I worry for the girls …

Sep 18


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Helen Whitten

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I worry for the girls …

I went to a talk the other night by Frank Dikotter, the author of How to be a Dictator.  He mentioned at the beginning of the evening that all the dictators he had profiled were men.  So, at the end of the lecture I asked him whether he could have chosen a woman.  His immediate response was “well it is still a man’s world.”

And it is. Just look at the photos or news coverage of political or business meetings from around the world and you mainly see a majority of men around the head table.  I am not seeking a world of women dictators but despite all my generation’s protestations for women’s equality there are still major gaps that need to be addressed, particularly financially, but also in terms of how women are encouraged to think about themselves as confident individuals, independent of men.  I worry about the insidious ‘put-downs’ that occur to keep women in their place, which are by no means a domain of the older generation but sadly are witnessed in the behaviours of young men too.  For that reason I worry for the young women of today … and those growing up to be women in tomorrow’s world. 

I question why so much publicity and praise is being given to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian view of a future world in The Handmaid’s Tale.  It fills me with horror and I have no desire to watch it or read the book. There is far too much subjugation of women still occurring globally to wish to watch more fiction on the subject.  In my experience of my own life and the lives of my clients it is far more useful to imagine a picture of the world one is seeking to create rather than to hold images of a world one would hate to live in.

If it is ever to be a world where the balance of power is equally shared by men and women we have a great deal of work to do.  Perhaps it is the perennial concern of the older generation to be anxious about the world their grandchildren will enter and, as you know, I am in the main an optimist.  But there are aspects of what is happening in the UK and the world, with the ease of access to porn, the violence being shown to women in Africa, India, the Middle East, South America to name just a few, the huge increase in reports of rape here, that makes me uneasy.  Of course we don’t want to convict the innocent but surely it is obvious that there are only a minority of women who raise these issues without due cause.  Neither the police nor university departments, where girls report being unsupported over complaints of rape or harassment, are taking sufficient action to keep girls safe.  These are intelligent young women who are shocked to find themselves victims of sexual misconduct.

The growing tendency for young boys and men to view porn is leading to more of this hideous habit of bullying girls and women to feel they have to sink to the demands of partners.  Whilst we have spent our lives promoting women’s confidence, the technical revolution of sadistic and misogynistic digital games and apps has led to an undermining of what we have built up.  I mentioned ‘hazing’ in a recent blog but have just come across ‘stealthing’ which is where a man removes a condom half way through making love.  Isn’t that appallingly callous and cruel? 

Why do young men feel that they can treat girls in such a disrespectful and cold way?  Perhaps it is the objectification that comes through viewing porn and violent games.  The #MeToo campaign has uncovered women’s experiences of men and it doesn’t make good reading.  (Though at the same time women should not be opportunistic in claiming harassment where there may have been none.  Nor should men be judged online without a legal process.)  But the stories imply that the sense of entitlement that my generation experienced lives on today.  A man’s world still.

And talking of safety, we are back to my old chestnut of trans people in girls’ changing rooms in schools.  A leaked set of guidelines from the Equality and Human Rights Commission is recommending that those who identify as transgender or are ‘exploring their gender identity’ will be allowed to use the changing rooms of their chosen gender and would also be allowed to sleep in single-sex rooms on school trips if they identify with that gender.  Tanya Carter, of the Safe Schools Alliance, was reported in the Sunday Times 15.9.19, as saying she was appalled by this approach which ‘ignores the rights of girls’.  Girls at several schools have been told they can no longer wear skirts, although at other schools boys are being told they can wear skirts (it’s a mad world!).  Many schools are adopting trousers for all. 

The natural enjoyment of being different and experimenting with fashion is being denied to girls.   They are being expected to dress and behave like men rather than embrace the fun of difference.  On the one hand this is all being done in the name of ‘diversity’ but the simple diversity that exists between boys and girls, men and women, is now being obliterated. 

And the trend continues into school and professional sport.  Transgender players will continue to be able to compete in the category they choose, even if it is patently obviously unfair to do so. 

All this in order to make a small percentage of the population more comfortable, which is fine except it has the potential for making others feel uncomfortable.  It all seems thoroughly undemocratic.  Who has asked girls how they feel about these changes?  Or you?  Or me?

Of course trans children and adults should be treated with respect, compassion and consideration.  My question is how much consideration are girls being given?  But any time anyone expresses an inkling of concern on these issues one is labelled a transphobe and told to shut up.

The difficulties continue into adult life, it seems to me.  There remains the problem of tax on sanitary products, which makes a natural occurrence for 50% of the population financially onerous, especially for poorer girls and women.  And is still unacknowledged in its debilitating impact on women in the workplace and in sport, who are expected just to grin and bear it, as they have for centuries.

Then there’s childbirth.  This has become more efficient in some ways but less caring in others.  Young women in our family have been sent home 5 hours after a first baby.  No time to adapt in the safety of a hospital, to learn more about feeding, nappy changing, bathing.  Chucked back into the home where you are totally dependent on the kindness of a husband or family to help you get your strength back and become more confident.  In my mother’s day new mothers stayed in hospital for up to four weeks to adapt to becoming mothers.  In my time I was in hospital for 10 days after a Caesar. My daughter-in-law was back home in 24 hours after a Caesarean.  I cannot imagine how I would have coped, as all I can remember is the pain and exhaustion!

And, as a recent survey found, there is little care for the mother after birth.  Apparently there is funding for a baby’s health check but not for the mother!  Many new mums are hardly given any time with a health visitor or GP to give them a health check, let alone advice and comfort in what can be a hugely anxious time.

Maternity leave is helpful but at the same time leaves women open to being left behind in skillsets and the career ladder.  It is only women who can carry children to create the next generations –  the technology hasn’t advanced to alter that particular role yet!  So, for the sake of all humanity, surely they need support.

Motherhood leaves women way behind financially.  In a recent UBS study of male and female finances they calculated that a wife not only forfeits a year’s salary on maternity leave but, with all other factors taken into account, is likely to be 43% less well-off than her husband at the end of her life, even if they have similar qualifications.  Part of this is also that women can still assume that a man will take care of their investments, which can leave a woman exposed should they become widowed or single.  The UBS report “Own your worth: why women should take control of their wealth to achieve financial well-being” points out that many women defer thinking about their long-term future and, as a result, end up with less pension.

Guidant Financial reported recently that more women are starting their own businesses.  This has been a trend for some time.  Having run a small business myself I know that it can give one more control over one’s time, not having to fit into an organisational system or answer to a boss.  However, one always has to answer to clients and it is extremely hard work, often with less pay and certainly with less perks in the way of sick pay, holiday pay or the ability to put sufficient funds into a pension. 

Fathers are far more involved with their children and the home than they ever used to be, which is great.  The sharing is good.  Yet Ruth Davidson’s resignation recently has once again highlighted both the emotional pull of motherhood and also the conflict that arises when one has to let go of a job one loves yet can no longer manage happily.

The world needs women’s voices and perspectives.  Governments and organisations need to reflect the world in a balanced way.  We can be every bit as skilled, competent and intelligent as men in a multitude of different careers and ways but we may see things differently, may pick up something that someone else has not noticed, may approach a situation from another angle.    Yet becoming a CEO or an MP is daunting when one can be judged more harshly and become the recipient of brutal trolling.  I take my hat off to those women who have stuck their head above the parapet and have to work their way through revolting tweets with threats of death and rape.

We must be vigilant to protect what has been built up in our culture and society.  I would hate the cultural or digital habits of young men to push women back down to any lower status.  The key now is to encourage young women to expect and demand good things for themselves in work and life and to command the respect of others, not be self-deprecating.  And for young men to see that women are their equals. 

We really don’t need awful images of women being subjugated as we see in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Do we?  Let’s build the images of young women happily running organisations, families and countries alongside their male counterparts, equal but different.  Knowing their worth.

Just to let you know that we are off on a road trip in the USA next week so I shall be silent for a few weeks while we drink in the atmosphere and music of Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.  Will report back!


2 Responses

  1. Enjoy the holiday, sounds exciting and fun and an escape from brexit etc
    Will miss these stimulating and sometimes uncomfortable views

    1. Thanks David, yes I am sorry if I raise some subjects that are uncomfortable but just feel that we all need to be vigilant to trends and the tendency these days to cast anyone who disagrees with one as either evil or ignorant. Hope to see you soon. It will indeed be great not to be inundated by Brexit news though being inundated by Trump news might be just as exhausting and depressing! xx

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