Are you part of the Sandwich Generation?

23 Jan

A new report yesterday called Future Identities, produced by the Government, predicts that a quarter of families by 2022 will be in the situation of caring both for elderly relatives and young children – a situation caused by having children late in life. I went to see a couple the other day who had one year old twins and a parent with dementia who lived two hundred miles away – the result, the father spent an inordinate amount of time on the M4 in a state of suppressed panic. Does this sound familiar to you? Get in touch at  and tell me your stories. Best Eleanor

To Onesy, or not to Onesy… (probably not..)

6 Nov
This morning I was giggling when I heard Vogue Editor Alexandra shulman and Amy from The ONly Way is Essex discussing the dos and don’ts (for me definitely don’ts) of Onesy wearing on Womam’s Hour. For those of you who missed it on Sunday here is an edited version of my Sunday Times column on this very subject! What do you think?
Popping into John Lewis the other day to buy a few essentials — tights, soap, a couple of birthday presents — I stopped dead in my tracks. For there, resplendent among the Calvin Klein pyjama bottoms, gentlemen’s socks and elegant boxers, was a singularly repellent garment: a dark blue patterned babysuit intended for a fully grown man.
Now I hope that the spectre of the onesie has so far not darkened your days and that you remain in a state of Elysian bliss where all-in-one fluffy suits are strictly the preserve of toddlers — who, after all, have no say in sartorial matters. If so, say goodbye to your innocence. The onesie is everywhere, like a rash across our great nation.
It’s not just John Lewis. Britain’s high streets are awash with adult babysuits; retailers from Primark to Fair Isle, Asos to eBay are drowning in all-in-ones destined to make so-called grown-ups look like overgrown Teletubbies. There is a onesie for every taste: a male camouflage version can be had for £155, the John Lewis version costs £160 and comes in three colours and — crikey — a men’s “rabbit onesie sleepsuit with ears” (could anyone look alluring in that?) can be bought online for £35.
Celebrities are pushing the look, too. Brad Pitt was photographed the other day in a black zip-up version (proof that even one of the sexiest men in the world can’t pull this style off with anything like aplomb) and Harry Styles (Brad for teenyboppers, a member of the boyband One Direction) has been pictured in a grey sweatshirt version.
The onesie phenomenon has been building for a while. Last year, while visiting friends in Hertfordshire, I was ambushed by the 12-year-old son of my hosts watching telly in a blue fleece dinosaur version. Indeed, so besotted by it was he that a row ensued as his mother tried to persuade him to take it off because all that nylon had got decidedly whiffy. Next to him on the sofa his sister and — eek — his mother were similarly attired (one in pink fleece, the elder in Primark pink cotton).
When I protested, my friend assured me they were all the rage. I’m afraid she’s right. An active Mumsnet thread on the subject from last week is full of mothers eulogising their onesies and — worse — crowning them “acceptable Mumsnet attire”. One mother blogs about how her son’s teacher wore a Superman variety to school, while another confesses that her husband has one in the same style. (The mind boggles.) The largest cohort of onesie-wearers, however, are students: they claim it’s the ideal garb for those who spend large chunks of the day lolling around the house, and in freezing digs it has the advantage of keeping you warm during an all-night essay crisis. But is this really what we want? Or is the widespread adoption of onesies a development we should worry about? I would say: hell yes, particularly since they are increasingly emerging from the privacy of people’s homes onto the street. It’s bad enough that millions of us now infantalise ourselves by lolling around in adult babysuits in front of the telly — but onesies off the sofa and in the outside world and teamed with the grisly Ugg boot? It has to stop.
This is not just about aesthetics. I am convinced that the onesie is a symptom of a wider western malaise. At arguably our island’s greatest moment, after victory in the Second World War, even children wore proper clothes. Women wore gloves and girdles; chaps wore hats and proper shirts. With no Lycra leggings, shellsuits, velour tracksuit bottoms or onesies to slob about in, getting dressed meant being trussed and constricted, putting on a respectable outfit ready for serious action in the real world. I’ve come to believe that our desire to live in babygros is a symbol of our soft, infantalised society. I mean, what next? Alcopops sold in baby bottles with rubber teats to suck on? Chocolate mushed into baby gloop so we don’t have to chew? Adult nappies, so we don’t have to get off the sofa and go to the loo?
We hear a lot about the nanny state; perhaps the onesie is the ultimate proof of our cottonwool-wrapped existence. Maybe when the history of 21st-century Britain is written, the rise of the onesie will be listed alongside the loss of our last aircraft carrier and our inability to renew Trident, build more runways or decide on a growth strategy as one of the ultimate symbols of our post-imperial decay. Perhaps we will look back and see that while the cold winds of recession roared around us, rather than manning up and working harder to get back on track, we retreated from reality into a babyish cocoon.
Of course I am being a little facetious, but there is a serious point here. Visiting relatives in Dubai last week, I was struck not only by the ambition of the vision that has transformed a sandpit into the Las Vegas of the Gulf, but also by the incredibly high sartorial standards of all Dubai’s inhabitants. Ladies dress in skyscraper heels, full slap and up-to-the-minute fashion just to eat a sandwich for lunch. The glitzy arcades teem with cash-rich Arabs, Asians and Africans flaunting their wealth and energy. It’s not just Dubai, either. These days, to leave Britain and fly to the east is to realise that wealth, dynamism and modernity increasingly reside there, not at home. I defy anyone to visit Shanghai or Beijing and not be impressed by the vigour, work ethic and sheer transformational power of the Asian tiger. While we faff about trying to decide whether to have one more runway, they build eight. While we stifle growth with endless regulation and committees, they get on with it. We were the future once; we sure as hell aren’t now.
It may sound superficial, but that aspiration and can-do attitude is embodied in the way the citizens of these new worlds dress. I arrived in Beijing earlier this year confident that as a Londoner I could cut the sartorial mustard but immediately felt dowdy and provincial in the face of the super-slick, fashion-obsessed young Chinese. Walking around the Forbidden City, they posed with bling handbags and designer shoes, their pride in their nation reflected in their pride in themselves.
Rather than slobbing out in our onesies, we Brits must realise that if we are to compete with the emerging global superpowers in the coming century, we have to stop being complacent, engage our much-vaunted brains and superior creativity and get grafting. Repeat after me: burn that onesie and build a new Britain.

It’s really NOT the ‘End of Men’

1 Oct

Yesterday in the Sunday Times I wrote a shorter version of this article, which is a response to two new books in America: The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin and The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy. The Observer yesterday serialised the Rosin book… I read it a while ago while I was in America and find it deeply flawed… I’d love to know what you all think…this piece is much longer and more nuanced than what ran in the Sunday Times… love to know what you all think…

Clad in a striking red stripey jacket, the woman tapped away busily on her lap-top. But as the train clattered towards East Croydon, she suddenly stopped typing. “Sorry,” she blurted out:, “I know it’s terribly unEnglish to talk to strangers on a train but you can’t say women have a stronger pull to their children than men; my husband used to be a blacksmith but now looks after our children full-time and they have a massively connected bond. That yearning is not just felt by women.” Her passion was contagious. Soon several others joined the fray, determined to tell me – and each other – their contrasting points of view.

London Mayor Boris Johnson marvelled at the “Olympic Effect” and how it had finally made Brits talk to each other on public transport; well, in this case, it wasn’t Mo Farah’s heart-stopping race to the line that got my fellow passengers going but the knotty issue of the new roles men and women play in a world where traditional notions of gender are being challenged every day. The woman in the red jacket was an academic and her family’s main breadwinner, while her husband stayed at home. A young woman with long red hair said she’d just gone back to work after her first maternity leave and was worried she was seen as less of a player. While another said his wife had just given up work to stay at home full time: “And I’ve never seen her happier.”

This complex mesh of perspectives were offered up because I had been talking on the train back from the Liberal Democrat conference – obviously louder than I’d intended – about two new books which claim that Britain and America are in the grip of a power flip, where men are losing ground and women rule supreme. The tomes, one called The End of Men and the Rise of Women, by an editor on The Atlantic magazine, called Hanna Rosin and the other The Richer Sex, by author Liza Mundy – claim the future is female and it is men, not women, who are losing out and being left behind. The guts of their argument is that with girls out-achieving boys at every level of education, women studying in ever greater numbers than men at university (58.2% of UK students are female) and women increasingly entering the professions in greater numbers than men (60% of newly qualified solicitors are women, 56% of new doctors are female, half of trainee barristers etc) the Age of Aquarius is finally upon us and women, rather than men, will rule the world. We are now entering an era, they say, “where women, not men, will be the top earners in their households”.That economic shift, says Mundy, will lead to a fundamental change in the way men and women “date, mate, marry, plan, cook, clean, entertain, talk, retire, have sex, raise children and feel happy (or fail to do so).”

Rosin argues that while women are “plastic” – and can adapt easily to change, whether that’s taking on traditionally ‘male’ roles by going out to work, or adapting to new sexual mores (women used to have to be chaste and submissive, now on US campuses they are embracing the ‘hookup cuture’ of casual sex as a steady relationship would rob too much of their study time). Men, Rosin says, are “cardboard” – stiff, resistant to new ways of doing things, particularly if that means them taking on more of the roles traditionally played by women (domestic chores, looking after kids etc). The ‘Mancession’ in America (so-called because it is traditionally male sectors such as heavy industry – car making, steel production – and manufacturing that have been worst hit) has led millions of American men to the employment scrap heap. By contrast, women have forged ahead, their superior qualifications landing them jobs in expanding and more traditionally female sectors such as education, health care, nursing and customer services. Of the 30 job categories in the US which are expected to grow 20 of them are predominantly female professions; Rosin’s book ends with an unemployed man embracing the pink future by enrolling to study to become a nurse.

So is any of this applicable to the UK? Well, maybe. The  Resolution Foundation think tank reports a similar hollowing out of male blue collar jobs in the UK, and says that here, too, more households are being kept afloat by a working woman. But is this progress? Hardly. In one of the most striking passages of Rosin’s book, she describes a mother of three kids, who works on a checkout to feed her family and studies at a community college at night to try and improve her prospects. Unsurprisingly, the woman is so exhausted by her many roles – mum, worker, student – that she falls asleep in the lift riding between the ground and fourth floor at her college. Do such matriarchal households exist in the UK? Julia Margo author of two reports into how social and economic change has favoured female skills sets over traditional male ones, Access All areas (published by the think tank Demos) and Freedom’s Orphans (for the IPPR think tank) says they not only exist but are on the rise. “Many traditional mens’ jobs in the UK are also being eviscerated by technology. Knowsley, near Liverpool, has the highest number of matriarchal households of any borough in the UK. There, heavy labour is disappearing, and a more female skill set suits the managerial or customer service jobs which are replacing them. In order to do well in the modern economy, Emotional intelligence and communication skills are more important than brawn. And from the very beginning of school it is clear that girls concentrate, apply themselves and work harder than boys do. By the time they leave education they are far more employable.”

That is a mixed blessing. At British universities now there are 400,000 more women than men. In a hair-raising chapter in Rosin’s book in which she describes the“hook-up” culture at Yale University (in which young women sleep around with multiple sexual partners – or hook-ups – rather than settling down with one boyfriend). She writes:“for an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hook-ups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-devlopment or school work. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic” because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career… many of the young women did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.” Hookup culture, Rosin argues, expands these women’s horizons: “she could study and work and date and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success and then get married.”

This desire for a successful career above everything else is certainly mirrored in the UK. A brand new survey for Marie Claire Magazine (conducted in partnership with Everywoman, a female business network) just surveyed 1000 working women in their twenties and thirties. The findings reveal a new breed of determined driven young women, 75% of whom rank work as the “most important thing in their lives” – ahead of friends, family and relationships. Their heroines are such TV workaholics as Carrie Mathison in Homeland or Sarah Lund in The Killing.

Kathryn Parsons, 31, Co-Founder and Director of tech firm Decoded is part of this toiling sisterhood. “For the next three years I am married to my career. I am putting my life on hold to build the business. I am madly passionate about what I do, I need to be focussed but I love it, my work is my life.” This hardwork is paying off. Young women in their twenties in the UK and America now out-earn their male peers. Research from the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York on young British women, find their levels of ambition are ‘off the scale’.

Yet this extreme work ethic has a surprising cause. The young women entering the work force are in a hurry, because they are aware that time is short. One of the main findings of the Marie Claire survey, according to Trish Halpin, Editor in Chief who commissioned it, is that, “Their ambition is being driven by the pressure they feel to pay off student debts, save enough to buy a home and climb the career ladder before they have a baby.” Gemma Godfrey, a twentysomething former quantum physist and now Head of Investment Strategy at Brooks Macdonald (who also hosts her own TV business show) agrees with that diagnosis. “I believe that the very fact of being a woman, as opposed to acting like or trying to replace a man, has driven some women to overtake their male peers in their twenties. Women have to plan their career goals over a shorter time horizon than men; time pressure is driving them forward. They want to reach a senior position by the time they wish to start a family so they are able to return to a ‘dream job’rather than a slug to the top.”

Yet all this tough-minded ambition –and the dearth of male graduates (there are 400,000 fewer men at university in the UK than women) – makes finding a partner – or certainly one with the same academic qualifications – difficult. Rosin describes a terrifying American dating scene, where super-tough, sexually experienced career women trade pornographic insults with their male peers. At one point, one of her inteviewees says: the only thing a twenty-something girls isn’t allowed to be these days is be vulnerable. The emotional armour required to climb the greasy pole and deal with casual sex is hard to shed when the amazon warriors finally decide the time has come to get hitched. And with a smaller pool of suitably qualified male specimens, competition is intense and the men reluctant to commit. Recent studies have shown increasing numbers of professional women are “marrying down” – choosing men who will support them in their careers; 36% of the Marie Claire survey women “see it as a benefit to have a stay at home husband who would look after the kids”. Rosin describes how high-flying women graduates will soon be in a similar situation to women of colour, who have long been more educated than black males, and who often find the hunt for a suitable mate fruitless. Recent research into Generation X by the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York found that 40% of educated women born between 1965 and 1975 were childless and expected to remain that way, many cited creer ambition as their reasons for not having children saying they wanted “to do one thing well” – rather than being pulled int several directions at once.

Yet the urge to get on, up the ladder, marry and breed certainly chimes with the view of one of my fellow passengers on the train; 30, with long red hair, she had just returned to work from maternity leave. “It took us a while to get pregnant – during the time we were trying, I didn’t mention it to anyone at work, I knew if they were aware I was trying to get pregnant there was no way I would get my promotion. For my husband it just wasn’t an issue, he’s been telling everyone for ages.” She described a culture in which her female peers were scrabbling to get as far as they could up the ladder before they became mothers. This may be a generation of women born and educated to work, but they also know that when the children arrive, most of the care and organisation will fall to them; that they will take the hit. “It’s unfair but with mums getting the bulk of the legal maternity leave and being expected to take the time off when they baby comes, it is still women’s careers that suffer,” the new mum on the train fumed. “No one ever asked my hubby if he’d go back to work after the baby was born. I get asked that all the time.”

Inge Wusrata, who runs Mum and Career, an organisation representing 1000 women who attend her seminars and sign up for advice about how to make their lives work, says, “The women I talk to, even the younger ones, take it as a given that they will bear the burden for the home. I am Dutch, in Holland things are more equal, so I am surprised by how little they challenge that here.” She reports that there are gender flip couples where the man plays the dominant domestic role – perhaps he runs a business from home, works freelance, or runs the household – and the woman works full time, but in her experience that is still very rare – about 5% of the women she sees.

The figures on how many women really are The Richer Sex in a female breadwinner partnership are disputed. Liza Mundy cites research done by Aviva Insurance and Oxford University which found in 25% of couples women are the main breadwinner. Yet the ONS states that only 30% of families have two working parents – so something doesn’t add up. In the Marie Claire survey, 40% of those in a relationship say they earn more than their partner and 90% claim to be more ambitious than their man (though 16% say they lie about how successful they are so as to not put men off, a trend also found in the American books). Certainly the numbers of breadwinner wives are on the rise; though Mundy and Rosin see these families as the norm of the future – that seems like a bit claim for a trend that is still in its infancy.

Increasingly, though, real female high-fliers (like their male counterparts) tend to have a stay-at-home partner– famously Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Asset Management and chair of the Thirty Per Cent Club (which campaigns to get more women onto FTSE boards) has nine children and a bhuddist house husband (he’d need to be). Such uber alpha females are becoming more common at the very top. At a series of women leaders conferences I have spoken at I have made a point of asking the female audiences how many of those present are the main breadwinner – at least half raise their hands. But this is largely because for real high flyers these days, the hours are so long and the work so intense – work/life balance guru Sylvia Hewlett terms them Extreme Jobs – that it is only possible to fulfil such a role with a domestic CEO to keep the home fires burning. In the past, such a role was always played by a wife, these day  it can be husband. “We’re still the transition generation,” says Julia Margo, who works full time while her husband stays at home with their two children. “We’re doing it, but we are pioneers, we didn’t grow up with this kind of model. Lots of couples I know have been forced into this arrangement because the men were bankers or estate agents and have lost their jobs while their wives are still working.” There are some men who have broken the‘cardboard’ stereotype and are plastically morphing into being caring hands-on fathers. Indeed, the stripey jacketed woman on the train felt compelled to speak up in defence of such dads: “My husband has such a strong bond with the children, he had a very complicated childhood himself and was determined to be there for them, all the time.”

Yet success does seem to look different for women. Many female high fliers now trade traditional status – the corner office, legions quivering at their command, salary etc – for time autonomy, being able to be in charge of their own schedules so that they can fit their work around their children. The new buzz word for this is work/life merge. Towards the end of her book, Rosin visits Silicon Valley and hails it as the model for the “ultimate flexible work place” – read female workplace – of the future. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Rosin quotes Katie Stanton, head of international strategy for Twitter.  “I consider myself incredibly lucky” says Stanton, “because I can do this job really well and have a family. It’s great.” The rest of us might not think so. “Great” in Silicon Valley means leaving at 5pm to get the kids and tuck them into bed, but then logging back on, every night (this woman can’t remember the last time she went to the gym or out for dinner) often till past midnight. “These women work flexibly but they work all the time,”writes Rosin. “the merge means that work and play and kids and sleep are all jumbled up in the same 24 hour period…Silicon Valley is figuring out the single most vexing problem for ambitious working women,: how to let them spend time with their children without compromising their careers, it gives us a glimpse of the work culture of the future.”

Yet in some ways it is ironic that Rosin cites this Frat boy world (think Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network) as some female paradise. For this is NOT a world where sexism is dead, no siree. “Women in Silicon Valley think of sexism in the same way people in London must think about bad weather: It’s an omnipresent and unpleasant fact of life, but it shouldn’t keep you from going about your business… dwelling on it is a ‘complete waste of time’.”Instead women there advocate “workshopping these situations one by one, like so many coding glitches, one de-gendered brain to another.” But at a women’s leadership summit organised by a new tech behemoth where I was invited to speak last week, one of their very senior women buttonholed me after my talk. She wanted to ask about work/life balance. Then, with tears in her eyes, she told me it was her son’s fifth birthday – but he was in California; her guilt and grief were etched all over her face. Later I saw her crying as she talked into her mobile.

Kathryn Parsons, a young, female tech entrepreneur is also dubious about hailing the End of Men. “The vast majority of the young entrepreneurs I meet are male. Indeed, too much of the technological future at the moment is being written by men. We need more women to learn to write computer code and be a part of it as everything in the future is about technology. I wouldn’t say this is a female space, though I would like it to be and women when they learn to code are really good.”

Across the engineering industries of the future this is a common refrain: Google runs a special mentoring programme to encourage young female engineers as there is such a dearth. At present the digital future is geeky and male; currently in the UK 92% of teenage girls rule themselves out of a future in the boom technology/engineering sector by not taking all three sciences at GCSE. If women are really going to rule the future, that has to change.

The trouble with the thesis about women taking over the world because they are doing better in education and in the first ten years of their careers, is it ignores much evidence to the contrary. Last year Lord Davies published a government commissioned report into why there aren’t more women at the top of Britain’s companies. In it is a memorable diagram, a pyramid which shows equal numbers of male and female graduate entrants to the work place at the bottom, but where the female half of the pyramid empties towards the top.  While women may be entering the work place as a mighty, enthusiastic, hardworking wave, as they hit middle management – and their mid thirties – they drop out in droves. Christina Ioannidis and Nicola Walther’s book Your Loss, How to Win Back Your Female Talent, describes how at entry level in many organisations there is a 50:50 gender split, but in middle management there are 75% men and only 25% women and by the time it gets to executive leadership level there are 5% or less women and 95% men. The pram in the hall, is usually cited as the culprit, but interestingly childless women don’t make it to the top either. Experts blame women’s lack of powerful sponsor/advocates and an overwhelmingly male, macho culture. Often the women who do make it that far have become men in skirts – think Margaret Thatcher, or Hilary Devey. In the last two years, of 87 FTSE 100 executive appointments, a paltry 2 were female. To put that back into the real world, the Marie Claire survey found that 70% of their respondents said there were “none” or “very few” women in senior roles at their firms. If it’s The End of Men, why , at the summit where real power lies, is the default leader still pale and male, forty years after the first female graduates started entering the work place in serious numbers? Rosin argues that it is just a matter of time before women take over and that the very few women there are at the top are “highly prized” and “better rewarded than men”. I’m not so sure that we will see meaningful change here any time soon.

Last week, I spoke to one of these rare female mountaineers who have made it to the summit: a woman CFO of a major global corporation. What did she make of the End of Men thesis? She laughed. “Not much sign of that up here – it would be more accurate to talk about the End of Women – there were three of us women at this level two years ago, when I go there will be one– she’s the last woman standing. “ Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous “in case I ever want another job” is 40. The last five years since she was appointed “have been tough, I’ve often been in the office till 10pm, it’s a brutal, competitive, dog-eat-dog world.”

So why is she leaving? “I came from a modest background, I’ve earned enough to pay off my mortgage, money alone isn’t a motivator for me and I feel burnt out.” Part of that exhaustion is fuelled by guilt. “I’ve worked really hard, I’ve got a six year old daughter whom I rarely see. I know she is happy and I have a wonderful supportive husband and a live-in nannie but I have been getting increasingly stressed and I just have got to the point where I think life is more important than work.” Knowing she was a role-model and a trailblazer made her stick at the job but she says: “I know Sheryl Sandberg [CFO of Facebook] said that women should just suck it up and keep going like the men do, but it is incredibly difficult to manage a high powered job and balance that with any kind of family life. I came back to work when my daughter was 5 months old, I’ve never taken her to ballet, or seen her recitals, I never pick her up from school, I don’t know any of the other mothers.

“That’s been ok – I made the choices I made, and there is no reason why women shouldn’t make them, too. But I have reached a point where the status and the money are just not worth it. The men run on huge egos, they are competitive, they want to win, they are much more driven by that, but also much better at taking time for themselves to recuperate. They are just wired differently. If I have an hour off I want to spend it with my daughter, if the men do, they go to the gym. I haven’t had a moment for myself for the last four years – I don’t even go shopping, I do everything online. It is so stressful it’s just not worth it, I just don’t want to miss out on my daughter growing up. I’m choosing not to have it all.”

Last week one of the world’s most successful women, Christine LaGarde, head of the IMF, and mother of two sons, Thomas, 24, and Pierre-henri, 26 expressed similar sentiments. “I think you cannot have it at the same time. I think you can in a way have it all as long as you can afford to be patient. But you cannot have it all at the same time. You must accept there will be failures.”


Back on the train, the female breadwinner in the red stripey jacket was just getting into her stride. “It will take a long time to change the cultural values surrounding all of this. Women are expected to feel guilty, just as they are expected to take on the child-rearing role. Our culture gives women space to feel guilty – but there is no expectation of male guilt, so they don’t feel it.”

The man behind her disagreed. “Some women just want to raise their own children,” he said, citing his wife who had just given up work. He has a point, despite bossy career-women policy makers trying to convince the majority of women to think otherwise, survey after survey shows that the maternal urge remains strong, with three out of four new working mothers saying they would stay at home if “money was no object” – and only 12% saying they would go on working. Certainly, prosperous parts of Britain are awash with highly educated mothers who’ve chosen the home front over their once brilliant career. Many of my own peers have made just such choices. Rosin argues that highly educated couples now have “see-saw” marriages, where they take it in turn to earn the majority of the money, or take on the prime domestic role – in my experience one, usually the woman, gets stuck in the supportive role, even if she was the higher achiever earlier on.

Ultimately, feminism was about giving women choices: the trouble with these books is they are once again trying to push both sexes into a one size fits all model. But men and women come in different forms – maternal men, killer women. Germaine Greer once said “I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.” The sexual revolution was about creating a more equal and non-patriarchal society for all.  Surely the happiest future for everyone is to let all of us pursue our talents and passions whatever our sex – and to share the domestic challenges equally. But that wouldn’t make such a catchy title for a polemical book.

Difference is strength, bigotry is weakness…

21 Sep

.. so said veteran MEP and gay campaigner Michael Cashman, when, with tears in his eyes, he accepted his prize for Lifetime Achievement at the European Diversity Awards, at the Savoy Hotel, last night. His emotional speech, about how we must all accept that people who are different, are still people with huge amounts to offer, was particularly resonant in a room full of those who have often been bullied, despised or discrimated against because of their race, sexual orientation, or disability.

Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, Google Diversity supremo (his company sponsored the awards) said in his speech that the people in the room were like the first wave of a standing ovation in a theatre, and that their enthusiasm would spread the word far and wide until everyone would also be standing up and cheering for acceptance of difference. It was an optimistic thought, but after this summer in which the Olympics has had such a powerful effect in changing attitudes: whether about race (who seeing Mo Farrah draped in the flag could in anyway doubt his Britishness) or the incredible achievements of the Paralympians (which has redefined the disabled in terms of what they are able to achieve rather than what they can’t) such utopian optimism that acceptance of diversity might be a mainstream possiblity really felt achievable.

It was an evening of incongruous scenes; I doubt the Savoy has ever hosted so many guide dogs, wheelchairs, people of colour and of all shapes and sizes or sporting so many tatoos. It was corporate, sure, but it also had the feeling of a festival in its acceptance of different ways of being.  One vignette which summed it all up was when Anthony Watson, Chief Information Officer at Barclays and head of its LGBT network stood up in a blue Elvis velvet jacket and a quiff and talked about the struggles of thsoe who are are gay for acceptance and how suicide rates for LGBT teens are five times higher than for other kids (while a table full of the stiffest looking pale male suits all in black tie applauded). There was not a dry eye in the place when Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, who has fought so hard over two decades for justice, won an award for Campaigner of the year; clutching her statuette, she wept: as the room applauded her immense courage and resilience it was clear that no amount of approbabtion can ever make up for the loss of her son.

Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts, was nominated as a role model; she didn’t win, but anyone who made it onto the roster in such company should feel incredibly proud. I sat next to Sandra Kerr, who is National Director for Race for Opportunity, a busienss led network trying to get young kids from ethnic minorities into jobs: “It’s all about giving them hope” she said. it could have been the slogan for the evening. As the BBC’s incredible Frank Gardner regaled the audience with tales of how he’d been visisting the gorillas in Rwanda (for a long weekend no less) and on a ship which was attacked by pirates in Somalia, I felt ashamed that with all my limbs I was nowhere near as adventurous or energetic as he. Such spirit is wake up call to all of us to do what we can.

At the launch of the awards in Brussels earlier this year, Trevor Philips (former head of the Equalities quango) confided to me that Britain is way ahead of any other country in the world when it comes to acceptance of diversity… we don’t talk about it much and we mutter about political correctness – but actually we are one of the very most tolerant society’s on earth, which is something to be proud of.  The Olympics this summer held a mirror up to the UK and – rather suprisingly for many of us – in Danny Boyle’s clever looking glass, we all rather liked what we saw: tolerant, fair, concerned for the weak and vulberable, at the forefront of technology and innovation. Well, last night’s awards ceremony made me feel proud to be part of it, too. I also was nominated as Diversity Journalist of the Year (won last year by Frank Gardner) – I didn’t win, the BBC Ouch team who are all disabled and write and broadcast about the reality of that existence were much worthier winners instead. But we all left happy: it was one of those very rare evenings, when everyone felt like a winner. And how brilliant to be at the Savoy, the centre of the establishment, on a table with three gay men, four women of colour, three lesbians, Frank Gardner, the inspirational Doreen Lawrence and a room full of fellow travellers. Maybe Britain really is changing for the good and pointing the way for the rest of the world. I felt honoured to have been part of it.

Steps and halves for complicated families

18 Sep
One of my favourite films of the past few years is It’s Complicated. Written by the late genius Nora Ephron, it is the tale of a late-middle-aged couple who had divorced some years before but bond over a trip they have to make for one of their grown-up children. They end up having an affair.
The man (played by a paunchy Alec Baldwin) is sick of his new, much younger wife, whom he fancies, but who makes him go to yoga, do childcare and with whom he has nothing in common. His ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep), by contrast, shares his memories, knows — and cooks him — his favourite foods, is the mother of his three grown-up children and represents all the allure of his old life before he trashed it by running off with wife No 2.
What comes across most strongly from the movie is how the inevitable ghastly bitterness of betrayal in the aftermath of a divorce fades with the passing of time and how remarkably an older love endures.
The film resonates because it is so emotionally true (even if most exes don’t end up sleeping together). Last week, for instance, I went to a funeral where there were so many steps, exes, spurned lovers and tricky combinations at the grave that just explaining how they were all connected would make a great novel. On paper it looked explosive, yet the reality was warm, supportive and immensely loving. In the shock of the sudden death of a much-loved granny, this reconstituted family found strength and comfort in one another, despite the troubled waters that had flowed around many of them for so many years. Perhaps, indeed, the succour was more tender, the empathy more unexpected and treasured, because they came from such unlikely sources.
Such a communal burying of the hatchet is becoming increasingly common. Last week, in the Sunday Times, Gisela Stuart, the MP, wrote movingly about the death of her husband, the economist Derek Scott, and how his ex-wife, the former Channel 4 political editor Elinor Goodman, had joined her at the family home while Scott was dying, to nurse him during his fading weeks. This chimed with me as I’d just seen another friend who had also been tending to her ex-husband during his last few months. She told me how, despite their former fights and feuds — they split up, acrimoniously, more than 20 years ago — they had stayed in touch because of their son. As her ex lay dying, she remembered the vow she had made on their wedding day to look after him and found that what bound them together — their child, so many memories, good times, jokes and friends — far outweighed the pain they had caused each other when they split. In the final reckoning, with death beckoning, love trumped past infidelities and hate,
particularly since she nursed him with her son and grandchildren.
The latest statistics show that in Britain a third of us live in some kind of step- or “blended” family and that these are the
fastest-growing type of family units (in America more people are now part of a stepfamily than a nuclear family). Since the 1970s, when the freeing up of divorce laws produced an epidemic of separations, more and more of us have become part of such a setup. Yet the old myths about the children of divorce being doomed to despair persist, despite evidence suggesting that two-thirds of such children “go on to achieve happiness”. Indeed, experts say that the most negative influences that stepfamilies labour under now are the old myths and stereotypes — wicked stepmother, anyone?
I am not in any way belittling the very real pain involved in divorce and its aftermath, nor how upsetting it can be to be a child shuttled between parents. Yet as the years pass, I realise that complicated childhoods can have unexpected yields. For example, children of divorce learn early that nothing is ever black and white; that the truth lies in infinite shades of grey, according to who is telling it. They are self-reliant and tough — they also work hard to keep their own marriages together. Indeed, as the years slip by, the joy of the blended family often emerges, almost by stealth. It is amazing how, over decades of significant birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings and other events where the divorced couple have to co-parent to some extent civilly, old enmities start to fade. This is hastened, particularly, by the arrival of the next generation.
As the divorce-tastic baby boomers age, increasing numbers of blended families are discovering that, with time, those ragged bonds have somehow knitted themselves into strong and loving webs of support. Increasingly, I hear friends talk about how, say, a stepmother and a mother, who were once at loggerheads, have bonded over beloved grandchildren. As that generation ages, current and past wives find themselves supporting each other as the man they have both loved dies.
It is not just women, either. One friend told me how her father and her mum’s new boyfriend (not historically the best of pals), got on famously at a family funeral, cracked jokes, chatted away and ended up sharing a car home. Another described how her parents, who had been divorced for 35 years, united at a lunch for a grandchild’s birthday, bantered and flirted like the young lovers they had once been. Their grown-up children watched agog: the two had divorced when the kids were so young that they had no memories of how their parents had been when they were together. We hear a lot about family breakdown, but not nearly so much about how the huge extended network that a reconstituted family provides can be a blessing in hard times. I am one of 10 children — some of my siblings are full, some step, others half — but when things are bad, we rally round and support each other; the family telegraph transmits at speed who is fragile and who needs help. At the funeral I
went to last week the other guests kept saying: “How many of you are there? I’ve never met so many siblings at one wake.” That level of loving support is invaluable. The usual narrative around “broken families” is that they are exactly that. But what so many of us are finding is that while such ties may be more complex, and initially painful, when tested in the long term they can be far more resilient and supportive than we expect.
Blended families can be complicated, certainly — but that does not mean there is any less love. It is time to change the script and put on the record some of the positives about the families of which so many of us are a part. Complicated can be good.

Does an American university make more sense for a poor, bright Brit?

2 Aug
Last week I was lucky enough to go on social mobility charity, The Sutton Trust’s first ever summer school which took bright British kids from state schools and poor backgrounds to the US to check out the amazing courses and bursaries on offer for talented young people over there. It was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever done – the kids were completely amazing, all stars of their own schools and it was a privilege to spend time with them. More seriously, Britain and particularly our elitest universities have got to up their game when it comes to helping those from different backgrounds feel at home and improve their pastoral care and professor time: if they are charging £9,000 a year, students now have to feel they are getting value for money. What follows is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend – to read more go to
They are impossible to miss. Amidst the hustle of a pre-Olympic Heathrow Terminal Three, the 65 teenagers, of all hues and sizes, sporting sunflower yellow rucksacks, is shadowed by a smaller group of anxious mothers. “She’s never been away before,” a woman says sadly. Her daughter, head resplendently crowned with a mighty twist of black braids, is a picture of fond irritation: “Go mum! Honest, I’ll be fine.”
And they are off. brandishing passports and boarding passes, instantly expert despite most having never flown before. Camera phones at the ready, they snapd the escalators, departure board, gate and even the plane itself. Squealing with delight, they discover that Stephanie, a small, shy, brown-haired girl from the Wirral, was celebrating her 17th birthday.
“It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had ever,” she beams. “I’ve never been on a plane let alone to the States. But this is my ticket to a whole new life. Studying in America will give me a new start.”
This group of hyper-talented British state school pupils from low-income families are at the start of an all-expenses-paid tour last week to explore what some top American colleges might have to offer them. It is funded by the Sutton Trust, a charity that campaigns for better social mobility through education.
Corey, a cherubic half-Jamaican, half-Irish boy from Tottenham, north London, with a large diamond star in his ear, seems to sum up the view of the group when he says: “There’s more hope for someone like me in America. They seem to value kids like us more, they are more generous with money, they will pay me to study there. If I study in Britain I will be massively in debt.”
Corey, however, is exactly the kind of young man that UK Plc, mired in a third quarter of recession, needs to build a brighter future. As well as being an Olympic platinum sports ambassador – he is an athletics star – he is taking A levels in maths, further maths, history, English, politics and psychology. He used to want to be prime minister but he’s lost faith in British politics because “both parties are the same” and now “wants to make a life for myself in the States”.
Why do academic prodigies from poor backgrounds feel that Britain is letting them down? Are their chances really better in America?
IT is not just the underprivileged who are looking across the Atlantic. An increasing band of young Britons, faced with rising tuition fees at home, are choosing to go to university in America. A record 8,861 UK youngsters opted to study in the US in 2009-10 and preliminary evidence suggests interest has surged dramatically in 2011-12.
Now that a degree is such a major investment – new research last week showed that those studying in England should expect to finish university with debts of £59,100 (the average tuition fees is now £8630 and a kid has to live somewhere and eat too) – young people are looking for the best possible return on their investment.
American colleges — with their heavy accent on pastoral care, small classes, pick-and-choose “liberal arts” and science curriculums, plenty of professorial face-time and excellent financial packages for those on low incomes — have never been a better bet.
At our top private schools, increasing numbers of pupils are opting for the Ivy League over Oxbridge. Chris Ajemian, who runs Cates Tutoring and Educational Services, helps many high-end international students through the application process. He says Britain is his fastest growing market. Now he is shepherding the Sutton Trust kids round Yale, Wesleyan, Trinity, Princeton, Colombia, Harvard and many more and intensively tutoring them on how to up their scores on the all-important SAT college tests.
On the first morning at Yale, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and funder of The Sutton Trust , explains that he decided to set up this US summer school because these prestigious American colleges offer such a good deal to poor bright kids.
Helping them is his passion. Research he has commissioned shows that social mobility in Britain has gone backwards since the 1950s when clever boys from poor backgrounds – like Lampl himself — could access Oxbridge and success via grammar schools, direct grant schools and assisted places.
Lampl is haunted by the notion that if he had been born in 1990 rather than 1950 he would never have gone to Oxford, London Business School, Boston Consulting and then on to found a seriously lucrative business in New York. These days, he uses his considerable wealth to help poor bright kids access the best education there is.
Thus far, his efforts have been concentrated on setting up Summer Schools at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities in the UK for children from low-income families where no-one had ever been to college before or from schools which had never sent a child to a good university. But after a meeting with Fulbright (the organisation which helps predominantly postgraduate students from America and Britain study in each other’s countries) he decided to fund this trip.
To the kids, it is all free: Lampl is paying for their flights, food and even excursions including a Broadway show, boat trip round Manhattan and picnic in Central Park.
THROUGHOUT the transatlantic flight yelps of joy emanate from the yellow-rucksacked ranks. At JFK they cheer the yellow taxis and mob Dunkin’ Donuts. On the long coach ride through the Bronx and up the Connecticut freeway to Yale University in New Haven, the hubbub never dies. This is the trip of a lifetime and they are not wasting a second.
Selected from an original 700 applicants from schools and sixth form colleges all over the UK, to earn their place, they needed A-star A-level predictions, a family income under £40,000 and the kind of inspirational life story that admissions deans look for in the “personal statements” and essays that open the doors to top US colleges.
All are not only clever, but musical, or artistic and engaged in their communities. Nick, the son of a landscape gardener, heads up South Devon Young Conservatives and his own social enterprise; Jack is head boy of the new JCB Academy in Derby; Gabriella, from Newlyn in Cornwall is home-schooled and has just made a film about her region for the Olympics.
They take the grandeur of Yale’s faux Oxbridge-medieval in their stride. They eat New Haven’s famous Pepe pizza and lounge on the grass to the manor born. Their American hosts are warm and welcoming, stressing their own humble backgrounds, how Yale has helped them and the richness of the academic offering and support.
On the first morning Lempl welcomes his protégés with a speech in a grand lecture hall at Yale. “Yale is one of the great universities of the world,” he tells them, dressed in a sharp navy blue suite and pink tie and standing at a lectern. “I went to Oxford — but I have to say that if I was young now and choosing between Oxford and Yale I would choose Yale because it gives more breadth and depth of study.
“To be successful in a career these days you need international experience, companies are global, you should be too. I’ve brought you here because Britain is just a small island off the coast of Europe, while America is a a vast and exciting place, full of possibility.
“Ninety-three per cent of British kids are educated in state schools and hardly any of them are taking advantage of the opportunities on offer in the US. I want that to change. Yale, for instance, has a £12billion endowment. That means it offers needs-blind admission to students — which means if you make the cut, they will pay all your expenses. That is a great offer.”
These kids do not need convincing. They attend taster seminars on religion and medicine, galaxies and universes, the outlaw in film and women, cooking and culture. I am struck by the care and skill of the professors and the wide-ranging and quirky mix of content. It is a far cry from the compulsory Anglo-Saxon tutorials of Oxford. This is all about finding your metier, exploring your interests. It suits kids who want eventually, say, to study engineering but fancy doing some languages, philosophy and psychology on the way.
The next morning, driving past clapboard houses and lakes to look around Wesleyan University beside the COnnecticut River, I talk to Rob, from Dagenham a giant of a boy with a sharp mind. His lively blue eyes fill with tears when he tells me that his dad died earlier this year.
“There’s more for me here in America than in England,” he says. “In the UK it is kids who have been to private school who get on, who run the country, not people like me – just look at the Cabinet. In England I am immediately defined by my accent, my background. Out here I can be anything. Somewhere like Oxford is snobby — it would be easier for my friends and sister to go on relating to me if I came to the USA. I grew up on a council estate I don’t want to lose my roots, or who I am in order to fit in. Out here I don’t have to. In England I would.”
When I broach the subject of tuition fees, he becomes really angry. “It’s all very well for all these privately educated types in government to say that you don’t have to pay back the £27,000 it would cost me in tuition fees if I studied in Britain until you are earning well. That doesn’t help with living expenses which will put up the debt considerably.
“And don’t forget that £27,000 is more than most families round me earn in a year. It’s really put off my friends from applying to university. What we need in the UK is needs-blind admissions like they do in the US for kids from poor backgrounds. At the moment it just feels like no-one wants us, that there is no place for us in British society, that no one cares.”
Rob has a point. Social mobility in Britain is going backwards. There are more Etonians in the present coalition cabinet than there are women; 74% of judges and top medics were privately educated — and even 54% of senior journalists. It is easy to see why Rob doesn’t feel the British establishment is for “the likes of us”.
Out here though, the red carpet is being rolled out for these kids. Samantha, a small blonde from a tiny village outside Newcastle (she lives with her grandparents as she never knew her father, and her mother died when she was young), is overwhelmed by the welcome. Every prospectus underlines the commitment to financial aid.
The admissions deans tell tales of picking blueberries in the woods, swimming in waterfalls, endless sports, clubs and facilities; and they even hand out their personal email addresses to the group.
“They really seem to care,” says Samantha. “That’s so different from the UK where admission is all about grades. In the US the personal statement and essay is almost as important.”
“I went to an open day at Oxford,” says Sarah from Luton. “The first thing this girl with a plummy accent said to me as we walked around Christ Church was that if I walked on the grass in Tom quad I’d get fined £50. I just thought how stiff and stuffy. It didn’t make me want to go there.”
Chloe, a creamy-skinned blond from Essex, whose mother is a cleaner, adds: “They just don’t get it. I couldn’t afford to go to Oxford. Just the transport to get there is too expensive for my family to manage. But if I came to Yale they would give me $1,000 upfront for a computer and a winter coat, pay my airfares, tuition and living costs. I can work on campus and come away with no debt. If I stayed in the UK it would cost me £27,000 in tuition fees and all my living expenses on top of that.”
It is easy to forget just how hard life is for kids on really low incomes. Stephanie, from the Wirral, tells me how she had wanted to attend an open day at Cambridge but couldn’t afford the £90 it would cost to get there – neither her school, nor the college would pay.
“My father works for the church, my mother looks after my three sisters,” she explained. “We couldn’t afford for me to have oboe lessons so I taught myself off YouTube.” At the end of every academic year she sells her text books so she can afford to buy the ones she needs for the following term.
Farah, who came to the UK from Uzbekistan when she was six, wants to be a doctor. She would be the first person in her family ever to go to college. “But since they cut Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) I work 12-hour shifts in a sunglasses shop in Westfield to pay for my fares to sixth form college and to buy lunch. Working so much means I am really tired when I am trying to do my school work.”
The group nod sympathetically, sharing similar stories. It is clear the loss of EMA is yet more evidence to them that the state does not care.
Saidatu, the braided princess I first met back at Heathrow, lives in a council flat in the notorious estates around south London’s Elephant and Castle. “All the boys I know are in gangs,” she says. “Lots of them are already in prison. I want to be a forensic pscyhologist and work in prisons to help them.”
She is already nominated as a Young Leader in her community. The boys, she says, “really encourage me, they say, go for it, like I am going to do well for all of us.”
She wants to study at super-liberal Wesleyan which has a strong history of social justice and where undergraduates can be part of a programme which helps in local prisons. “I’ve always felt like an American. There is so much more I can be here than at home.”
Sarah, from Luton, tells me she also wants to read psychology. Her dad is not around — “he’s gone back to Nigeria” — and her mother works shifts as a support worker for the mentally ill. “For as long as I can remember I’ve just wanted to get as far away from Luton as I can. I don’t want to be stuck there.”
The rest of her school mates, she says, do not share her level of achievement or ambition. Why is she different? “I have a work ethic. I always have motivation. I am like a sponge — I just soak up information. I’ve always had a dream about America, I reckon it’s easier for a person like me to make it here; my background won’t be held against me. I would like to come here and never go back.”
Over and over again they say that in the US it is ability that counts, not what you sound like or who you know. Even the prospect of sharing a room at college with an unknown “roomy” doesn’t put them off, nor the absence of alcohol (no drinking till 21), nor the – to me – almost oppressive earnestness of the American students or almost cult-like atmosphere of some of the campuses.
As the days go by, the kids grow more and more confident. They become fluent in American collegese (freshmen, sophomores, sororities, fraternities) and start asking super-sharp questions about the percentage of successful applicants, the necessary SAT scores, funding packages (grants or loans) and the availability of jobs on campus.
On Wednesday, after visiting the truly magnificent Colombia campus in Manhattan, they wander through Central Park, take in shopping and the Museum of Modern Art and have tea with the British Consul in the Residence. Scrubbed up in their dresses and suits the boisterous, nervous teens who left Heathrow have become a roomful of glamorous and confident young people.
After just four days they are noticeably more grown up and articulate. Glowing with the joyful discovery of their own potential, they charm possible future sponsors of the programme. Lampl says that he hopes that at least half of these kids will end up at a US university. The Sutton Trust will help them apply, pay the entrance fees for their applications and coach them through the tricky multiple choice US exams (SATs and CATs). Next year he plans to run three more US summer schools.
Will they miss England and their families if they go abroad to study? “A bit,” says Nick, a triplet from Torquay, “but my folks are scared when they leave Devon and going to America will be the best and most exciting thing I could possibly do in my life.
“I’m energetic, I’m busy, I want to do loads of stuff both in terms of studying and being involved in college life. American universities just offer so much. I really feel that at Yale or Colombia I could really run around at a high octane pace and emerge with no debt and the world as my oyster.”
At present the exodus is only a trickle, but it is gathering pace. If the UK is going to hang on to its brightest young talents, the government and the universities are going to have to offer them far more than it currently does. If not, we will all be the losers.

The scandal of Britain’s mutilated women

20 Jul

Protest against Female Genital Mutilation
On Monday July 23rd, Newsnight are running a shocking film about Female Genital Mutilation. It is is something about which I have been passionate for a while and since the joint investigation I undertook with Mazer Mahmood (the fake sheik) earlier this year for the Sunday Times in which we caught three different doctors and dentists in the UK saying they would carry out the procedure it is an area in which I really believe the government have to act. Shockingly, there has been a law against female genital mutilation in the UK and taking a child abroad to have it done, for over ten years; the sentence is 14 years. Unfortunately, there have been no prosecutions.

Last week I ran a story in the Sunday Times News section saying that the government are finally taking some more action by launching a Health Passport, a laminated official document that will be available from schools, doctors and community centres for concerned professionals or friends to give to a girl who might be about to be taken abroad on what are known as ‘special holidays’ when they are often cut. Shockingly, this happens to girls aged under 10, often in unsterile conditions with a piece of glass or knife. A midwife I interviewed in Birmingham told me that because the girls try and escape and it is not a precise science she had never seen two women whose genitals looked the same. This is not a small problem there are estimated to be 100,000 women in Britain who have been cut and 24,000 girls living in the UK are at risk. this is largely down to the infux of immigrants from the horn of Africa (in Somalia and Eritrea some 90% of women are mutilated). This is done in the name of making a girl marriageable – in the most extreme cases, where the girls’ labia and clitoris are entirely removed and the flaps sewn together, leaving only a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can escape – this is ultimate proof of virginity. It is often up to the husband to cut open his bride – with a knife – on the wedding night. the pain that the subsequent sex must inflict is unimagineable.

I’m sorry if this has quite put you off your breakfast, but it really matters. Several groups campaign in this area including Forward, Equality Now and the wonderful Daughters of Eve, a group of young women in Bristol, who are campaigning to change community attitudes. You can find links and read my earlier story on my personal blog Jane Ellison MP who chairs the Parliamentary Group on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has also been brilliant on all of this, this is a link to her most recent speech on the subject

What follows is a piece written by the producer of the Newsnight film. They found a french doctor who can go some way to helping women who have been mutilated by reconstructing their genitalia, particularly the clitoris much of which is hidden internally…

Reconstructive Surgery – extract from the Newsnight script

18.00: I shall reconstruct the clitoris it will take approximately half an hour.

Dr,  Fondes operates on about fifty women a month. Women come from all over the world, including from the UK though the majority are French immigrants. For them, he operates for free; the state pays the costs.

27.40: It’s a normal nerve so we’ll be able to restore a normal. Living clitoris

Although the visible clitoris was cut from the woman as a child, part of it remains in the body, the doctor can bring that to the surface.

01.20: And now I shall restore the labia It’s important for normal sex, intercourse and delivery.

02.27: It’s not quite normal but it’s a good restoration.

Fatou had the operation a few months ago.

FATOU: 1722/12/6 @25.30: I feel a complete person, at last, after my operation Now, I need gradually to get to know my sexuality. This is what I am doing now and it is going rather well. 26.03

The man who can help mutilated women…

Nestled in a picturesque Paris suburb is St Germain Poissy Hospital, home of Dr Pierre Foldes. The private hospital specializes in plastic surgery, catering for well-healed Parisians looking for an aesthetic succès d’estime

But it is not the society women of Paris that Dr Foldes is interested in. Instead he has decided to devote his life to helping women who have suffered vaginal mutilation.

As topics go female genital mutilation is about as unglamorous as you can get. Many media outlets and newspapers simply refuse to talk about mutilation. In fact one newspaper stopped me after the words ‘genital mutilation’ when pitching this story.  In terms of recognition Dr Foldes would have been better served devoting his life to more savoury areas of medicine, areas of medicine that don’t make people wince by its very mention.

Despite its low profile in this country female genital mutilation is a global problem of innumerable proportions. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million women have been mutilated in Africa alone. Types of mutilation differ, however all involve the cutting of the vagina and the removal of the clitoris. The most extreme forms of mutilation involved sewing up and even adding acid to the vagina.

The procedure leaves girls in agony and can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health problems. The sexual impact of mutilation is often overlooked. The purpose of the procedure is to ‘purify’ girls – to remove sexual urges – and turn little girls into obedient and faithful wives. For these victims sex is often dreaded.

One woman we spoke to, who was mutilated in Africa and is now living in Scotland, described the act of sex as ‘more painful than giving birth’. Dr Comfort Momoh, the UK’s leading expert in Female Genital mutilation told us that it can take 6 months for a man to achieve full penetration.

In Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Guinea and Ethiopia the prevalence of female genital mutilation is 90 per cent or more. That’s at least 90 per cent of girls who are victims of devastating sexual violence. A ritual performed in the name of tradition and entrenched in misogyny has robbed them and their partners of any kind of ‘normal’ sex life. It’s child abuse on an industrial scale.

In the UK ‘reversal’ surgery is offered to women, but as Naana Otoo-Oyortey, of Forward says ‘I don’t like calling this procedure reversal surgery, you can never reverse what has happened and been taken away’. It’s a fair point. The clitoris contains 8,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the human body. It’s not something that even the most gifted surgeon can artificially recreate.

It’s a challenge that has motivated Dr Foldes for decades. Can women who have been mutilated ever be given the chance to enjoy sex?

After ‘unstitching’ women during missionary work in African Dr Foldes went about trying to answer this question. He worked on the premise that the clitoris is like an iceberg, most of it being submerged internally, and therefore untouched by the razor. He knew that if he could find a way of externalizing this clitoral tissue he could reconstruct the clitoris.

He quickly realized that the procedure was much easier than he had thought. Cutting away the scar tissue around the clitoris he developed a method of exposing the clitoral tissue beneath, bringing it to the surface. 3,000 operations later and Dr Foldes has managed to get the procedure down to half an hour.

Dr Foldes’ work has also been hampered by a lack of peer-reviewed evidence to illustrate the procedure’s efficacy. Who wants to learn and perfect a procedure that doesn’t work?

Last month Dr Foldes published a research article in The Lancet confounding his doubters. 51 per cent of women who had undergone the procedure were able to achieve orgasm after a year and 80 per cent of women said that their sex lives had improved.

The implications for women around the world are mind boggling. Sexual gratification and even orgasm don’t have to be illusive feelings that only other women experience. Painful, pneumatic copulation can be transformed into lustful, passionate sex.

Fatou, was born and mutilated in Burkino Fasso and now lives in France. Her story is typical. After years of sexual incompatibility with her husband, contributing to the breakdown of their relationship, she sought help. She found out about Dr Foldes’ work and was operated on last year. “I feel like a complete person, at last” she says. “Now, I need to gradually get to know my sexuality. That’s what I am doing now and it is going rather well.”

Fatou is one of the lucky ones. The operation is only conducted by Dr Foldes and demand outstrips supply. He is currently teaching the procedure to a team of budding reconstructive surgeons in the hope of rolling out the method across the world. It is has the potential to bring about a sexual revolution in Africa, where 30 countries have a prevalence higher than 50 per cent.

The invisible women let down by Britain

29 May

When Saron, a 28- year-old Ethiopian journalist, saw police shoot dead 40 student demonstrators, she wrote about it for her newspaper. “I reported what I saw and then the police came to my workplace to arrest me,” she says. “The prison was hell. A tiny room, a slit for a window. Toilet once a day, no tissue, no water to wash. Insects jumped from one to another. I got a kidney infection and my body was covered with a rash. I was in prison for four months.”

Saron was interrogated every day. “Then one day a more senior police officer came to the cell and took me to his office. He started touching me. I tried to move away. He said he could do whatever he wanted. I started to cry, pushing him away, and he became angrier. “He began to slap me. I struggled, he told me to keep quiet. He hit my face and my nose started bleeding. I felt dizzy. Then he bit my breast, which started to bleed. After that I felt faint. I couldn’t resist any more. He raped me.”

She was taken to hospital, where her family came to her aid. Her sister bribed a nurse with money given by their father to spirit Saron out of a staff exit. They stayed the night at an aunt’s house, then fled to the north of the country. Eventually Saron made it to Sudan and then, in 2003, to Britain: “I expected there would be more humanity in England; I had been told Africa was backward but Britain has a reputation for helping those who have suffered. But what happened to me here was worse than Ethiopia.”

Saron, confused and traumatised, found herself interrogated in public by a series of immigration officials. Embarrassed by what had happened to her, she found it almost impossible to tell her story in her halting, schoolgirl English. Her application for asylum was refused.

“They told me I was too young to have such a story,” she says. “They said I must leave Britain by a particular date. But I had no passport, no money; how was I supposed to go?”

At this point Saron breaks down: “I had nothing, I had to live rough on the streets. I was traumatised, depressed, crying all the time. I had no legal papers to work or stay in the country. I was completely without friends. If you sleep rough as a woman, men abuse you. They offer you a safe place, a warm place — but then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison.”

Eventually a doctor in a homeless shelter sent her to hospital. From there she was sent to a Home Office detention centre at Yarl’s Wood in Bedford for a few weeks, then released. This pattern of detention and living rough continued until 2008, when she was finally given leave to remain in Britain.

A report to be published by the Women for Refugee Women (WRW) organisation this week shows Saron’s case is not unusual. Every year about 18,000 people claim asylum in Britain after fleeing persecution in their home countries; some 5,000 of these are women. Unlike economic migrants, who work undercover in the black economy, these women are open about their plight and declare themselves to the authorities, expecting protection.

Of the women claiming asylum in their own right, some 74% are turned down. That means every year about 3,000 women, who may be as vulnerable as Saron, are refused asylum. While the authorities are understandably keen to root out those trying to play the system, many are nevertheless left in a wretched position by an immigration bureaucracy that is at times chaotic. Some, like Saron, later have the rejection of their claim overturned.

The WRW research found that 48% of women claiming asylum had been raped in their home countries — 32% by soldiers, police or prison guards. More than half who had fled here were subsequently left with no means of support, housing or way of returning home.

Many had fled their homes and families because of political activity (36%) or persecution because of religion or ethnic background. But the majority (66%) of the women were fleeing what the United Nations terms “gender-related persecution”, such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution or rape by a male relative. I interviewed several women for this piece, many of whom were still so obviously traumatised by their experiences that they found it hard to revisit them. They explained how they had been interrogated here by male immigration officials in open offices in English, a language they hardly spoke.

Three-quarters of the women said they had not been believed. “They said I was lying,” says Rhiam from Cameroon, who fled a forced marriage and a violent husband. “They asked me so many questions. But why would I leave my home, my family, my beloved daughter, the sunshine, the food that tastes good in my mouth, to come here alone, if I was lying?” She arrived in Britain in 2001, yet it was only last year she was given leave to remain. A handsome woman with beautiful grey-painted nails, she weeps as she tells me that when she left, her daughter was six years old: “Now she is 18. That means she is too old to come and join me. I have been a bad mother.”

For more than a decade she has slept on sofas and floors: “I was abused by men; I had nowhere to go, nothing to eat — in order to stay alive I had to have sex with them.” She says this with deep shame, her head bowed. In Cameroon she had been educated, with a job as a secretary.

“I just want to work; I thought I could make a better life here for me and my daughter. But now I wish I had never come. I should have died in Cameroon at my husband’s hand with my child. Coming to England has brought me nothing but misery. I cannot tell you how much.”

Such despair is common. Of the women questioned in the report about being refused asylum, 97% said they were depressed, 93% were scared, 63% said they thought about killing themselves. “They kill me already,” says Saron. “I feel like the walking dead.”

WRW was founded by the journalist and author Natasha Walter after she was moved by the story of a refugee called Angelique from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I met Angelique in a hostel with her baby,” says Walter. “Her father was a political activist, so the soldiers attacked and killed the family, imprisoning Angelique. In prison she was repeatedly raped. Friends of her father helped her to escape, but when she arrived in Britain she was disbelieved, turned down for asylum and left destitute. While living rough she was raped again — resulting in the pregnancy.

“The horror of her story reminded me of Dickens. I was appalled that such women were living invisible, hidden, right under my nose, yet they are women who have experienced terrible things. It is so important that they are treated with humanity.”
The report also recommends that asylum seekers are granted permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused but temporarily cannot return home through no fault of their own. Alternatively it suggests that such women are provided with welfare support until the point of return or integration.

Walter hopes the report “will force ministers to show leadership to get the Home Office to improve the quality of its decision-making processes, so that women who have fled intolerable cruelty don’t get unfair refusals which lead them to a situation of detention or destitution”.

Meddling with maternity leave

15 May

When I read that last week’s lacklustre Queen’s speech had the sharing of parental leave between couples as a flagship piece of legislation, I grimaced. That particular old chestnut has been a policy goal in wonk circles for years. Indeed, in January last year in the stuffy offices of a London think tank, I listened to Nick Clegg talk passionately about how modern parents should be allowed to split “maternity” leave between them.

Talking of his own high-powered wife (a corporate lawyer) and how they juggled the care of their three children, he said the current system “patronised women and marginalised men”. He set out a vision of a gender-neutral family in which fathers shouldered equal responsibility for their children and mothers did an equal share of the breadwinning. It was all very starry and modern and it went down a storm at the trendy think tank. But I couldn’t help thinking that he was getting a bit ahead of the British public. Sure, there are increasing numbers of female breadwinner families that this policy would suit, but I haven’t exactly heard a nationwide clamour from fathers to be allowed to stay home and change the nappies. Then again, whether or not a policy has popular support has never been a biggie for Clegg: I mean, House of Lords reform? Proportional representation?

The argument for split parental leave is that it would counter the reluctance of employers to hire a woman if a man could suddenly be absent — but still on the payroll — for months too. I don’t think there are enough men out there who would take it up for the policy to make any difference. More importantly, since we are in a double-dip recession, anything that loads more costs on to businesses is a bad idea. Extending maternity/paternity rights in this climate seems not just a bit self-
indulgent — as it did last January — but seriously flawed.

I believe the system of maternity leave in Britain is already over-generous. It sounds odd coming from a working mother but studies have shown that allowing women to take more than six months off damages their careers and prospects. Several international studies have found that European women with their mighty maternity benefits (16 months in Sweden, up to three years in Germany and a year in Britain) are being “killed with kindness”. The Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm said in a report in 2009 that “the more generous countries are with maternity leave, the fewer women you are likely to see at the top”.

There are far fewer women on boards in Germany than there are here. In Sweden women’s long entitlements to time off have created “occupational segregation” — they work overwhelmingly in the public sector because private firms are too scared of the costs and consequences to hire them. One study of 17 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that six months was the sweet spot for maternity leave — if it is any shorter, women drop out of their jobs in droves; any longer than six months and women find themselves being forced out on their return to work. The reasons are obvious: in a year, too much has changed, the woman’s job in its old form may no longer exist, clients are different and technology has moved on. Legally, companies have to keep her job open for a year, but the reality for many new mothers is they return after that period to find they have been sidelined and a few months later they are let go. I would advise any ambitious woman not to take off more than six months, whatever the law says. Indeed, most high-flying women I meet are back at work long before that.

Let’s be clear. I am not against maternity leave, but six months is enough to breastfeed, wean and bond. I am appalled by the ghastly system in America, where women get only three months’ unpaid leave, so if they want to breastfeed they must spend hours in “pumping stations” in the office, looking at pictures of a newborn they will hardly see. But between that horror and a year of maternity leave lies a sensible middle ground. Britain is the wrong side of that line, and the costs — for small businesses particularly — are crippling: a third of British businesses cite maternity leave as the reason they discriminate against women when hiring.

I have a good friend who runs her own communications company employing 10 people. She has lots of good work and clients, but this year she nearly went bankrupt because three of her permanent staff are on maternity leave. “I’m a working mother myself, but the way the maternity leave system works is ridiculous,” she says. “I’m not even allowed to ask the
women when they go off to have the baby if they are intending to come back. I’ve had a couple of cases now where I have kept someone’s job for them for a year — at the end of which they say they aren’t returning. “Paying their salaries is crippling, but even worse is the uncertainty. I’ve lost several talented juniors because I can’t give them a proper job or contract because of the mums on the payroll. In such a small team it is impossible to plan or expand.”

My friend is frustrated. She is providing the kind of employment mothers need but the system penalises her for doing so. What the government should have done in the Queen’s speech is help entrepreneurs such as her. She has enough work to expand but cannot take on the staff she needs because of the maternity millstone round her neck. A tax break or extra help with maternity costs for small businesses would be a win-win.

As Theresa May, the women’s minister, put it: “If we fully used the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work, it could deliver economic benefits of £15 billion to £21 billion per year. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an additional 150,000 extra start-ups each year in the UK. And if the UK had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 extra women-owned businesses, contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.”

Rather than fiddling around with already burdensome parental benefits, the government needs to start listening to what entrepreneurs want. Extending parental rights is madness. The right course would be to return to six months’ leave, to be split between mother and father if the couple choose to do so, and to help small businesses with the costs so they can expand and rebuild the economy. So, Nick, what are you waiting for?

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

Dara Lynn Weiss and skinny cappuccinos

2 Apr

“I’d like a large mochaccino with extra cream, hazelnut syrup .. and two sachets of zero-cal sweetener, “said the hippo-sized American in front of me. I smothered a guffaw. Did this lump of blubber really believe that having sweetener instead of sugar was really going to make any difference to the calorie-bomb he was about to ingest? More worrying was the not-so-little boy, his son, next to him, ordering a similarly huge drink and mighty sugary croissant.

dara lynn weiss and her daughter, whom she shamed into losing weight

Dara Lynn Weiss and her daughter

Sipping my own cappuccino (no sugar, no frills)  while waiting for my plane home from New York, I flicked through US Vogue. “Weight Watcher”, screamed the headline on an article by a New York socialite about putting her seven year old daughter on an extreme diet. With a growing sense of horror I read about how Dara-Lynn Weiss had been so freaked out by her child becoming chubby that she’d even forbidden second helpings of salad. “I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French heritage Day at school involved Brie, filet mignon, baguette and chocolate,” Weiss wrote. “I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of a kids’ hot chocolate… when he couldn’t provide an answer I grabbed the drink out ofmy daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage and stormed out.” Weiss’s piece has – to put it mildly – caused a bit of a stir.

The Jezebel blog
termed it the “worst Vogue article ever… the ickiness of the essay is only overshadowed by the accompanying photos, in which Weiss and her now-slender daughter — who even Weiss admits is traumatized by the events of the past year — don miniskirts and giggle girlishly over tea.” Yet so highly charged, yet taboo, is the whole business of parenting and children’s weight that Weiss has already got herself a book deal (tentative title: The Heavy).  Much of her article describes the opprobrium with which her attempts to control her daughter’s weight were met. She defends exposing her daughter’s struggles, and indeed her rather extreme methods, by pointing to the epidemic of childhood obesity afflicting the West.
On that, she has a point. We think of the United States as the land of the fat, but we shouldn’t be complacent. The UK is the tubbiest country in Europe and British kids are getting lardier every year; a staggering 33% of Year 6 pupils are classified as overweight or obese according to the Department of Health’s study of UK school pupils in 2010/11.
No one is disputing that fat kids are a problem – research shows that those who are obese by the age of eight go on to have serious weight related health issues in later life. There is a strong correlation between fat and wealth: 13.6% of Year 6 children living in the least deprived areas in Britain are overweight/obese compared to 23.7% in the most deprived. I don’t have a problem with Weiss, as a parent, deciding to take serious action to curb her daughter’s obesity (she claims poor Bea was in the 99th percentile aged 7, with a height of 4ft and a weight of 93 pounds).  As a mother she had to do something and in the short term her draconian regime worked (Bea has lost a stone and looks normal in the photographs). But there is good evidence to suggest that her methods could seriously back-fire in the long term.

How do I know this? Well, dear reader, I’ve been there. Like Bee, I was a middle-class chubber. My weight was of great concern to my parents who from when I was seven put me on all sorts of regimes. There was the dreaded recipe book: Cooking to make kids slim, with a dumpy kid on a pair of scales on the front (how I hated that). At school, like Bea, I had special diet pack lunches: salad, salad and more salad (to keep me away from fattening cake and custard).  I was sent to a dietician in Harley street and told to eat vegetables and protein and avoid carbohydrates. In my teens this doctor put me on amphetamine pills to curb my appetite: that was effective in the short term – but I wouldn’t recommend the spacey feeling or the mania!
I was fat because I ate too much. This was partly greed and partly sadness. These days I am happy and thanks to vigorous regular exercise my weight is under control. Unfortunately, research shows that obesity is hereditary. Fat mothers spawn fat children. Now I am a parent of two daughters myself, I have become something of an expert on how to ensure they don’t fall into my own trap. In this blog I have chronicled my struggles with my own weight and anxieties about passing on bad habits to my daughters. I have been amazed by the response. Our society is obsessed by body image and that neurosis is the space in which our children live. One woman thought handing out sweets as school was as bad as giving kids cigarettes. Another fashionista couldn’t stand her baby daughter’s chubby thighs.

The experts say that when it comes to food, your kids model not what you say but what you do. If you want your kids to eat normally and behave sensibly around food, the key is to let them see you do the same. To me, the most revealing and explanatory part of Weiss’s ghastly article were her own food confessions.  “Over the last 30 years, I’ve been on and off Weight Watchers, Atkins, slim-Fast, LA Weight Loss, jenny Craig, juice diets and raw food diets…. I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight.”

The saddest part about this whole tale is how Weiss has now transmitted all her own body-loathing and food-madness (skipping meals and replacing them with biscuits, telling her daughter not to eat sweet stuff, then scoffing two cupcakes behind her back) to her own daughter, who is, let us not forget, still only eight. This makes me want to weep. Women in the west have their entire adult lives to objectify their bodies, worry about how they look and obsess about calories. Surely one of the joys of being a child, a little girl, is to be mercifully free of such calculations.

Of course, we don’t want our kids to get fat and that means restricting the supply of the high calorie goodies on offer all around us. But the best way to do that isn’t to load them up with adult concerns around bodies, but to feed them a healthy diet without making a fuss about it. All the experts agree that to forbid certain foods just makes kids crave them. If you use sweets, crisps or cakes as a reward for good behaviour or eating vegetables, they learn to use food for comfort and as a reward, not to satisfy hunger.  The best advice I got was to control portion size by using small plates and rather than seeing fattening food as the devil, to eat cake or icecream or easter eggs casually together as a family, but only, say, at the weekend.  Kids need to be told calmly that if they eat too much the body will store it as fat which is unhealthy. Crucially, they need to take plenty of exercise and eat fruit and vegetables from the get-go. Extreme regimes just make kids feel deprived and give them a complex which takes a lifetime to get over. By all means take action if your kid is getting chubby – you should, you are the parent, it is your responsibility. But do it by stealth, don’t – like Weiss – yell at them in public, shame them, or make them feel deprived. Remember the internal world of the mother, is the external world of the child. Keep your own neuroses to yourself. And give the mochaccinos with extra cream and madness a miss.