To my friend Sue …

I climbed a hill last night – a real hill, not a metaphorical one – up past our local white horse carved into the chalk, with beautiful views over Wiltshire. The sun was setting, and this lent a soft red glow to the distance, where 4 hot air balloons drifted in tiny silhouette. A low mist in the valley was settling over the poplar trees in the valley, and the cows were lowing softly – the only sound other than birdsong to break the silence.

But beautiful as they were, the surroundings were not what was important – what was important was that I was with my friend Sue, whom I see only rarely because I (and she) lead such busy lives that there are always good reasons not to make the effort to meet up. I am particularly guilty in this respect, especially in term time, when school takes over my life entirely, from dawn to dusk, but Sue has never given up on me over the seven years she has known me. She has often insisted on meeting up, on taking me out of my intense existence just to talk about ‘ordinary’ things, just to enjoy being ‘normal’.

So last night we talked as we walked about ordinary stuff, about normal everyday life – about what we were doing, about how we were balancing all the things we were doing all of the time, about the future and about the past. And as we talked, I experienced an immense feeling of gratitude for this friendship, and I was reminded immediately and powerfully of the value of female friendships.

We hear all the time about negative female-female relationships – woman bosses who are more difficult to work for than male bosses, or women being unkind to other women about their appearance and/or their life choices (just follow the strings of comments on the Daily Mail online …). Girls have the reputation of being far meaner, harsher, more judgemental in relationships than boys – ‘cattier’, ‘bitchier’ – and when we talk about Queen Bee syndrome, we know we are not talking about men.

And yet women have the capacity to create enormously supportive relationships and sustain an amazing companionship. Fantastic business mentoring schemes for women have been springing up for several years now, and girls when they are together develop incredibly strong and lasting friendships (I cite the Year 13 leavers at my own school, year-on-year, as a phenomenal example). Our female friends see us through the ups and downs of our lives, and our time on this planet is richer as a result. We need to remember this, just as we need to remember too to invest time and care in our female friends if our friendships are to flourish and deepen.

To my friend Sue, thank you for reminding me of this. And thank you for investing in our friendship.

Too Big To Fail? Could women have saved Wall Street?

Part of the joy of the summer is being able to catch up on reading and thinking, and I am two-thirds of the way through Andrew Ross Sorkin‘s epic book about the 2008 battle to save Lehman Brothers and, by extension, the entire financial sector: ‘Too Big To Fail’. It is a great read, and was well-received when it was published first in 2009, and then again with an afterword in 2010. I have been particularly struck so far by the following about the bankers of Wall Street:

  1. The sums of money they were dealing with were astronomical – billions and trillions of dollars: sums beyond our understanding and grasp. And the associated salaries were breathtakingly, obscenely vast, especially when you turn on the news today and see what is happening in East Africa, with 10 million people who have nothing. This was inequality laid bare.
  2. They had completely lost perspective on what they were doing with that money. In their simplest form, banks create money by lending, but there were people at work in these banks in the years before it all went horribly wrong who were thinking up ever-more creative ways of making enormous debts seem like huge bonanzas. It was all so complicated, so sliced, diced and repackaged, that only a few people could understand it – but plenty of people liked the financial boost it seemed to bring their balance sheet, and they let the practice go on unchecked, ignoring the basic dangers – obvious to anyone else who has to budget for their own household – that this was all imaginary money.
  3. They did work hard. I write this somewhat grudgingly, of course, given the upshot of all this hard work, and how it led to a near financial collapse and a direct and painful impact on the lives of millions of hard-working people who have suffered as a result, but it is clear from the book – which relates scores of early morning management team meetings (including at weekends), 18 hour days and limited holidays – that these people did put in the hours and the effort. While with hindsight – always an easier place to ride a moral high horse – it was clearly misdirected, it seemed worth it at the time, and proves the maxim that hard work is necessary to achieve anything in life. It still doesn’t excuse the salaries, though.
  4. They were all, almost to a man, as it were, men. The cast of players contains the odd woman, but almost without exception the main players were men – white, middle-aged men. Funnily enough, social class seemed not to be an issue – there were plenty of stories of men who from inauspicious beginnings had risen through the ranks on merit to reach the giddy heights of CEO – but race and gender certainly were. This was a function of our social history, certainly, but in the same year that a black man became President, choosing as his Secretary of State a woman who had narrowly lost to him in the race to become the Presidential nominee, you can’t help but wonder why Wall Street was so far behind in terms of equality.

We know that the gender pay gap in the City of London financial district rises from 19.8% to over 30%. We know, as a result of Lord Davies’ report in February 2011 into Women on Boards (which set the target of raising the percentage from the current woeful 12.5%) that ‘There is growing evidence to show that diverse boards are better boards, delivering financial out-performance and stock market growth.‘. Would Wall Street have been saved if there had been more women in top jobs? Harriet Harman thought so at the time, but the truth is that we can never revisit history, and we will never know. Something in me is less sure about the underpinning notion that women would make better bankers because somehow they are less prone to risk-taking behaviour; balanced risk-taking can be extremely good, both for the individual (who will be stretched and challenged by it), and for institutions (who will develop a creativity and dynamism which moves them forward in every respect). Risk-taking is certainly not restricted to men – look at what girls’ schools are teaching! Risk-taking is something that we should be teaching all our young people in life.

What matters, of course, is not the risk-taking itself but the ethics behind it. That was what was lacking on Wall Street. Without a moral purpose, it was bound to fail eventually. No wonder it all went wrong.

If you have a daughter, read this book now! A review of Tanith Carey’s ‘Where has my little girl gone?’

Tanith Carey’s latest book is an excellent, eminently readable depiction of the sexualised landscape that faces our daughters today, accompanied by clear, unequivocal messages and advice about how as parents we should respond. Her non-nonsense attitude is both refreshing and uplifting; she gives parents hope and determination in equal measure as they set about guiding their daughters through the tween and teen stages of their lives.

Beginning with an exploration of the beliefs we hold as parents in respect of how we view our daughters’ interaction with the sexualised world around them – beliefs which we recognise as a parent, but which look extraordinarily naive when committed to the written page in front of our eyes – the book moves swiftly on to practical advice for mothers, fathers and schools. It is our joint responsibility to help ready our daughters for the world around them, and we can do this be beginning early, by seeking to understand our daughters at a deeper, more real level than we have perhaps assumed is possible, and by not being afraid to protect and prepare in equal measure. Intervention is not only allowed, but welcomed – by all, including, you will find, your daughter.

Ms Carey is quite clear that the best defence that our daughters have against the unhealthy, extreme pressures that they face to conform is their own self-esteem, and again the book is packed with practical thoughts for parents on how to help grow this: “Teach her to name her feelings”; >”Help her to find something she can seek solace in” – the advice comes tumbling out in clear, straightforward prose. Hard, sometimes shocking, anecdotes, such as the six year old girl who has recorded make-up tips on You Tube, are followed up by strong guidelines for parents – “Don’t allow TV into the bedroom“, “Turn off Bluetooth” – and a reminder to “Give her a healthy respect for the technology“.

Ms Carey’s premise is that we can and should do something about what we see around us, and our daughters’ well-being depends on it. Her conclusion is optimistic while not shying away from the reality of the situation we face: “In the years to come, I hope we will look back at this post-internet period in the same ways we once viewed children being sent down mines and up chimneys after the industrial revolution. Just as the unregulated labour practices of the Victorian era robbed those boys and girls of their childhoods, so is sexualisation and a free-for-all raunch culture robbing our daughters of theirs”.

If you have a daughter, read this book now – and act on it. Together we can make a difference in the lives of our children.

Don’t forget the Bailey Report …

The Bailey Report on the sexualisation and commercialisation of children’s lives was published just a month and a half ago, and was clear in stating that the world in which our children are living and growing up is over-sexualised, and we must do something about this. Early sexualisation has crept up on us, and the real and very present danger to our young people is that the images and associated expectations of behaviour have entered the mainstream of our society with us barely noticing. Sexualised images are both pervasive and prevalent, and we have to do something now. Part of this is about us giving our children the awareness and tools to be savvy in their understanding of the images around them, and part of it is about us as a society saying – firmly and unequivocally – that we need to be much more responsible in what we allow our children to see.

The Report was largely welcomed – in part, one must assume, because Reg Bailey did not recommend legislation, but instead a better, stronger code of practice – but we need now to keep a very close eye on what happens as a result. Just to remind us, his key recommendations included:

  • Providing parents with one single website to make it easier to complain about any programme, advert, product or service.
  • Putting age restrictions on music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them.
  • Covering up sexualised images on the front pages of magazines and newspapers so they are not in easy sight of children.
  • Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet by giving every customer a choice at the point of purchase over whether they want adult content on their home internet, laptops or smart phones.
  • Retailers offering age-appropriate clothes for children – the retail industry should sign up to the British Retail Consortium’s new guidelines which checks and challenges the design, buying, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children.
  • Restricting outdoor adverts containing sexualised imagery where large numbers of children are likely to see them, for example near schools, nurseries and playgrounds.
  • Giving greater weight to the views of parents in the regulation of pre-watershed TV, rather than viewers as a whole, about what is suitable for children to watch.
  • Banning the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors and in peer-to-peer marketing, and improving parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques aimed at children.

Retailers, other businesses and regulators have been given 18 months to come up with plans for how they should meet these recommendations, which have all been accepted by the Government in principle. Progress to my mind would be being able to open a newspaper or magazine without being confronted by Rhianna flaunting her rear; I am keeping an eye out for change … so should we all.

Being a father

If you have the opportunity to read Tom Bickerby’s weekly column in Times 2 about living with a baby with Down’s Syndrome, then do. It is moving, not because it is over-emotional or deliberately intends to tug on the heartstrings, but because in documenting the practicalities, and in confronting the difficult feelings that can come with having a child with this chromosomal condition, it reveals to us the love this father has for his son.

The columns – which usually appear on a Monday – are suffused with a growing love and care, and their honesty makes them beautiful. Equally beautiful was William Leith’s article in the Times magazine last Saturday about the birth of his son, and the agonies and emotions of watching him facing breathing difficulties for the first three days of his life. Leith describes being overwhelmed by a sense of love, and crying with relief when he is told that his son will survive.

That men can speak openly about their emotions is a huge and necessary advance for our society, but we should not be too complacent yet that we have achieved an openness and ease about our gender, overcoming centuries of embedded expectation. Leith cries, but at first he apologises automatically for his tears; only later does he question this, coming up with this explanation:

‘For centuries, we’ve had to rein in our emotions. We’ve had to cut ourselves off from our feelings, because we’ve had to be strong, because we’ve had to work and fight and compete. And it’s become second nature. Later, I would read, and talk to, writers such as Steve Biddulph and Warren Farrell, who have a deep understanding of men and their emotions and know that men live lives based on pretence, which is a sort of lie, and which makes them ‘ us ‘ lead unhappy half-lives, unconnected to how we really want to feel.’

Is this not terrible? Farrell says that, throughout history, men were heroes. But the word ‘hero’ actually means ‘servant’. Men were society’s servants. If you were poor, you laboured, often in terrible conditions. If you were a gentleman, you wore a sword, to protect the woman you were with. You had to be ready to fight. As Farrell says, to earn love, you had to cut yourself off from love.

We don’t live in that world any more. But it still exerts an incredible gravitational pull. All that fighting and conquering and killing – we don’t need that any more. All those centuries of holding back the tears – that’s not going to help us any more. But it’s hard to resist. That wry smile, that strong silence, that readiness to go back to work at the drop of a hat; talk to any group of males, and that’s the default position. Sure, it causes breakdowns and alcoholism and deep unhappiness. Sure, it’s all a pretence. But it’s time we looked at ourselves.

I am going to read Warren Farrell to understand more what we can do to help move us on gently as a society towards a situation where men and women can be more genuinely themselves, as it is only by doing so that we have any chance of a fairer, more balanced world. But William Leith is right – we need to start by looking at ourselves.

A question of choice … Gonzalez vs Clegg on the school run

Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, who has always struck me as a women who does not suffer fools, was understandably rather irritated when she was quizzed this week in an interview in Grazia about how she manages to balance her work and her family. Drawing attention to the inequality faced by women as a source of curiosity in this respect, she was quoted as saying: ‘I have three children, a busy career and a very busy husband. My husband has three children, a much busier career and a busy wife. Nobody would ask him how he balances everything.’

Indeed, no-one did ask her husband, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, but the papers this week have been full of articles and comment pieces spawned by reactions to her interview, most of them commenting (with an irony which she may not appreciate) on his childcare choices: in particular, whether it is right that he manages to make time to rush between office and home to do the school run a couple of times a week. Quentin Letts wrote disparagingly in the Daily Mail about Mr Clegg, describing him as ‘hen-pecked’ (an adjective which offends both partners in any relationship), and telling him to sort out his affairs so that he could devote himself to his work while his wife stepped back from her work to look after their children for a few years. Minette Marrin in the Sunday Times agreed. Others were more accommodating, praising Mr Clegg’s involvement with his children – Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday, for one, although even she manages to suggest that this is a good political move, keeping him in touch with the people.

It is extremely tempting to enter the debate and to come down on one side or the other – should he or shouldn’t he? Parental duties or national responsibility? But of course, this would be to fall into the trap of assuming that there is either a right way or a wrong way, an all-or-nothing solution, when we know in our hearts that life is much more complicated than this, and requires much negotiation. Theirs is a lose-lose situation – it is as easy in our current social conversations about women to imagine Miriam Gonzalez vilified as a stay-at-home mother as it is as a working mother, or her husband paraded as a curiosity for staying at home as it is a neglectful out-of-touch father.

Neither of these two people strikes me as unintelligent or uncaring in any way whatsoever; each is almost certainly aware of their responsibilities to family, work and the rest of the world. Most important of all, we must avoid the trap of assuming that we have the right to tell the Clegg family exactly how to run their lives, and to criticise any decisions they take which might not conform to our preconceptions of how they should be organising their family. If their children were neglected or in danger, then we would be right to intervene, but we have no right to force prejudices upon them.

Surely in our society, in all matters pertaining to gender, quite apart from other aspects of our lives, we have been working towards enabling genuine choice; let us value it when we see it in practice.

Pegah Ahangarani and the significance of football

A short article in today’s Daily Telegraph raises speculation about the whereabouts of the Iranian documentary maker, blogger and activist for women’s rights, Pegah Ahangarani, who is widely reported to have been arrested on her way to the airport. Her crime? The strong suspicion by those on the ground is that she was detained because she was due to fly to Germany to comment for the German media on the women’s football World Cup; women in Iran are forbidden from entering stadia to watch football matches, and the Iranian government have form in respect of preventing women from engaging with the ‘beautiful game’ – only last month, the Iranian photojournalist Maryam Majd, who had campaigned for women to be able to watch live football, was also arrested on her way to the World Cup.

Trivial subject matter about which to protest? Clearly not, as it has resulted in a number of women being deprived of their liberty. Astonishing? Most certainly. Football has the capacity to cross boundaries of race, religion, class and gender, drawing together human beings across the globe in the thrills and tensions created by the skill of 22 men or women working as teams, with flashes of individual brilliance. It can be a force for good, and disputes over access to matches could rapidly turn it into a symbol for equality.

The ‘One Million Signatures’ campaign is a campaign by women in Iran which aims to have such discriminatory laws repealed. Its proponents argue, sensibly, that there is no place for such discrimination in our world. Take a look at their website if you need to be reminded about the discrimination experienced by women in Iran, despite the great cultural potential of that ancient country. A girl of 9 is considered under the Iranian penal code to be an adult and is punishable as such (even to the extent of being subject to the death sentence); a girl of 13 or younger can legally be married off by her father, even if her mother objects; women, unlike men, are not recognised as appropriate witnesses under the law.

What can we do about it? We must first not let ourselves be held back by fears that we might be interfering inappropriately in the mores of another culture: discrimination is discrimination, and women in Iran are asking for our support. Second, let us use the power of our networks to share the word about Pegah Ahangarani as swiftly as possible. She and others like her should be free to go to watch football.

Why Anna Friel should be allowed to have two nannies

Page 3 of today’s Daily Mail sports a story about Anna Friel, reporting with typically understated horror the ‘news’ that she manage to juggle her life with a ‘secret’ ‘TWO nannies’ (both of whom are, it emerges, part-time. The article treads the fine line commonly understood by Daily Mail readers of remaining factual while seeking to elicit negative reactions, drawing a subconsciously negative comparison between Ms Friel’s privileged position and that of ‘ordinary mothers’, who ‘feel under increasing pressure to have it all – and juggle getting back in to shape, working and bringing up children’.

Leaving aside the obvious point that one of the main reasons that ‘ordinary’ mothers feel under such pressure is because they are constantly under assault from media outlets which tell them they should be feeling this, and leaving aside too the inherent sexism in the story (it is hard to imagine a story about a working father who employs one or more nannies making page 3 of the Daily Mail), we should ask ourselves why we seek to pillory women who create teams around them in order to enable them to live their lives to the full, for the good not only of themselves but also, clearly, of their families.

Online reaction was as to be expected – the best rated comments were for the most part those which rudely questioned Ms Friel’s choices, and expressed the opinion that she should effectively give up her career to concentrate solely on looking after her child. This is an argument which not only (incidentally) ignores the obvious detriment which would result to the nannies currently employed, but also fundamentally ignores Ms Friel’s right to make her own choices about her life.

In actual fact, if Anna Friel has two part-time nannies, or if Nigella Lawson (also referred to in the article) has a ‘Team Cupcake’ to support her, shouldn’t we applaud their creativity and ingenuity? As parents especially, we all need teams of supporters – grandparents, neighbours, friends, childminders, teachers – to help us do what we need to do in bringing up our children. One of the greatest social sadnesses of the last third of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has been that the notion of the extended family, which has naturally evolved into something looser as people move around more, has not been replaced acceptably in our social psyche by its obvious alternative – that of teams of other caring adults.

Instead, parents have become positioned as solely responsible for, and therefore solely to blame for, the upbringing of their children, and we have lost sight of the fact that while parents have a blood and emotional bond that surpasses all other bonds of responsibility for their children, they have to learn somewhere, from someone or other, how to parent. We do our parents – and therefore our children – a huge disservice if we criticise them for trying to create these networks.

As a society, we have a collective responsibility for our children. Let us support our parents whenever and however we can.

Forced and early marriage – are we right to intervene?

Plan UK have recently launched their latest action as part of their ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign: a move to bring forced and early marriage on to the agenda of the UK government and governments around the world. 10 million girls a year are subjected to forced and early marriage, and although the countries with the highest rates of early marriage are in Africa and Southern Asia, even in the UK in 2010 the UK Government Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,735 cases.

Why should we concern ourselves? Firstly, forced marriage is wrong – it is nothing less than an abuse of girls’ human rights, and we simply must not ignore it. Secondly, early marriage leads to early motherhood – and girls who give birth in their teens are more likely to die in childbirth than women who give birth in their twenties. Moreover, early motherhood as often as not leads to a girl’s education stopping in its tracks, with all the consequences this brings: reinforcing cycles of poverty and injustice.

All too often we worry, in our ‘developed’ world, about interfering with cultural traditions and ways of life of others. We agonise over whether we have the right to impose our views on others; and all too often this fear of being seen as illiberal translates into inaction. This is wrong, however; we are all human beings and need to stand up and be counted far more frequently than we are at present. Forced and early marriage is wrong – we should say so.

You can read the full report on Forced and Early Marriage at

And do ‘Take the Vow’ to make a difference to girls across the world.

Setting the scene..making a difference in the world by valuing gender equality and difference

Gender-related issues still sit uneasily in our society, particularly as regards girls and women and their life choices. An intense focus on superficial appearance brings with it a corresponding lack of focus on the great achievements of ordinary and not-so-ordinary women. Persistent, polarising debates in our media focus relentlessly on these choices in a way which is far less common with the choices made by men. Children or child-free? Working or stay-at-home mother? Trivially – is baking akin to slavery, or a feminist act? Deadly seriously – how come we are allowing young girls to be groomed for sex?

Tiring and tiresome these debates may be at times, but they are not surprising: our society is very much in transition as regards its perception of, and reaction to, the role of women and girls in particular. For many centuries, women have not had opportunities that have been open to men – in education, in relationships, in work. In a short space of time, we have changed a significant amount: no-one is in any doubt that strides towards gender equality over the past half century have made an enormous difference to the opportunities for women to be and do what they want and need to do in order to lead fulfilling lives, for their personal benefit and for the benefit of those around them.

So we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves – we are living in a crucible where change is occurring before our eyes. And yet we must not be complacent. If there is a persistent gender pay gap, with women faring worse than men, if only 22% of our MPs in the UK are women, and if – crucially – large sections of the population are unhappy with this, then we have work to do before we can genuinely say that we live in an equal world. Globally, in the developing world, there is much more to do. Plan, the children’s charity, reminds us that there are 75 million girls in the world who are not even in education, and this impacts on the economies, lives and families of millions more.

So we have work to do if we want to make the world a better place. It is our responsibility as human beings to take up the mantle and do so. And we must start with the world around us, examining critically the assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes that surround us about gender. We must comment on and share thoughts and ideas that help move us towards a better, deeper, fairer, happier understanding of one another.

My particular personal passion in all this debate is the education and development of girls and young women. Never before have our young women been under so much pressure – not just from the expectations that society places upon them, but through the intensity of communication of these messages. But our online, instant world can excite, inspire and improve as well … and this is the purpose of this blog.