childcare and prioritising, which sadly meant no time to blog. I’m hoping that it will calm down a bit now that October is here. Phew!
Unfortunately the new and hard won London NHS Consultant job has meant that I can no longer drop off the children at school on the 3 days a week that I work. I am not quite sure who worked out the logistics that school should start at 8:50 am, and work should start at 9am, because who in London can get to work in 10 minutes….? And which childminder would want to come for just an hour of work in the morning to take children to school?
Then there was the afterschool care. I am lucky that my mother has always taken the children 2 days a week after school. I say, “lucky” – but of course, luck has little to do with it. I purposefully moved home to the other side of London from my job expressly for this purpose so I have to endure a 75 minute commute each way. I just had one afternoon to fill, so a Nanny or Au Pair was not needed, and I had fought hard to get a part-time job to stave off this need for full-time childcare. After meeting a few young ladies over the summer that might have potentially been able to take the kids after school a day a week, I settled on one and sat on my laurels thinking the problem was solved. One week before school start and I text to confirm arrangements, only she has disappeared off the face of the earth. I suddenly felt immensely sick that just as I was about to return to “a career” where I had left off, I was struck down again by the nagging problem “who will look after my kids?”
I thought about starting a breakfast club at the school with a rota of parents or paying a parent of another child in Big Sis or Lil Bro’s class to take them. I looked into which other parents might be interested. And as each cock-a-mamy plan fell through, the same sinking feeling. It was then that I had my revelation. The solution was so simple that looking back I cannot believe that I didn’t think of it immediately.
Before I tell you the solution, I want to share with you an old brain teaser:
A teenage boy who grew up having never met his father has a terrible road traffic accident. He is rushed to hospital and straight into emergency theatre, the surgeons gather around ready to operate, but just then the lead surgeon looks at the boy’s face and gasps saying “I can’t operate, this is my son”. What has happened?
Before you make some sort of long winded reply about how the surgeon recognised the boy to be his son because they looked so similar, I will tell you that the answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yes, a FEMALE lead surgeon.
And so, you can see how many of us can be blinded by gender stereotypes. Hopefully, you might fathom that my solution to my childcare problems was to make Banker involved. Yes – men can do childcare! He was made to drop the children at school, at least one of the days I was at work, and also told to make arrangements for the children to go to after school club once a week. Why should I be the only one suffering an ulcer over this?
Just as I was taken aback by my realisation that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, he too was surprised to be asked! I am amazed that he had sat through my endless rantings of “maybe we could pay so-and-so to take the children”, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his, and he could offer a solution. There ensued of course the typical grumblings… “important job”… “impossible” … “money” … “promotion”… “blah” … “blah” …”blah”.
However, I was lucky enough to know that one of his colleagues was able to wrangle a late start to drop his children off at school a few days a week. You see this colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children following a divorce such that he could have the privilege of taking them to school half of the week. So I pointed out to my darling banker that I was offering him exactly this privilege without the expense of divorce and custody battle. Bargain!
Humour aside though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility, why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. I for one would like some time off from the thinking and planning as well as the doing. And how come good divorced fathers are so great at arranging time off “important” work to be with their kids?
Contentious, but I will put it out there just for contention: Maybe if they had always done so they mightn’t be divorced?
I’VE BEEN MENTIONED IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES!
In Simon Kuper’s article in the Financial Times October 24th 2014 “Confessions of a white Oxbridge male” he mentions me in his concluding paragraph:
“We [white Oxbridge males] have expanded our caste a little. We now recruit some non-whites (preferably Oxbridge men). We’ve even begun admitting Oxbridge women. We just sideline them professionally the moment they make the mistake of giving birth.”
OK, not quite a name-check, but I’m one of the women he is talking about. Since he has given his career confessional (which he says included an easy ride into Oxbridge and journalism); I thought I’d give a view from the other side. No one may be interested, as who wants to hear a BME (black/ minority ethnic) females’ voice when they can hear the voice of the white male, but it saves me a lot of money in therapy.
Unlike Simon’s dad, my dad was no Cambridge educated establishment figure. He was born son to a peasant farmer in 1940s Taiwan. Taiwan in the 1940s bears no resemblance to the bustling developed country it is today, and had a predominantly agricultural economy. Life for a subsistence farmer was hard and tied to the will of the weather. Growing up, we were forever regaled with my father’s hard-luck story. If we ever complained about having to go to school, we would get lectured about “You’re so lucky you can go to school. When I was young I had to plead with my mother to go to school, then I had to walk 10 miles round trip to school barefoot wearing my father’s cut off trousers, feet calloused and bleeding.” We would then mercilessly make fun of it in the manner of the Monty Python 4 Yorkshire-men skit by adding “That’s nothing, when I was a lad, I had to crawl naked on my hands and knees through dark underground tunnels to get to school”, etc. etc.
At the heart of it though, and particularly in adulthood, I truly respect the climb he made to give us, his children a better life. He was the 5th of 11 children. None of his preceding siblings had completed primary school education, and they were forced to enter child labour at a nearby factory where they were physically and verbally abused on a daily basis. On finding that he was to suffer the same fate, he cried until a neighbour took pity on him. This neighbour, having heard from her daughter that my father was the brightest child in the class, persuaded my grandmother to allow him to enrol for secondary education, just for a year at least. The pattern continued with ever more cycles of crying and pleading “Just one more year of school”, until my grandmother eventually realised that all this crying and intellectual sentimentality probably made him too soft for factory work. So they let him continue with education and work in the evenings and holidays in repayment for not shouldering the family’s load. In term time, as his school was far away, he sofa-surfed and freeloaded on classmates from richer families to get by until eventually, he made his way up to University to study civil engineering. On graduation he landed a job as a hydraulic engineer in one of Taiwan’s harbours thus having successfully climbed out of manual labour into the professional class through hard-won education.
Having worked 10 years as an engineer and saved hard, he followed his dream: he applied for a PhD in civil engineering at Swansea University in the UK. That’s how my family immigrated to the UK. I was 3 years old at the time. Compared to the life that my father had, my life has been charmed. A family of 5 was frugally but happily fed and watered on a PhD stipend. My sisters and I had no toys but made chess sets from the cardboard of a cereal packet. We avidly read Enid Blyton books and cuddled bears purchased from the second hand stall at the school fete. We begged our friends to share their penny sweets and chocolates with us. We learnt that material things did not matter, we had the most important gift of all: A LOVING FAMILY.
My father whose life experience was of class discrimination in Taiwan and racial discrimination in the UK also passed on another life lesson: you will face discrimination, but if you work twice as hard as the others, you will succeed, don’t let anyone stop you. We took his advice, and for a while, nothing stopped me.
With this work-ethic instilled, school was a breeze; we went to the local state primary schools as my parents couldn’t afford anything else. Without the seemingly now obligatory tuition, my sisters and I all waltzed into the local Grammar school which saw 1000 girls sitting for 90 places. A clean sweep of As (A* was not around at that time) in 10 GCSEs, 1 AS-level and 3 A-levels, saw me arrive at Cambridge University to study medicine. Whad’ya know? My dad was right – unstoppable.
A funny thing happened at Cambridge. As soon as I arrived, the porters and students all commented on my good English. Initially, I took great offence at this: how else did they think I got all those As at A-level to get here? Later I realised that in my college undergraduate intake of 120 that year, I was the only BME girl who was not a foreign student. Everyone just presumed that I was a foreign student and were hence surprised at my grasp of the English language. Russell Group Universities routinely bump up their atrocious record on BME admissions by admitting BME fee-paying foreign students. These same “cash cows” that aid University BME stats are also paraded in all University promotional material. One of my best friends, a mixed race foreign student who was the only black student in my college year, always made it front and centre in the college prospectus.
This memory came back to me as I read Simon Kuper’s article and I began to do some research in this area. For the period covering my time at Cambridge in the mid-90s, statistics show that of Home students (non-foreign students) 50% of admissions came from state schools, 40% were female and 5% were ethnic minority. If you do the maths, this makes me one of the 1% of the Home University students that was a BME, state school female; or to really put this in perspective, I was 1 of 30 in the entire year at the University *. If only I was lesbian, then I would have been one of three!
Thankfully in my day, there were no tuition fees. Even so, although my parents were now earning good incomes, their income was such that I was still eligible for means-tested hardship funds at Cambridge and I took these as well as student loans. Although I did not work in term time (which is forbidden at Cambridge due to the rigour of the courses), I worked every Christmas and summer holiday; initially for minimum wage at a dry cleaners, and then realising that I had more potential than this, at twice minimum wage as a medical secretary. This afforded me the extravagance of May Balls and to travel myself interesting (Eastern Europe, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town).
Despite being accused at times of “only having been accepted at Cambridge because I was a BME female” a cheap jibe from the threatened, I knew that my grades matched those of the privately educated white males, and I graduated with a 2:1, the same as the majority of the white males. I took a University academic prize with me and took up employment at the best clinical and academic centre in Europe for my medical specialty.
Interestingly, having Cambridge on my CV suddenly meant that people assumed I had a privileged upbringing. A senior colleague once told me to accept a colleague’s arrogance by saying “you can’t be too hard on him because he came from a poor background, he had to work through medical school, he didn’t come from a privileged background like us”. I didn’t think it appropriate to buy sympathy and bring up my summers and winters sorting out the shirts of Japanese business men. At a dinner party with a Professor of Economics at a leading University, he bemoaned the number of foreign Chinese PhD students at his University who came from rich families and expected to be “spoon-fed” their degrees. He asked how my family came to the UK, and I said “My Dad came to do a PhD”. He immediately gave me a scornful look that said “Oh – you are the spawn of one of them”. It didn’t seem apt to say – “but he got there through sheer hard work having worked 10 years to support himself to get a place there”. At an appraisal, I was once told that I “had a reputation for being forthright and assertive”. I meant to cry out “Do you think that people wait with baited breath to listen to what a BME female has to say?” but I didn’t. He followed it up with “We British don’t like it.” I presumed he was excluding me from being British due to some sort of apartheid era definition where “Britishness” was coded in skin colour, as my family and I have lived in Britain and held British passports for 30 years. I meant to respond, but I didn’t.
People that didn’t know I had been to Cambridge continued to mistake me for the nanny/ maid/ cleaner. I mean to correct them, but I don’t.
The reason being that this stuff is like water off a duck’s back. Over years, the BME state school woman develops a skin as thick as a rhino. From the braying “Ching Chong China Man”, “Go back to your own country” taunts from the playground to the assumptions in the workplace that the reason you have made it is because you paid your way or were promoted in an affirmative action. It may have knocked me back but it has never stopped me going where I wanted to go.
What did stop me?
Wanting to work part-time**.
Apparently, this is impossible.
Not only in medicine, but my female Oxbridge friends in law, media, finance and other competitive jobs say the same thing. As much as I hate to admit it, a white Oxbridge male is right again, and by the time we’ve had the second child, we’re well and truly side-lined. While I doubt it is beyond the wit of man to operationalise part-time/ flexible working in high income jobs, it is currently beyond the will of man: the white Oxbridge man.
So I set a challenge for my husband, a white Oxbridge male, my friends and former classmates who will inevitably inherit the mantle of white Oxbridge male power: use your power to effect change and equality for the women in your organisation – if not for your wives then for your daughters. For if your daughters become trapped in domesticity in later life; then they need only look in their white Oxbridge fathers’ eyes for culpability.
Statistics from House of Commons report on “Oxbridge “elitism”” by Paul Bolton. http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn00616.pdf
*this rough calculation is based on an approximate number of 3000 home admissions a year and on the distribution of females and state school candidates being similar within the BME admissions as within the University overall which may not necessarily be assumed.
**by part-time I really mean less than 4 days a week, as everyone knows employers are happy to negotiate a 4-day week where you subsume a full-time role for part-time pay.
Yes He Can. (Astronauts use Velcro to strap things down. They are mainly men. Sewage workers deal with excrement. They are mainly men.)
Can a man puree vegetables?
Yes He Can. (I have seen many men do this on Masterchef)
Can a man bottle feed expressed milk/ formula?
Yes He Can. (Vets and farmers bottle feed lambs all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man sterilise bottles?
Yes He Can. (Chemists and pharmaceutical scientists sterilise their equipment all the time. They are mainly men.)
Can a man do the laundry?
Yes He Can. (Commercial launderers (think army, hotels) are mainly men)
Can a man cook the dinner?
Yes He Can. (Most professional chefs are male – particularly the highly paid ones)
Can a man sing nursery rhymes?
Yes He Can. (Justin, Andy and all those other men on CBeebies)
Can a man take a child to the doctors?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man drop-off and pick-up at a nursery?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man wipe a child’s bottom?
Yes He Can. (I hope so at least, as it is easier to wipe some one else’s bottom than your own)
Can a man read the letters that come back from school?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man buy a fancy-dress costume?
Yes He Can. (Many shop buyers and traders are men)
Can a man book a ballet class?
Yes He Can. (Many events organisers are men)
Can a man check a child’s homework?
Yes He Can. (If he has the intellect to be able to do the homework, he is qualified to check it)
Can a man book a dentist appointment?
Yes He Can. (If he can book his own appointments for work/ leisure, he can do this)
Can a man pick up an unwell child from school?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man iron on name labels on to clothes?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man sign a permission slip?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can write his own name)
Can a man test a child’s ability to spell?
Yes He Can. (I presume he can spell)
Can a man make an Easter hat?
Yes He Can. (Mister Maker is a man)
Can a man read with a child?
Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)
Can a man arrange a playdate?
Yes He Can. (If he can arrange his own leisure activities, no reason he cannot arrange someone else’s)
Can a man interview a nanny/ au pair/ babysitter?
Yes He Can. (Many men interview staff for jobs)
Can a man go to parent’s evening?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man watch a school play?
Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)
Can a man give a cuddle?
Yes He Can.
There you have it. Confirmation, with observational evidence from a medically qualified doctor, trained in medicine, genetics, psychiatry and psychology. There is no medical, genetic, psychiatric or psychological reason why men cannot do any of the above.
Where men are not doing these things, there are only 2 reasons:
- Men don’t want to.
- Women don’t want them to (they don’t want to nag or fight with their partner/ they want control over parenting and the household).
Men are a highly skilled and under-utilised resource within the home. Their involvement should be encouraged.
It strikes me that if all men and women worked together to enact equality in their own homes, equality in society would follow.
Gone are the “Mad Men” days of rampant work-place sexism, where a bank of men sat in offices drinking whisky bedding their female secretaries and coming home to “dinner on the table” prepared by their wives. We can be grateful for this, but to those that say that gender equality is already here I would vehemently disagree. Traditional gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and ogling still continue and there is a worrying trend of labelling and blaming women for their own predicament or non-progression. I put to you a collection of modern-day work-place sexism/ gender-issue stories that have happened to my contemporaries. All the events were taken with a sigh and a “That’s life” attitude; no one was sued, nothing major happened. But if in a small circle of friends this is happening day to day, what is happening across the UK, across the world?
My friend in the city worked at a Big Bank as a junior analyst. There were equal numbers of male and female junior analysts in her team, for which she was grateful. She complained to me that the female secretaries and team PAs ignored her and prioritised the demands of her male colleagues. As a female junior doctor, I empathized. Working with male junior doctors that were treated as the next George Clooney by the majority female nursing staff, I felt like “Troll number 2” in an episode of ER. Neither of us formally complained, we didn’t want to be labelled as “hypersensitive” and “not team players”. We got on with it. Maybe its just us, maybe its not a gender issue we thought.
Going back to my friend in banking, post 2008, all the female analysts on her team were asked to leave, except for her. In times of plenty companies are happy to “do their bit” on equality, but when times are scarce, it’s still women who bear the brunt of redundancies. Maybe in a meritocracy women just can’t cut it.
A colleague in academia was given a consistently challenging work load by her boss until she had children. Subsequently to this, although she was given flexibility in working hours, she was not given any challenging work, nor pointed towards challenging opportunities. She wondered if she had done something wrong. Because she wanted to work shorter hours and more flexibly, she was judged to no longer wish to progress in her career. Maybe Nigel Farage is right and women who have children are just “worth less”.
A friend of mine went to a conference with her boss and another male work colleague. On arrival at the hotel, her boss saw someone that he wanted to introduce her male colleague to, and she was asked to look after their bags. A lawyer friend of mine went out for dinner with her team and a client. When her team left, the important client made a pass at her. At a loss over what to do as the client was important, she visited the ladies, escaped through a tiny window and legged it home. Maybe women are just oversensitive, the boss and the client were just being relaxed, new age and friendly. Maybe women just misinterpret being asked to do menial tasks as sexism and “inadvertent invasion of personal space” as an old fashioned grope.
Recently at work, I was criticised for being “forthright and assertive”. Those adjectives are like a red rag to a feminist, as being “forthright and assertive” in common parlance is synonymous to “powerful” and “leadership material” for men, but basically mean “B****” when used to describe a woman. I found this funny as a few years ago I had been criticised for being “hesitant and indecisive”, which is the other female cliché of being “weak”. When (being forthright and assertive), I asked if this was a gender issue, I was told that being forthright and assertive was an asset, but that it should be done with “charisma”. This led me to think about charisma (Noun: the special quality that makes someone attractive or influential). The first role models that sprang to mind as being charismatic were Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and George Clooney. Forced to think of women, I thought of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie. The men were politically influential with traits of confidence and passion, the women socially influential using traits of empathy and sexuality. This was a problem for me. My natural role models of kick-ass women who got things done: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher are not portrayed as charismatic in the media (although I’m sure they are charismatic in person). Other women I admire: Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harmen, Karren Brady come across as intelligent, strong, committed, practical, sensible – rarely “charming”. The only person that I could think of that was charismatic and assertive was Camilla Batmanghelidjh, but I couldn’t see her working in a conventional workplace. Maybe women just have the wrong personalities.
For some men and women this is all an over-reaction, a fuss over nothing. Gender equality has been achieved. Yet, my feeling is that just because some women haven’t experienced it directly, does not mean that it does not exist (some of Jimmy Saville’s colleagues said he was a great colleague and never behaved inappropriately with them, some patients of Harold Shipman reported good medical care). For some women exposure to bias can become a career killer, not least because many women decide to leave their career than put up with this sort of environment. Most women rarely report these issues as if they did, they would be branded as “that woman with the sexual harassment issues”, “the woman that can’t tell the difference between a grope and “being friendly””. Sadly raising any gender bias or discrimination complaint is like signing a death warrant for any future job in that industry, and women become saddled with a “bad reputation”, whilst typically little happens to the perpetrators who may not even realise that they have done anything wrong.
I sometimes, do feel a bit sorry for employers as I think that the territory is new and perhaps they have not had training in “How women rising into middle and senior management would like to be treated”, in some respects, women themselves do not know, and women differ in their opinions on these issues. Take Kirstie Allsop who recently advised her hypothetical daughter to start a family instead of going to University. She was instantly lambasted by other women who advised women on the importance of an education. In a personal example, I complained bitterly when at a return to work post-maternity discussion with my then boss, I was told that “Babies need their mothers” and if I didn’t take a year off for maternity, I would “always regret it”. I felt made to feel like a “bad mother”, for suggesting I come back at 7 months. I was sure that my male colleagues on becoming fathers were not given the same “You need to be with your children” advice, and was worried that I would be left behind in my career. In contrast, a friend complained that she was harassed to return to work as soon as possible.
So, some would argue, it’s all “bad” women’s fault: “Women: make your mind up. You can’t have it both ways.” You can’t want equality on the one hand, then special treatment on the other. I think my response to this is that women don’t want it “both ways”; they want to be treated like an individual human being, and for their employer to be sensitive to their individual needs. For my previous example, I don’t think any woman would complain about an employer that said “Come back when you are ready to come back. That decision is yours and we will support you to come back whenever you decide to. Whatever you decide, it will have no impact on your career progression.” Further, most women would like their employers to be saying this to their male colleagues as well. Now with paternity leave in the UK a possibility, why should employers “expect” it to be the women that should be taking the time off? By employers actively encouraging men as well as women to take parental leave, this will encourage a greater paternal presence in the home and end the discrimination against 30-something women and mothers in the workplace; allowing equality in career progression for both genders.
The days of rampant sexism are over, but gender inequality, gender stereotyping and gender bias are still very much alive and well. For any female junior doctor who has waited at the (still largely female) nurses station behind all the male junior doctors to request assistance, to all the female junior analysts who have to wait in line behind all the male executives to access the (still largely female) support staff, to the women who are still being ogled and groped at by employers and clients, to the women who are being bypassed due to maternity and the middle management women who are given mixed messages on how to behave: more charismatic, less sexual, more assertive, less forthright, more empathic, less emotional – ours is a difficult path to tread. It is no wonder that more and more talented women are shunning the conventional work-place environments to start out on their own (Jo Malone, Hilary Devey, Cath Kidston) so that they can for once just be themselves, create their own work-place cultures and build their own empires on their own terms.
Please share your workplace gender issue stories; I’d love to hear them. And if you can think of any other overtly charismatic but non-sexual female role models, let me know.
Recently Big Sis was cast as Mummy Bear in her class assembly. We were asked to provide at short notice (always at short notice!) a costume. Thankfully, the school were making the masks for the children, so that was not required, and as the school assembly is not such a big deal, it wasn’t so big an ask. I went with Big Sis to her dressing up box to see what we could find. Brown, long sleeve T-shirt, brown tights, pink skirt. Good, good. But these were just normal clothes. How about some dressing up stuff so Mummy Bear can be more of a character?
Here is our conversation:
Me: I know, I know [excited], why doesn’t mummy bear be a doctor and then you can carry this bag and wear this stethoscope around your neck?
Big Sis: But Mummy Bear wears an apron.
Me: She doesn’t have to, she can be a doctor. Or, I know, you can wear this fireman’s costume and Mummy bear can be a fireman.
Big Sis: Mummy bear wears an apron, because she makes the porridge.
Me: Are you sure, maybe Daddy Bear made the porridge. Your daddy makes you porridge and pancakes sometimes.
Big Sis: In the book at school, [insistent] Mummy bear makes the porridge and wears an apron.
Big Sis wore an apron.
This is the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful attempts by me to break the gender stereotypes prevalent in society.
The first was just before Big Sis’s third birthday when the nursery decided to have a whole week (!) of fancy dress. This must have been a sadistic joke on the nursery’s behalf as I saw poor children being trundled into nursery for 5 whole days wearing the same Spiderman pyjamas with working parents looking very displeased. I was also a full time working parent at the time and shared the same displeasure, but vowed that we would at least attempt 5 different costumes, however crappy. She was not yet 3 years old, so at that point in time I was still winning the war on polyester Princess dresses. The first day, she went as a cat. We had a foam-cat mask from some party she had been to, and she wore a black long sleeved T-shirt and black leggings. The second day, I had decided that she could go as a Pirate. She had a jumper with a skull and cross bones on, denim shorts and she could put a handkerchief around her head. I managed to coerce her into this outfit. She was not happy. I promised her chocolates when she got home.
Big Sis: I don’t want to be a pirate. They are boys.
Me: No, there are girl pirates as well, pirates aren’t just for boys.
Big Sis: None of the other girls will be pirates.
Me: Well, it’s nice to be something different.
I had got her to the door by now, although she was dragging her heels and not wanting to cross the threshold into the outside world. Eventually, she slumped down across the doorway in tears.
Big Sis: Why can’t I just be a Princess like everyone else?
This was too much for even a feminist like me to bear. I became tearful. Was I really going to force my daughter to do something against her will and want based on my own ideology? I made her go as a pirate but promised that she could go as a Princess the next day, and that was how the war on pink polyester was lost.
The second, was when Big Sis requested a pink stethoscope for her 4th birthday. I went to Toys R Us to purchase said stethoscope only to find that the only pink stethoscopes that they had were attached to a nurse’s uniform. The doctor’s costume was resplendent with blue stethoscope. Hmmm. I literally stood in front of the costumes for hours deliberating in my mind. Should I buy the doctor’s uniform and encourage breaking stereotypes so that she might aspire to be a doctor like me, rather than a nurse, or is it too much hassle to risk tears on her birthday and screams of “I wanted a pink one!”. There were no tears on her birthday.
The third time was when Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing together. Here is the conversation:
Big Sis: You be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse.
Me: Wait, why can’t Lil Bro be the nurse and you be the doctor?
Big Sis and Lil Bro in unison: Because doctors are boys and Nurses are girls!
Me: [in disbelief that this is happening in my own household] No they are not! I am a doctor and I am a woman.
Big Sis and Lil Bro: [look at me silent for a moment as they ponder this puzzling conundrum]
Big Sis: Yes, but he wants to be the doctor and I want to be the nurse. Anyway the nurse’s uniform has a skirt so it is for a girl.
Damn Toys R US! I knew I shouldn’t have bought the pink stethoscope!
I was glad to hear more recently that Toys R Us and other toy retailers are rethinking their gender stereotyped toys. I haven’t been recently to check out if they now sell doctor’s costumes with pink stethoscopes. For my children it is too late. What I worry about is this:
(1) If role models of working mothers and domesticated fathers are clearly available in the home, gender non-stereotyping is being actively pushed at home, how is it still not getting through that women and men can be whatever they choose? I have noticed that media portrayal of genders, at least on CBeebies (which is my children’s main exposure to media up to now) is pretty fair so the easy target of media, is not at fault this time. (Dr Ranj is male, but Nina (“Scientist”) is female and there is a female doctor and male nurse on “Me Too”). So where is this stereotyping coming from?
(2) If my children, who are the next generation, are still growing up with such defined gender stereotypes, where does this leave feminism? Has so little changed in the 30 years between myself and my daughter? Given that my children have already bought into gender stereotypes, will they be able to be stronger than me and insist that their children are brought up gender-stereotype free? Will we have to wait until our grandchildren’s generation to see if gender stereotyping can be beaten?
In my mind, the problem is so pervasive which is why it is so hard to beat. It goes beyond “pink” and “blue”. Every traditional tale and history lesson is encoded gender stereotype. Every advert from Barbie to Iceland (Why doesn’t bloody Dad go to Iceland and get the frozen goods for once?) is encoded gender stereotype. Every word we choose to use is gender stereotyped (ambitious men/ pushy women). My view is that language is a good place to start, as it is the fabric of our culture and society. To this cause I hope that you will appreciate that on this blog, where I mean “parent”, I use the word “parent”, rather than “mother”, which cannot be said for the majority of parenting scientific papers, news articles, websites and media.
There’s also very little pink.