Friday, 17 June 2016

Not so great Britain

Like a lot of people I woke up this morning feeling that our country, the UK, was a little less good. A bleaker, more unjust and dangerous place.

Last week there were 192 female Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Now there are 191. Only 29% of MPs are female, and now we've lost one - a hardworking one who spent her life campaigning for humanitarian causes.

There are lots of reasons why women are so under-represented in Westminster. And it can't be an easy journey for those women who do go down this route and become MPs. The struggles of having a family and meeting the demands of the job are one, and Jo Cox rose to this challenge.

By Garry Knight ("Jo Cox Memorial - 02" on Flickr) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

What happens to women who stand up for us 

I'd never heard of Jo Cox until her attack was reported in the news, although it turns out that someone I know is friends with her mother-in-law. And maybe it's trite, but as I cooked my little girl tea last night I though of the two little kids, waiting for their mum to come home and cook their tea, and imagined how that family will cope with the loss of their mother, sister, daughter, wife.

Cox campaigned against slavery, called for the lifting of the blockade of the Gaza strip and supported Syrian refugees, and worked with disadvantaged groups in Darfur and Afghanistan. She stood up for women, working on a campaign to prevent deaths in pregnancy and childbirth, and chairing the Labour Women's Network. Her death means there's one less person to stand up for all these groups.

It still would have been tragic, of course, if  Jo Cox had been Joe Cox (a man), if she didn't have two small children waiting for her at home, if she hadn't been quite so photogenic, hadn't spend years dedicating herself to fighting for humanitarian causes. The act of slaughter was horrific in itself. The other things just add to our feelings of sadness and outrage.

The effects of Jo Cox's death

The answers about exactly why and how this happened haven't come out yet. Even when they do, I doubt they will ever make much sense. The suggestions are that it was a planned attack from with an extreme right wing agenda, that Cox was killed because she believed in equality and freedom.

One of the effects could be that our MPs feel less safe around us, their constituents, get a bit more security, become a bit less easy for us to access. I hope not.

Whatever the intentions of the attack, it seems pretty likely that it will have the opposite effect to that which was intended. Cox campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU. If anything, her death and the outpouring of sadness and sympathy it has generated will bring about more votes to her side of the campaign, not less.

What can we do?

When we hear shocking news, we wonder what we can do. Humanitarian disasters spark appeals that we can give our money to, easing our guilty consciences about what is not happening to us. We can't undo wrongs that have been done. We can't bring back people who shouldn't have died. But we can listen to their voices, by supporting the causes they championed, we can appreciate our own lives a little more, maybe try a little harder to make the world a better place. And for Cox, who died in the cause of democracy, we can exercise our right to vote, wherever we decide to put our cross.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Lipstick to success

The real reason women spend so much time and effort getting ready is that we are more likely to succeed if we look attractive, whilst for men it makes little difference. So says an article in the Washington Post this week.

It's not what you've got...

The article is based on a research paper. It showed that:
  • Pretty people (men and women) earn more money (no surprise) than not so pretty people
  • Grooming has a bigger affect on women's salaries than men's
  • Less attractive but more well-groomed women earned significantly more, on average, than attractive or very attractive women who weren’t considered well-groomed.

So it's not just what you've got - it's what you do with it. So long as what you do with it is expensive clothes and mascara. It's a sad finding. But it probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to most of us.
Bad Hair Day by Shena Tschofen via Flickr Creative Commons
I'm not the kind of girl who can't answer the door without three coats of mascara and a full manicure, but I do wear makeup, every day. I want to feel I go out of the door looking my best. As I put on my eyeliner before heading out to Tesco, I joke (to myself) that you never know who you're going to run into in the frozen veg aisle. Prince Charming could just be waiting for me to pick up my peas, and I want to look my best, as our eyes lock over the Mexican beanburgers, and our finger brush across the Quorn. But enough of my supermarket fantasies.

Creative self expression?

I think there probably are women whose main aim in life is to be beautiful and stylish, who love nothing more than shopping for new clothes and beauty products, and piling them all on. And there are some women who feel happiest in jeans and a fleece, with no interest in makeup, who don't want to be bothered with worrying about what to wear every day. Like most of my sisters, I'm somewhere between the two.

This research into the links between personal grooming and success poses the question, is the greater effort, in time and money, that women spend on their appearance a form of 'creative self expression' or is it something more sinister - that women work at looking attractive if they want to succeed, while men can just focus their efforts on the work?

A lot of women, myself included, really enjoy the act of getting ready for a night out, putting together an outfit and painting our faces to project a particular image of ourselves. Are we doing it because we want to feel good about ourselves, to look younger, to compete with other women, to look alluring to men, to look pretty, sexy, rich, smart, successful, or even a bit dumb?

Behind the lipstick

I've heard all sorts of theories about makeup, including that putting on lipstick makes our mouths look vulva-like and put men in mind of sex (as if men need reminding of sex). And I've written before about beauty product manufacturers blinding us with bad science, telling us we need more "particles" (seriously).

I think the truth our compunction to beautify ourselves is vastly more complicated, incorporating a range of social, cultural, personal and genetic factors. And what's true for one woman isn't necessarily true for all of us. The motivations behind these acts of personal grooming are complex. And wearing more or less make-up isn't the key to shattering the glass ceiling.

What would happen if we all threw away our lipstick and went to work with full facial nudity? For years I went to work slap-free so the thought doesn't bother me, but it's unthinkable that women as a group would do this, makeup is such a central part of feminine culture.

There's no panacea, and wearing more mascara certainly isn't the answer, as it's only likely to perpetuate the problem. Our challenge is to wear as much or as little as we want, and still succeed at whatever we want to succeed at. It would be good for female success to be about success, and not just looking pretty.

Read The real reason that so many women have to spend so much time getting ready.