The Role Of Men

Last year Jude Kelly mentioned that she felt the WOW Festival could do more to encourage men to attend, and to involve men in the discussions taking place there. She felt that it was important that we, as women and feminists, engage with men more to see how they could help us. This year, that definitely seems to have become a focus on the programme as several of the sessions sought to bring men into the conversation.

The need to involve men actually arose early on Friday in the panel on International Activism. Valerie Amos (UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief coordinator on the Millennium Development Goals) was speaking about violence against women and girls and how this was a major barrier to the Millennium Goals being achieved. She clearly stated that men needed to raise their voices on this issue, not just to show support for women, but to lead other men in change. Jude Kelly agreed, admitting she finds herself ‘baffled’ when hearing about some violence against women, having a moment where she wonders if men do hate women (just a moment – it’s clear that she doesn’t). Although most men would never commit such acts, it’s important that they speak out against those that do. When women speak out on these issues it’s assumed to be important to them because they’re women. It needs to be important to all of us.

This point that men need to speak out came up time and again throughout other sessions on Friday and Saturday. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism session saw Michael Kaufman (co-author of the book of the same name and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign) pick this up. He clearly stated that violence against women is an issue for men. It happens to women they love – mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – and this should be something that they care about. He worries that violence against women makes some women suspicious of all men and his anecdote of women crossing the street late at night to avoid him sounded familiar to me. Crucially however, he said that men look to other guys to define what being a man is. All men must speak out as silence could give the impression that they’re okay with what’s happening. In fact one of the stated aims of the White Ribbon Campaign is that silence allows violence to continue. This must end.

Kaufman did admit that since most men broadly support equality (even if they wouldn’t call themselves feminists) they don’t speak out or engage in it. Another of the WRC’s aims raises the point that collective responsibility is required, but that it’s not about guilt; it’s not about men feeling guilt as men because of the violence that exists against women. It is, however, about men taking the opportunities presented to them to speak out and create change; men need to accept that responsibility.

Kaufman had a number of other interesting points to make in the Guy’s Guide to Feminism session. While funny and light (reading extracts from the book that set the tone) it’s clear that he feels very strongly about campaigning for change. He also spoke about the use of language and how it can be used to make women ‘disappear’. Describing women as ‘my lovely assistant’ (rather than capable for example) or using terms such as cavemen, mankind, chairman or postman – even when referring to women – just erases women completely. Women are diminished by being referred to as girls or chicks, especially in workplaces. Being aware of this may stop men from using these terms.

He also, interestingly, discussed the opportunities that feminism brings for men to transform themselves. He feels that the ‘macho’ culture is damaging to men and is something that feminism directly challenges. From birth, boys are bombarded with messages about what it means to be male and are openly humiliated if they don’t live up to this – boys don’t cry, don’t throw like a girl, play through the pain. However, these ideals are impossible to live up to. All people need love, nurture and connection but men cannot admit this. Men are left with massive internal conflict in trying to live up to these images.

When women challenge these ideals, as feminists do, it can leave men confused and angry. If this behaviour isn’t what it means to be a man, then what is it that still makes them men? Some men however can and do embrace this as an opportunity and a positive move towards transforming men’s lives.

Kaufman brought some of these points with him into the Conversation Between the Sexes panel, which was at times entertaining and at times somewhat uncomfortable to watch (Jon Snow and Shami Chakrabarti seemed to particularly butt heads, even when agreeing with each other). Jude Kelly did ask why more men don’t speak out about other men’s behaviour. Kaufman replied that he felt it was out of fear of appearing as if they are not a ‘real man’. He was optimistic that this was changing though. Jon Snow also commented that men could learn a lot from a festival like WOW as he couldn’t imagine men gathering to address issues in this way. It’s interesting to note that Jude did announce that Southbank Centre will be holding a Festival of Masculinity in January 2014 (that should be interesting!).

Kaufman’s last point, about what men need from women in order to change, did feed back into something I also heard in a few sessions over the weekend (so far). He noted that the nature versus nurture debate is shifting and that gender is something we learn. Our brains are shaped by our families, and we become gendered. He felt that men needed encouragement to reshape what it means to be men by transforming fatherhood. Increased parental leave would help but we also need to recast ideas of motherhood. Women need to accept that men can also nurture and allow them to fulfill this role.

Models of fatherhood cannot be underestimated (where fathers are present). In the International Activism panel Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala Yousafzai, spoke about what he did as father that allowed Malala to be the girl she has become. In Pakistan, having sons is important – the birth of daughters is barely celebrated. Men are known by the achievements of their sons but he described himself as ‘lucky and fortunate’ to be a man who is known by his daughter. So what did he do differently to other fathers? He says he did nothing but honour her as a person and treat her with respect. He said for too long women have been happy to be the strength behind men (behind every great man is a great women) but we should be side-by-side. Crucially he said there are three things men should do for their daughters – honour them, trust them and educate them. Wise words that certainly seem to have worked with Malala.

In The Keys To The Castle talk, Angelique Kidjo picked this up in relation to her own childhood. Every year her extended family would come to her parents (well, her father – her mother was considered to have no say in the matter) and tell him that it was time for Angelique to marry. Every year her father would tell them that no-one would tell him what to do in his own home and would insist that Angelique continue in her education. Even as she began to perform and singing became her passion her father told her that she could only continue singing if she continued attending school. The difference that education can make in a girl’s life in Africa is well documented but not all fathers feel able to take such a strong line, or believe it’s right.

So is there a role for men in helping to bring change in women’s lives? It’s clear that there is. They don’t necessarily need to call themselves feminists or be on the streets with us protesting. They don’t even need to attend WOW with us! They just need to take steps in their own lives – how they speak about women, how they relate to other men, their example of what it means to be a man and how they raise their daughters (and sons).

Advertisements

Too nice for self defence? No you’re not

Have you ever been followed home? Have you ever been shouted at on the street? Attacked? Raped?

I would have to say yes to some of these questions, and so would many women reading this, as the statistics show*. In all these cases, what happens is always the aggressor’s fault. That, I hope, goes without saying. There is no secret key which victims can turn to avoid these things happening.

Today’s session on self defence at the Women of the World festival was, however, a revelation.

It was led by Debi Steven – if you saw her walking down the street, the shortish South African might seem unassuming. You would be wrong – she’s an experienced martial artist, and fluent in what she calls ‘the dance of pain’. She runs an organisation called Premier Self-Defence in London. As it quickly turns out, that’s very apt – many of her techniques are about seeming unthreatening at first, but being able to tap into aggression and violence if necessary.

She asks us near to the start of the session, ‘Could you pick a brick up and smash it into another human’s face?’ Some in the audience are visibly shocked.

Most of the attendees of this session are younger women – that is no surprise. Even though women of all ages are harassed and attacked on the street and in their own home, there is a cluster of awfulness that young women tend to experience more, mostly from men. (Although, Steven says, it’s not impossible that you might be attacked on the streets by a teenage girl or a woman.)

Steven says that her aim is to ‘teach nice people to have no respect and go flat out’ – obviously, only in the worst scenario, if you can’t escape!

She has a number of practical tips: trust your intuition, if a situation feels threatening, it probably is so get away.

In a threatening confrontation on the street, don’t be confrontational back, don’t issue a command like ’go away’ – stroke the ego of the aggressor instead. If someone comes at you saying, ‘you looking at me?’, rather than say no, you might pretend you thought you recognised them from some realistic situation, like, for example, the gym. Say anything to get away and de-escalate the situation.

We ‘get to’ experience the trainers getting in our face, shouting at us, trying to intimidate us – it was actually quite scary, even though we knew it was an act.

Then we move on to a physical demonstration: as in trying out Debi’s defence techniques on four male volunteers. We do not, as a whole, really put much welly into, for example, slapping the volunteers on their carotid artery.

By the time we’ve worked through slapping, kicking, elbowing and screaming, however, it has changed. There’s no ladylike holding back – we are, as a group, unrecognisable. Seeing an elegantly dressed woman enthusiastically kneeing one of the trainers (he was holding a padded block!), I feel a little bit liberated. And that’s only after a taster session – the usual classes are about four hours long.

Feminists, many of us, are pretty pacifist. Women, all of us, are socialised to think of ourselves as weak and men as overwhelmingly strong.

One story that Debbie told stands out for me; she teaches a self defence class in a girls’ school to a group of 13 year olds. Every year, some of her make volunteers come away with broken ribs.

*I’m blogging this live so I trust you’ll Google if you’re not familiar with the dreadful numbers.

Working Girls

One of the themes that seems to have emerged in the schedule for this year’s WOW Festival is the importance of our working lives and the issues we face in the workplace as women. As with last year there are several speed mentoring opportunities (I was mentored last year and highly recommend it). However, there have also been new additions to the WOW programme, including panel discussions on Shyness in Networking, Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, Getting a Broad On The Board, What Is a Social Enterprise, and How to Start one and some practical clinics on Juggling Act: Work/Life Balance.

This pattern has come at an interesting time for me. I’m lucky to have a job I love and that challenges me, in an organisation whose values I share. I’ve been in the management role I do now for several years and am at a stage where the next set of challenges is on my mind. However, I am also six months pregnant, so am about to take a big step back for what I expect will be a full year’s maternity leave. As a result both the Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office panel and the Work/Life Balance seemed to reflect the somewhat conflicting stages I’m now at.

I’m reasonably happy with my Work/Life balance in general but decided this might be a good opportunity to think about how it’s going to change, and how I would like it to look in the future. The session was supportive and practical and was a great opportunity for some of us to ask questions of the other women there in terms of how they manage their lives (with or without children), but one question raised did resonate with several of us, and carried through to the following discussion on ‘nice girls’. One attendee found that they struggled to get recognition for their work, without being seen to brag. It may be a sweeping generalisation but women are perceived to find this difficult. We don’t like to be seen to go on about our achievements in the way that many men in the workplace tend to do. Is that a bad thing? Without recognition of the work we’re doing it’s possible we’ll get passed over for promotion, or worse be seen to be ineffective in our current roles. As a manager of others I frequently hold appraisals with staff who sometimes have very little to say in the ‘what are your strengths?’ part of the discussion – in spite of the fact that they definitely have many valuable skills. They often just feel uncomfortable raising them, and that’s within the confines of a one-to-one conversation specifically designed to invite them to.

The Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office panel carried this point through it in various guises. I’ve not read the book by Lois P Frankel but the subtitle of 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers probably tells you most of what you need to know – the book identifies ways of behaving that women have in the workplace that are barriers to progression and gives hints and tips to overcome them. Much of the discussion wondered if the book was necessary, or the right way to go. It could definitely be argued that if women want to succeed (get the corner office) in the corporate sector then this book could definitely identify behaviours that could help. But is that what we, as women, want? Is part of the reason there are so few women on boards partially because we don’t want to succeed in those kinds of male-dominated environments, where these games are played?

Part of the behaviour flagged up is the alleged tendency on the part of women to be the ‘nice girl’ – obedient, head-down, hard-working, doing what you’re told and thinking that this will be enough to get you promoted. In reality, you have to have the confidence to put yourself forward and take risks, ensuring that your work is recognised. We don’t like to brag. However, as the panel mentioned, does anyone really like the people who do show-boat and brag? And should we be worried about being liked anyway? There’s probably a balance to be struck here. Mildred Talabi, one of the panellists, mentioned that the behaviour she identified from the book’s self-assessment quiz was her ability to market herself. This surprised her as someone well experienced in marketing, but when it came to her own ‘brand’ in her workplace she agreed she wasn’t getting it right. She could do amazing things (making miracles) but when this was mentioned to her, she’d downplay and minimise her achievements as if these things had just magically happened. We need to learn to accept praise and admit we worked hard on something.

I can’t help but wonder if buying into these tips will just reinforce a corporate, male way of working that we shouldn’t have to conform to to succeed. Is this game-playing our way of doing things? At last year’s session on Women, Power and Change Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke out in favour of quotas on boards, with the reasoning that the current criteria board members are hired against are set by men who have those skills. More women on the boards may mean the criteria change to be equally effective but more recognisable to women who will become more likely to go for those positions in future. Similarly by buying into these 101 mistakes we’re just maintaining the status quo, but if we don’t then we won’t get the corner office and begin to effect change from the inside (a point made by panellist Hannah Philp, who had fascinating things to say about her experience of working in corporate culture in general).

I’d be interested in hearing if similar themes came up at today’s Getting A Broad on the Board session. The questions and comments from the floor at the panel I went to were incredibly animated and impassioned and went from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of agreeing with this book. There’s plenty more to be said and I hope the discussion continues at WOW 2013 and for a long time after.

Lori Halford

Where to start at WOW 2013

Friday is International Women’s Day which for me for the last three years means one thing – it’s time for the WOW Festival at Southbank Centre.

If you’ve never been, or worse have never heard of it, it’s a three day festival of talks exploring and celebrating what it means to be a woman in the world today. Women, and some men, get together for panel discussions, speed mentoring, talks and networking and I can honestly say it’s one of the highlights of my year. Last year I blogged about quite a few of the sessions, including some I missed and caught online afterwards and this year I plan to do the same.

To give a flavour of what’s to come, these are some of the sessions I’m thinking about a checking out:

The juggling act: work/life balance clinic – I’m always interested in what a work/life balance looks like to different people but now that I’ve a baby on the way I suspect my definition is about to change. This clinic sounds like a great opportunity to think about what it means to me and now I think I can achieve it in the future.

Nice girls don’t get the corner office and Getting a broad on the board – I may be interested in work/life balance but part of that is because I value my working life and am lucky to have a job I love. It would be foolish however to ignore the fact that there are still barriers for women to succeed. Also, is the latter session title a move to reclaim the word ‘broad’ because I like it!

The guy’s guide to feminism, Conversation between the sexes and Misogyny and Misandry – Jude Kelly mentioned last year that she wanted to see more men engaged in conversations with women and feminism and there are quite a few sessions this year which do just that. I’ll be interested to see how some of these conversations go.

Pornography – I missed the session on this last year (so many sessions, so little time) but did watch it online afterwards and blogged about it. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing this year’s panel discuss our modern relationship with porn and whether ‘feminist porn is an oxymoron’.

I’m sure I’ll get side-tracked into other sessions, which is part of the joy of the festival, but I look forward to gathering my thoughts on here over the course of the weekend.

Lori Halford

Women and the Olympics

It’s only a few weeks now to the start of the Olympics and how women perform and are represented should be interesting.

Team GB have some incredible women competing and medal hopes are high for women like Jessica Ennis and Rebecca Adlington. Unfortunately, for Adlington at least, her performance is sometimes overshadowed by abusive tweets about her appearance. It’s amazing that some choose to judge her on how attractive they think she is, rather than how amazing she is as an athlete but I really respect her for speaking up about it, and in one case retweeting an example to her 50,000 plus followers. Jessica Ennis has had to laugh off comments about her being ‘fat’, made by a ‘high-ranking’ official. The only appropriate response to that is laughter, as it’s so far from reality.

Femininity and sport is something that comes up time and again however. The ruling dictating that women badminton players must wear skirts was rescinded after an outcry last year but attempts were made earlier this year to do the same in boxing. 2012 will be the first year that women have been allowed to compete in boxing at the Olympics, but apparently there was concern that female boxers were indistinguishable from the men – as if people would be confused about what event they were at or, god forbid, actually enjoyed the match irrespective of who was in the ring. Again, this ruling has not gone ahead but it just goes to show how concerned the moneymakers in sport are that women don’t look ‘feminine’ enough (ie attractive to men).

Femininity has taken on another dimension for women in South Africa, especially in the aftermath of the publicity surround Caster Semenya. When Semenya won the World Champtionship in 2008 allegations were rife that she was a man. Much public speculation followed and she was subjected to testing, while suspended from competing. Although the results of the tests were never made public she has been cleared to compete and all previous results stand. It’s an issue which continues to come up in South Africa in particular as ‘an estimated 1 per cent of the 50 million people [there] are born “intersex,” meaning they don’t fit typical definitions of male or female’. For more on this issue, I recommend this fascinating article on The Toronto Star’s website.

Of course, all of the above is about women who will be competing at the Olympics. For some, that remains a pipe dream. The IOC have been under pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia who have now ruled out sending any women to the Olympics at all.  This is in direct violation of the Olympic Charter, but no action has been taken against them. Women’s rights there may have come a long way but there is still clearly reluctance to treat them as equals, especially in a public arena such as the Olympics. It’s a real shame the IOC haven’t followed this through and prevented the men from competing as a result, as it would have sent a very clear message that they take this kind of issue seriously. The Saudi Olympic committee did leave it open for women to compete on their own, not endorsed by them, but they have also been refused permission to compete under the Olympic flag as officials claim there is still some hope in resolving the issue. Time is running out however.

For those of us attending as spectators instead of competitors, we can only hope that the directors of the television footage think us attractive enough for those lingering shots of women that we’ve seen during the Euro 2012 competition. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Huffington Post has assembled a gallery of the 82 most attractive women captured by the cameramen (I’m assuming men here).

In spite of my cynicism, I am really looking forward to the Olympics in London. I have tickets for events at both the Olympics and Paralympics and hope it will be an amazing few weeks in London. I will also however have a keen eye on the issues surround the women taking part, hopefully celebrating quite a few of them in the process.

Can feminists wear engagement rings?

I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me.

The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds – all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum.

In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him.

Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.

However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way – not because you wear a ring.

Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest?

Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t – by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings.

Things I learned this weekend

I came home with my head spinning after the final day of WOW 2012 so thought I’d share some of my reflections from the weekend.

There is no shortage of wonderful role models for women and girls – I developed massive girl crushes on Jude Kelly, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti and Bidisha but also heard Ruby Wax and Rosie Boycott talk about the awful lows in their lives, Rosie Boycott (again) and others discuss global economics, all of the panel at the Arab Spring session, Sali Hughes and India Gary-Martin on body politics, Dr Kiran Bedi on the criminal justice system and many, many more. There are inspirational women all around us.

Strike a woman, strike a rock – The recent protests and strikes were largely lead and run by women. When we get together we can be magnificent (with thanks to TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady)

Women need to get into power to change things – Quotas came up in several discussions I attended and I’ve written another post about it. India Gary-Martin was also asked at the Body Politics session how things will change with regards to ‘acceptable hairstyles’ if people like her are still afraid to come to work with dreadlocks. Her answer was that her recruitment practices were changing the culture of the organisation and in time, what’s acceptable will also change. Great answer.

Find your people – The best way to recover from the hardest times in your life is by finding support from those who truly understand what you’re going through. I think the same is true of feminism. Finding support from other women and feminists is crucial. The WOW festival certainly helped address that and I met some amazing women.

There is so much more to be done for women in the world – from Shami Chakrabarti’s breakdown of what is still going on worldwide at the Women, Power and Change session, to the emotional discussion at the Arab Spring session and the panel about the Criminal Justice System it’s clear that we still have a lot to do to bring about equality for women worldwide.

Education of girls is key – The winning idea at the WOW Den was about creating an empowered girls’ network, educating girls and boys about how to relate to each other in a respectful way, and addressing the curriculum of all subjects in school to ensure the role of women is properly taught. It’s an exciting project. In addition, one of the WOWsers stood up and presented her idea about the need for black women to be better represented in careers such as the police force so that they could be role models for young black girls like herself. It was really tough for her to stand up in front of this room of women and speak but with the support of the panel and fellow students she did it. She’ll learn a lot about herself from having done so.

We’re not ladies – After a long and hilarious discussion on the meaning of the word lady, we ditched it. It’s gone. Forget it.

Feel the fear and do it anyway – I did one of the speed mentoring sessions and met some fantastic mentors. A key message from all of them? Go for it. Whatever it is, whatever I want to do, embrace my skills, let them bring me confidence and go for it.

I learned an awful lot more than this but these were some of the key themes which emerged for  me. I look forward to talking about them more on blogs, forums and twitter. Let’s keep the #WOW2012 hashtag going and keep chatting about what we know and what we can do.