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.

Stop calling it rape and we’ll convict more men

21 Mar

She was 17 and on holiday in Greece with family friends. Walking past the bars in the town’s main nightlife strip, she got chatting to a dishy bouncer called Stavros. Sneaking off down an alley, they snogged. The next night they arranged to meet after he’d finished work. Stavros rode up on his moped to the villa where she was staying and beeped twice. She climbed out of the window (her curfew was midnight, but she didn’t care) and whizzed off with him.
Fast forward to 3am. The scene is a deserted beach in the north of the island. Stavros wants sex. The girl realises she is miles from anywhere, alone and in a pickle. Shagging the bouncer is suddenly the last thing she fancies, but when she tries to say no he gets aggressive. She realises resistance is futile, she hasn’t actually got a choice and it’s going to happen whether she agrees or not. She decides her best option is to go through with it. The experience is not pleasant, but it’s over quickly and he drives her back home.
Is this a rape? Technically, it is: penetration took place without consent. Did she report it? No.
I was thinking about my friend’s plight — and how she has always insisted she did the right thing — when I read the results of a Mumsnet survey last week. It found that 10% of the 1,600 women who responded said they’d been raped, while 35% said they’d been sexually assaulted. Of course this is a self-reporting survey, so it is statistically skewed, but the British Crime Survey, which is a trusty source of data, finds that 20% of women have at some point in their lives been the subject of an actual or attempted sexual assault.

The Mumsnet survey touched a nerve: Twitter has been awash with women sharing their assault tales under the hashtags (the way that Twitter organises specific conversational threads) #webelieveyou and #Ididnotreport, while commentators of both sexes have been in full cry about the epidemic of rape in our society.

I believe strongly that much of the shame, confusion and fuss about rape levels and lack of convictions for rape are the fault of our outdated legal system. Germaine Greer, the feminist writer, has long argued that the offence of rape should be abolished and instead such attacks should be classified as assaults of a sexual nature of varying degrees of gravity. Under such a system it would be possible to distinguish legally between different kinds of assault — so mutilating assaults on a child would be judged differently from that on a grown woman, for instance. Or assaults by a stranger at knifepoint could be assessed differently from date rape incidents, marital rape, or consensual sex between an 18-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

One of the reasons it is so hard to get convictions in rape cases is because the crime in this country is judged as second in severity only to murder. Rape is defined in law as penetration into the mouth, vagina or anus by a penis. Yet my friend isn’t the only woman who has decided that unwanted invasion by penis was preferable to being beaten up and abandoned on a deserted beach in the middle of the night. Often women give in to sex against their will rather than endure a violent attack because they know they are weaker and couldn’t fend the man off.

Many rape victims testify that the penetration wasn’t the worst part of the assault — they cite ejaculation onto the face or breasts as worse, or the words they were forced to say. But a woman’s perception of which bit of the assault is worse is not the point under the laws as they stand. The crime that is being punished is the ancient crime of violating a woman’s honour. As Greer puts it: “Historically, the crime of rape is not an offence against women but an offence committed against men by other men: the man who has control of a woman, historically her father, guardian or husband, has a case against the man who makes unauthorised use of her.”

When a rape suspect is prosecuted, the case is brought by the state against the perpetrator, with the woman as the main witness — which is why she is subjected to such a legal battering under cross-examination. This has far-reaching consequences.

In the Mumsnet survey, 53% of women said they hadn’t reported what had happened because of “shame” and “embarrassment”, while 29% of women had been so ashamed and mortified they hadn’t told anyone at all. I have lost count of how often I’ve heard — or read — in the past week that rape “is something no woman ever gets over”, that it is “entirely life-defining”, the “worst thing that can ever happen”.

To me that is the language of honour killings, of women as chattels, of Victorian views of “fallen women” lost to society because they had lost their virginity, or Taliban rhetoric about how once a woman is sexually violated she is damaged goods, with her honour and that of her family in tatters.

Well, hang on a second. This is the 21st century, not the 19th or the 12th. This is Britain, not the tribal badlands of Afghanistan or Kurdistan. Isn’t it time we thought more clearly about our rape law? It’s becoming increasingly obvious that it is useless in resolving the drunken fumbles of students, or dating couples. At the moment if an incident involves intercourse then rape has to be the charge.

The crucial part of a rape case often isn’t whether sex has taken place (usually easily proved or disproved by DNA) but whether or not the woman consented (usually just her word against his). With our outdated legal definition of rape, such high levels of proof are required that cases clog up the courts and victims face intimidating cross-examinations. A new system with gradations of sexual assault could speed up the process.

Talking to solicitors last week I was struck by how many of them said the police are under such pressure to convict more rapists that even if the evidence is weak, the case will go to trial. “Rape is becoming a bit like racist assault or domestic violence,” said one solicitor who has been conducting such cases for 30 years. “It gets special treatment because of targets and politics, even if the evidence isn’t up to it. I’m seeing rape cases go to trial now that haven’t a hope in hell of seeing a conviction.”

If rape were reclassed as assault and the stain of shame and dishonour were removed, you might find that far more women were willing to come forward and testify. Now there’s a thought.

This column first appeared in the Sunday Times – Read Eleanor’s Sunday Times column in full

No Compromise parents and a new kind of success

10 Feb

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times Style section last weekend… so that’s why it’s a bit fashiony to begin with, but I think the more general point about high flying women – and men too – using their career clout to carve out more time to spend with their families is a real issue. I think there is a new definition of what success looks like out there: pure status – big offices, fat cars, a big cheque just don’t do it for Generation X. For us, success is all about having control over our lives so we can make time for the things and people that are more important to us. It’s a choice I’ve made myself and one I see increasing members of my generation making…

“A fashion label’s catwalk show is the highlight of the year – the moment when its latest wares catch the full glare of the world’s media and global buyers descend. So why did LVMH, the owners of French luxury brand Celine,  announce that this season, there would be no show – despite the date, March 4th , having been in every self-respecting fashionista’s Smythson diary for months?

The answer is that its multi-award winning British designer, Phoebe Philo, 38, is pregnant with her third child – due in April.  Explaining the catwalk no-show, Marco Gobbetti, CEO of Celine, said “A runway show is a very demanding and personal engagement for a creative director, the objective [presumably Philo’s objective rather than the brand’s] is to simplify.”

phoebe philo

Phoebe Philo, a no-compromise parent and fashion designer

It is a measure of Philo’s power her impending confinement (she isn’t even on maternity leave yet) should cause a giant luxury conglomerate to take a decision so counter to its financial interests.  Yet when it comes to refusing to compromise on her work/life balance for the benefit of her employers, Philo has form. In 2006, she resigned from Chloe citing “personal reasons”. She continued, “including especially to spend more time with my baby over the coming months.”

Her actions made her a pin up for a new breed of ‘no-compromise parents’; a new kind of role model for the increasing numbers of Generation X (those born between 1968 and 1980) who are refusing to sacrifice their family lives on the altar of traditional career ambitions or the demands of their employers.

In this, as in so much else, Philo is leading the pack. While it has become chic in fashion circles for women designers to wear their mum/career juggling roles rather more publicly than the rest of us, Philo’s insistence on carving out separate time for her family, rather than forcing the kids to muddle along with her work requirements marks her out from the rest. Last September, for instance, Victoria Beckham launched her spring/summer fashion line in New York with 8 week old Harper, her baby daughter, on her knee. She then proceeded to teeter round New York in 8 inch Laboutin heels with her daughter on her arm. Such mum/child/work synergy, she claims, is just what being a working mother is about. (I suppose it helps if you own the company, I can’t believe that most bosses would take quite so kindly to female employees bringing their own tiny babies to meetings). “There are quite a few video conferences at 5am with me in my dressing gown holding the baby,” Beckham told Women’s Wear Daily. “As any working mum out there knows, it really is like juggling glass balls when you’ve got the kids and a husband to look after, and you’re passionate about your career. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

For some, such macho public mothering takes its toll. Amanda Holden, determined to film Britain’s Got Talent in the eighth month of her pregnancy ended up nearly dying in hospital when the baby came early (only days after she’d teetered into the studio on decidedly unpregnancy-friendly 6inch heels). Alice Temperley, too, found that intense work and uber-parenting are an uncomfortable mix. She has spoken movingly about the intolerable strain she put on herself when she launched her diffusion line, Alice; starting work only two weeks after her son was born. “We had to do it to survive the recession, I knew I had to do it for myself and for the company – and at least my son was around me. I’d be taking meetings with him breast feeding under my shirt and he’d sleep on some sheets under my desk. I still don’t really know how I did it… I’m still recovering from the hammering.” She has since learnt the error of her ways, and downshifted. She now spends half the week in Somerset with her children.

Louise Mensch, Conservative MP and no-compromise parent

Louise Mensch MP is another ‘no-compromise parent’. During the biggest day of her career, when she cross-examined James Murdoch at the Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Select Committee, she apologised to the chairman that she would have “to leave early to pick up her kids”. Tweeting afterwards that: “As a single mother, it’s a job that I try not to delegate the chairman gave me the opportunity to ask all my questions in full first.” Her act stunned and polarised working mothers everywhere. “Why couldn’t she just get a childminder to pick them up like the rest of us?” one high powered Magazine editor and mum of three remonstrated. But the twitterati were split, with some – including me – giving Mensch three cheers for her powerful public demonstration of the dual importance of careers in children in many of our lives.

Philo and Mensch are examples of a growing trend of parents successful enough to use their clout at work to carve out sacred time with their children. As a new generation comes to power in  which many men feel as passionately as women about not missing out on their children growing up – David Cameron shifted the time of cabinet meetings so he and Nick Clegg could take their children to school –  no-compromise parents are here to stay.

A few months ago I attended a swanky breakfast organised by a top head hunter bemoaning the fact that she kept approaching male, fortysomething corporate high fliers for CEO roles, but kept  being turned down.  “I am increasingly seeing highly talented individuals reject the top jobs,” she explained. “High salaries alone can no longer attract the interest of a new generation of talented leaders. Many are saying there is more to life than financial rewards and many people I approach for big jobs are choosing job satisfaction, a happy family life and emotional wellbeing instead.”

One of those cited in her report is Anthony Thompson, a former managing director of George, Asda’s successful own-brand clothing line and tipped as a future leader. But to the surprise of the business world, he took a far smaller job as CEO of Fat Face, the surf brand. Why? Well, it’s a field he loves and a much more family  and life-friendly existence. These days, he works in Havant, Hampshire, not London, so every morning he can swim in the sea before cycling to his office where he has ditched his suit for Fat Face shorts and flip flops. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Sure, I still work a 14-hour day if I want to, but I can also choose to spend time with my wife and take my kids to school.”

This desire for control over the demands of working lives in order to be there in the way they want for their families is a defining feature in the lives of Generation X, according to research by Lauren Chivee of the Centre for Work Life Policy. “The hall mark of Generation X is that they are driven to balance in their working lives. A meaningful career for this cohort is less about title and promotion and more about seeking for control over their work life so they can have a meaningful personal life. It is clear that the definition of what success looks like is changing for this generation, however much money or prestige is on offer, if the price is the sacrifice of home time, or prized hobbies, it’s not worth it to them.”

Phoebe Philo, once more, is ahead of the curve.”

What do you think? Is there a new definition of success out there?

Girls and body image… it’s a power thing

3 Feb

On Wednesday evening I went to the House of Commons for the launch of the government’s new Body Confidence campaign and the first showing in the UK of a brilliant new American documentary called MissRepresentation. The documentary is amazingly powerful about the links between women obsessing about weight, appearance and objectifying themselves – always thinking about what they look like from the outside, seeing themselves as a thing which needs improving – and the lack of female leaders.

body confidence campaign


Now, as regular readers of mine will know – I am totally obsessed by how we get more women to the top – whether that in the professions, industry or politics. And, why more women are not breaking through as leaders. The figures in MissRepresentation are really shocking. The US Congress now has fewer women than at any time in the last thirty years; we still lack strong female role models on the boards of our top companies (last month a pathetic 15% of women on the boards of the top FTSE100 companies was greated as a great success). The documentary argues that the reason for this is a backlash against women which has taken the form of us being increasingly judged on our appearances, the more we insist – and show – that actually we are much brighter, do better at school and are just as competent as men – the more the media imagery and popular culture insists that women should only be valued for their looks.

The clips of Barbie women are really shocking: in the US even news presenters are judged on looks – how much cleavage they can show etc. They showed Hillary Clinton being slated for looking like an old bag lady: but hang on, she’s not modelling for Vogue, she is the face of US power in the world – who cares if she looks a bit old and tired.

film missrepresentation about feminism and women in the media

Now I’m not always a fan of these kind of shows, but this is brilliant on what women are being forced into caring about because of the male dominated media; tiny percentage of the executives of the top media companies are women – so what we are being sold is images of women which appeal to men and teenage boys, not the kind of images we’d choose of ourselves, or that we see around us.

Last week, the Advertising Standards Association banned the air brushing of pictures – that is a good first step. I can’t stand it that so many young women measure themselves against an impossible standard that isn’t even real and then feel they aren’t good enough. Again, MissRepresentation brilliant on that – shows the real model, and then what the model looks like once she’s been stretched, made up and  photoshopped into a living Barbie doll – all endless giraffe legs and huge boobs – no-one looks like this. Geena Davies and Condoleeza Rice, along with Katie Couric and the female writer/director of Twilight and Thirteen also talk about the importantce of women writing and telling their own stories to change the balance; to give young women something real to aspire to.

Go and see it -and take away that if us women spent a fraction of the time and resources cultivating our own power – through education, or looking after other women, or being leaders and thinking about who we are, rather than what we look like – we would be in a position to change this insulting and denigrating imagery.  The first step is to educate our daughters about what they are seeing and deconstruct it. It’s what you are on the inside, how you feel that matters – not whether some fictitious teenage boy thinks you are ‘hot’. To arms, ladies!

I braved an Oxfam get-together…

27 Jan

… and what a jolly evening it was! It’s the first time I’ve gone to a party to meet in the flesh virtual pals from Twitter and Mumsnet Bloggers and having done it once, I think we should all make a point of doing it more often. The evening was to launch Oxfam’s Get Together campaign (if you are into Twitter, the hash tag is #gettogether). For International Woman’s Day, Oxfam are encouraging as many women as possible to host a party, soiree, drinks, manicure session or whatever takes your fancy to raise money for other women in the third world.

Mumsnet Bloggers at Oxfam's Get Together launch party

Mingling with Mumsnet bloggers at Oxfam's get-together

I was particularly excited to meet my sartorial heroine Jane Shepherdson from Whistles (fortunately I was wearing a white silk shirt of her’s with a yellow collar which is always a good way to break the ice). She told us how she’d been to Mali with Oxfam and how she’d loved the women she met and came back determined to help them. Lauren Laverne told similar tales and we all got rather tipsy on amazing passionfruit and raspberry cocktails and resolved to sort out our own get togethers and raise some money.
It doesn’t have to be a fortune. Even if you just made a cake and sold some of it to some work mates or at the school gates the £8 you raise would buy two school books so that children, especially girls, get the education they deserve. I have been roped in to going on a run round Hampstead Heath with one of the Mumsnet founders and her mega-fit jogging buddies (I’m terrified). But we’re all going to contribute £46 which is enough to train a midwife in Ghana – every year, nearly 4,000 women there die from pregnancy-related problems because of the lack of midwives and rural medical facilities. In fact, every minute a woman with no medical care dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Every little helps: just £27 can provide business training so that a woman farmer can negotiate the best price for her hard won produce and make a better life for her family.
So have fun, see your mates, organise a get together and send the money to Oxfam. It’s a win, win.