Saturday, 24 November 2012

Church of England says ‘no’ to women bishops

My recent record in predicting the outcome of current events is pretty poor. Last week I predicted that Obama would lose the US presidency to Romney. This week I predicted that the church would vote ‘yes’ to women bishops. On the first could I was wonderfully, gleefully wrong. On the second, I was also wrong. Sadly wrong.

I can sort of understand that the church might decide that Jesus chose men to be his disciples (ignoring the whole Mary Magdalene thing, as some of them seem to), so vicars should therefore all be men. I’m sure the argument is a bit more complex and theological than that, but that seems to be the gist. OK, so if you think that’s what your religion teaches you, then fair enough. Although you could argue that Jesus worked within the culture of his time, when having women trekking about with him and preaching, or whatever it was disciples did, wouldn’t have been acceptable. He worked with what he had.

One problem with saying ‘no’ to women bishops, is that they’ve already said ‘yes’ to women vicars. That makes no sense. You either accept female clergy, at all levels or you don’t accept them at all. This is plain discrimination – let women in to help with the ground-level stuff. After all, women can be cuddly and nice, so they’ll probably be good at that whole compassion bit. But you wouldn’t want them telling people what to do, deciding what direction the church should take, or whatever it is that bishops do. Besides, those pointy hats won’t make the most of their cheekbones, and they’d only get their stilettos caught in the cobblestones outside the cathedral.

Bishops in the Lords

I’m not a Christian, so in a sense, it’s none of my business. After all, no one is saying that women shouldn’t have independence, education and other positions of power, just that women shouldn’t become bishops. Where I do think it is my business is when it comes to the House of Lords. The Lords have limited power, but they are very influential, and can have an impact on the way the UK laws are made. There are 26 bishops seats in the House of Lords (out of a total 760 seats that's 3.4% - small but not insignificant).

I have issues about religious people having a role in the political process anyway. They should stick with visiting the sick and bothering their flock, and not try to inflict their views on the rest of us. But assigning seats of power to a group that refuses to represent 50 per cent of the population is just unacceptable. The fact that the majority of the clergy voted in favour of female bishops suggests that they probably know this. But the church has to get its act together on this one. Sort yourselves out, boys (and girls).

If the Church of England wants to discriminate against women, contradicting itself in the process, by refusing to let women become bishops, then that’s its decision. But then it should relinquish its seats in the House of Lords until it decides to treat people equally, regardless of gender. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Why you 'probably’ shouldn’t drink during pregnancy

Sometimes you have to be a rude and nasty girl, to make people sit up and listen to you. When people I know are pregnant, and the subject of alcohol comes up, I feel the need to do this. It feels too important to be polite and pleasant and let them get on with it. So I was delighted to wake up to this headline on Thursday this week: 'Moderate drinking in pregnancy harms IQ'.

The BBC article reports a new piece of research from Oxford and Bristol universities, which looked at the IQ scores of 4,000 children and the alcohol intake of their mothers. It found that a ‘moderate’ alcohol intake of one to six units a week during pregnancy had a very small affect on the children’s IQ. It was pretty tiny - just one or two points of their IQ.

But who wants their child to one or two cards short of the full deck?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1954

You know you shouldn’t...

Everyone knows you shouldn't drink during pregnancy. It’s bloody obvious that it’s not going to be good for your developing child.

This famous photograph, shows a small boy carrying two bottles of wine. The sinister aspect is that his face shows the signs of foetal alcohol disorder (FAS).

I feel strongly about this, because I’ve met adoptive parents who deal with the effects of the extreme end of this – bringing up the children of alcoholic mothers who didn’t moderate their drinking during pregnancy and as a result gave birth to children whose problems can include: heart defects, sight/hearing impairment, hyperactivity, attention problems, cognitive problems, impaired coordination, learning difficulties, impaired memory. For more about this, read Matthew’s Story. 

Protect your child with magic beans

All the pregnant women I have known will do pretty much anything to protect their unborn child. If you tell a pregnant woman that rubbing baked beans onto her belly will promote foetal brain development and help her child become the next Einstein/Shakespeare, she will probably do it. 

The trouble is, despite knowing for decades that alcohol and pregnancy shouldn’t really mix, we’ve not yet managed to come up with a coherent or coordinated message. 

Alcohol and the foetus

During the different stages of pregnancy, different parts of the foetus are being formed at different times. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, can affect the development of whichever parts are developing at that time. For example, the heart is developing during weeks four and five, so drinking during this time could lead the baby to have heart problems. Drinking when the eyes are developing could lead to the child having sight problems. 

This is a well-known and extremely scary photo. On the right it shows a normal brain. On the left it shows a brain damaged by alcohol. 
No one is suggesting that if you have one drink a week, or even just a couple of drinks over your whole pregnancy, that this will happen to your child. It definitely won’t. This is the result of serious and sustained alcoholism. With just the odd drink or two, probably your child will be absolutely fine. But it’s this ‘probably’ that bothers me. 

Current guidelines on drinking during pregnancy

Women are clearly told not to drink much during pregnancy, but what’s not clear is whether it’s really OK to have the odd glass, or whether they should abstain completely. Drinking in the first and second trimesters, when the baby’s brain is developing, is the most dangerous time, so women are sometimes told to avoid drinking at this time, and wait until the final three months of pregnancy. 

Part of the problem is that if drinking small amounts of alcohol does have an affect on unborn babies, then it is very small, and therefore difficult to detect amid the many other factors that influence children’s development. Previous studies have produced inconsistent and confusing evidence about this. 

Relatively little harm

Dr Arun Ghosh, who is interviewed in the BBC report, ends by saying that women shouldn’t drink at all during pregnancy, but if you have the odd drink “You’ll do relatively little harm, if any at all, to your baby.”

But do you really want to do "relatively little" harm to your baby. Wouldn’t you prefer to not have a glass of wine, and therefore do no harm at all? Is having a drink really worth any risk, however tiny?

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Why no female conductors?

I play the violin in an amateur orchestra, and we’re currently on the hunt for a new conductor. We’re going through an interesting process of having lots of different guest conductors take our rehearsals and concerts. Suggestions of conductors come from the orchestra. But all of the candidates on the list so far are men. Why aren’t there any women? Where are they all?

Like many amateur orchestras, we employ professional conductors and soloists for our concerts. In the past ten years, playing with three amateur orchestras and many conductors, I have encountered one lone female, Katherine Dienes, then Musical Director at St Mary’s Church in Warwick, who has since gone on to bigger things becoming, her biog says, 'the first woman to hold the most senior musical post in a Church of England cathedral'. Go Katherine.

Does my bum look big?

The conductor will have his/her back to the audience, so if you are sensitive about large numbers of people scrutinising you from this view, it might not be the career for you. That said, black is quite a flattering colour. And the aerobic arm movements could do wonders for your bingo wings.

Antisocial hours

On a more sensible note, the classical music industry (like the wider music industry) is not exactly family friendly, with performances almost exclusively taking place in the evenings. Professional soloists or conductors working with amateur orchestras have the added grind that all rehearsals must also take place outside normal working hours, once us players have finished our day jobs. But most of our concerts involve at least one professional soloist, and these are a good mix of men and women. If there are female soloists, why are there so few conductors?

Power and pressure

I wondered if it was something to do with the way women and conductors are perceived. The conductor is in a position of power. He or she sets the pace, brings his or her interpretation to the piece and keeps the orchestra together. The conductor runs orchestra rehearsals in the same way that a director runs theatre rehearsals. They tell us to shut up if we’re talking or playing too loudly, and they make us go back and do it all again if, in their view, we haven’t done it well enough (quite like a teacher).

It's the conductor's responsibility to keep everything together during the concert. There is a lot of pressure on them, particularly shortly before the concert when it invariably looks like it's going to go wrong. So it's a pretty stressful job, but lots of women do stressful jobs. And there are plenty of female music teachers conducting school orchestras. So if women regularly do this from the classroom, what is keeping them off the professional podium?

Marin Alsop conductingA touch of Googling reveals a scattering of female heavyweight conductors, including Marin Alsop (USA, pictured) and Julia Jones (UK), but they are a rarity. Jones points to this being a peculiarly British problem, saying: “There are far fewer women conductors in Britain than in the rest of Europe: I know at least 20 young female conductors, but not one of them is British" (Guardian, 2010).

Increasing numbers of female directors are breaking through in the theatre world, the traditionally male-dominated arena of comedy has been well and truly infiltrated. But it looks like the world of conducting might be one of the last all-male bastions of the arts. I'm hoping we will see a few women on the podium soon.