Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The policy of separating children from their parents

This week the world learned that the US is tearing children away from their parents and locking them in cages. If I’d read that sentence a week ago I’d have thought it was an exaggeration, but now we’ve seen the videos and the pictures. It's a political policy, become real.

The country has left the UN Human Right’s Council, and made a firm stand that it genuinely doesn’t give a crap about human rights.

Disabled children are being left with no support, toddlers are wailing for their mothers and given no comfort. The euphemism ‘tender age shelters’ is used for institutions housing children under five who are hysterical and distraught. It’s so horrible, I don’t really have the words, just tears. But I’m trying to find them.

There’s a horrible irony that the country founded and populated almost entirely by immigrants, is the one that takes the harshest stance on letting people in. Let’s not forget that a lot of these people are fleeing violence and terror. They’re not flooding into the US just because they like hamburgers or fancy a trip to Vegas.  

I wrote a doctorate about the subject of separating children from their parents. Basically my research found that it’s bloody obvious that children need their parents, and it’s been bloody obvious for a really long time – like at least 160 years. It used more academic language and there was like, evidence and proof and that type of thing. But that was the gist.

Photo by Gary Robson via Flickr Creative Commons

Once upon a time

Here’s an unrelated story about a mother and daughter living a comfortable, privileged life.
My small daughter spent last weekend away with her father. They have a good, loving relationship. Come Monday morning, she’d just got me, her mum, back, and we had to say goodbye again when she went to nursery and I went to work. Normally she runs off to her friends happily, but on this day she didn’t want to let me go. I left, because I had to and I watched with relief (and sadness) as her nursery teacher scooped her up into a cuddle and with reassuring words carried her into nursery.

I’m telling you this story, because it shows how hard children find separation from their parents. My daughter was in familiar places with people she knows really well. But still letting go of her mother was difficult.

So I imagine us being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and her being taken from me. Saying good bye and not knowing when she would see me again. And not having the familiar friendly nursery teacher to cuddle and reassure her. To have no one, just a foil blanket. And for the parents, the agony of knowing that your small, vulnerable child is out there, alone and scared. Crying and wailing with no one to wrap their arms around them.

Forced separation

Forced separation is torture for a mother and child. I’m not being glib. The level of emotional damage it has for the child and the agony for the parent means it constitutes an act of torture, to both of them. Studies have shown you can fulfil a young child’s physical needs, given it food, water and shelter, but unless you meet it’s emotional needs, with comfort and love, it will just fade away and die.

I heard a news report of a poll that said that most Americans disagreed with the policy of separating families in the immigration process – around 66%. I’m sorry? Only 66%? Because that means that 34% of Americans think it’s OK, or don’t care. So now I am screaming at America. HOW CAN YOU NOT CARE ABOUT THIS? HOW CAN THIS BE OK?  

Changing the policy

As I write I’m watching updates bringing in new laws to stop the practice. And that's good. But we all know why this is suddenly happening – the pictures and audio of crying children have gone around the world and the US government is suddenly in the midst of a PR crisis. So they make a swift about turn, and of course blame the previous government. Because politics is a game, to those that play it. But the pieces are real people and their lives and their children.

I hope this does stop this awful thing from happening. But what about the children who have already been separated? More than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents. Will they be immediately reunited? I doubt it will be that efficient. And if and when they are reunited then that isn’t an end to it. That’s 2,300 children who’ve suffered severe and lasting trauma. They’re not going to be OK. Some will be resilient, but for others this experience will never leave them.

Those of who live safe and comfortable lives are so lucky. But we could easily have been born in another place. That four-year-old taken from her mother could have been my beautiful, precious four-year-old. That's what I think when I see the pictures. And if it was me I would want the world to stamp and scream on my behalf until I got my baby back. And stop this happening to other people. 

We know this is a bad thing to do. We know it in our heads, from endless studies and academic research, and we know it in our hearts, from seeing and feeling. Please make it stop.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Gender pay gap

Are women worth less than men?

All companies with more than 250 employees had to report what they pay men and women this month. The figures show that eight out of ten organisations of this size in the UK have a gender pay gap. I still haven't decided if this is just depressing, or if making the information so public is a sign of change. 

What the numbers mean

This means that women are generally paid less than women, but the figures highlight where the biggest inequalities lie, both in terms of sectors and companies. It isn’t about paying men and women different amount of money for doing the same job – that’s illegal. What it is about is that if you're a woman in all probability you take home less money than most of the men you know. It's not that your employer is paying you less than the men, but it could be that it's harder for you to get to the top-paying jobs. 

The Guardian explains the data in more detail, describing it as ‘a blunt tool’. The figures are good at giving a sense of the kind of pay gap between men and women, and how that is expressed across different organisations. But you can’t use them to say that any one individual is being paid less than they should be because of their gender.

The Guardian also has a fun game: 'When does your company stop paying women in 2018?' It's used the figures to convert the gender pay gap into the number of days women effectively work for free. You can type in the name of your company and it will tell you from what date in the year you stop getting paid. It's funny now, in April. Come the fag end of the year, when most of us are effectively working unpaid in comparison to the men we know, I expect it will be more depressing. Did I say fun?

Photo by Hamza Butt via Flickr Creative Commons

The figures are across men and women in all roles. That means if a company only has men at senior level then it will come out as having a big gender pay gap. A small number of companies have a gender pay gap in favour of women - usually because they have more women than men in the top jobs.

Working out what we're worth

The landscape of work is vastly complex. It’s hard to work out whether I am paid less than a man for doing my job, because nobody else does my job. And there are millions of people out there like me, who work in companies that employ a single person to do a unique job. Comparing these jobs to each other is hugely difficult. 

Salaries are decided based on lots of factors, including:
  • Geography – where you are in the country
  • What the organisation pays other people at this level  
  • What the sector pays other people doing this or a related job
  • What’s available in the budget
  • How much you asked for (you're supposed to negotiate)
  • Manager’s discretion (including much they want you and how good they think you are)
What reinforces this culture, is that we’re not supposed to talk about how much we earn. A combination of Britishness and contractual obligation prevents us from discussing actual numbers. And it’s in our employers’ interest to keep it this way. So like most other workers in the UK, I have no idea how much the people who sit around me make. They could all be on six figures, or getting half my salary, for all I know and they will think the same of me.

Do people take me less seriously because I’m a woman? Am I supposed to ask for more money at some point? Has my gender pushed me into making career mistakes?

Why in 2018 do women still earn less than men? 

This is the million dollar question (literally). 

Sometimes I'm sure it's about the employers, valuing women less than men and expecting less of us, sometimes it's the employees, lacking confidence to negotiate on salary or go for the top jobs that we're just as capable as men of doing.

But the two biggest reasons that most research throws up are type of job and child-rearing. 

Women predominate in sectors that pay less - care work, teaching, charities, the arts, while men predominate in better paid areas such as finance and engineering.

And women are more likely than men to step back from work when they have children. Whether by going part time or taking time off, or just keeping their career where it is for a while, while our children are young, we're not progressing all that much. At the same time our male peers are continuing to move forward, and so leaving us behind. For this reason men are much less likely to be in jobs for which they're overqualified than women. And while our salaries are stagnating, theirs continue to grow. 

It's not about the money...

For a lot of us, work isn’t entirely about the money. Where I work, it definitely isn’t. I've wondered if I could get paid loads more money using my skills in a job I hated. But what would be the point of that? If I’m going to spend that many hours of my life doing something, I’d rather it was something I enjoyed. If I have enough money to live comfortably – pay the bills, go on holiday and keep myself in lipstick and literature, then I’m pretty happy. I don’t want a massive house and I don’t want to buy loads of unnecessary stuff to fill it.

But where the money does come into it is value. It puts a price on my head and tells me what my company think I’m worth. And so if I’m badly paid, I feel that they don’t value me very much at all – either because they undervalue me, or because I’m really not worth very much.

I would never take or leave a job for the salary. But I have been in a job where the salary was much lower than I'd come to expect for my skills and experience, and I'm sure the lack of financial value placed on my contribution to the company contributed to my overall sense of dissatisfaction. I didn't stay long. 

Where next?

If women are getting paid less than men, our employers are telling us they don’t value us as much as men, and that we’re not worth as much as a man. We need to find the confidence to go for the top jobs, and ask for the top salaries because we know we are worth them. We also need to educate our sons and daughters, teaching them that there is room for them both in the arts, sciences, caring, teaching and financial professions. If we're stuck with pay inequality, there's no reason our daughters should be. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Call me by my name

Boris Johnson got into trouble in the House of Commons recently for referring to fellow MP Emily Thornberry by the wrong name. He called her 'Lady Nugee', as her husband is Sir Nugee, so this is a title she could have a right to, if she wanted it.

The story in the House of Commons was over as soon as it began. Johnson was admonished and apologised. And here I am still going on about it.

There were a lot of arguments about it. Some people said it was fine for Johnson to do what he did, because that's her married name, so what's the problem? Others were very angry about it, because that's not the name she uses.

Boris Johnson by johnhemming (Flickr) and Emily Thornberry by Rwendland via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do you get someone's name wrong? You might forget. It could be a simple mistake. We've all done it. Or it could be a sign of disrespect. It suggests you don't consider them important enough for it to matter. Why trouble your busy brain with someone so trivial?

Johnson's slight of Thornberry was rude for these reasons. But referring to a woman by the married name that she hasn't taken is also rude because you're taking their right to choose their name from them, and forcing them into a patriarchal convention that they don't want. It is sexist.

Name changers

I have friends who are kick-ass feminists who have taken their husband's names. There are lots of reasons to do this - tradition, and a sense of being a family together, and others. I have friends who have kept their own name, because that's who they are. I have friends who have double barreled. And I know women who have worked hard and built up a professional reputation with their name so they keep it for professional purposes.

The point, for me, is not whether or not Emily Thingummy chooses to go by her husband's name or not. The point is that you should call someone what they want to be called. It doesn't matter if that's the name on their birth certificate, the name they inherited from their husband, or a name they made up during a drunken weekend in Blackpool with a deed poll form. If they say their name is 'Knickety Split Split' then that's what you should call them.

Women criticising women

Johnson's faux pas drew the usual misogynist tits to social media, going on about crazy over-sensitive feminists, and man-hating. Though how you get from marrying to man-hating in such as easy step, I'm not sure.

I also heard some women defending Johnson (which, incidentally, he's smart enough to do himself).
When I hear women defending this behaviour, because they took their husband's name, so they think everyone should, I think that the problem is with them. It smacks of their own insecurity at the choice they made. It's a free choice, in 21st century Britain. Change your name. Don't change your name. Whatevs.

A married woman who doesn't take her husband's name isn't implicitly criticising married women who do take them. She's making her own choice, and it's really nothing to do with anyone else.

I've heard some women saying "why get married if you're not going to take your husband's name?" I am so utterly staggered by this, that I find it hard to mount a coherent argument. There are a trillions of reasons why one person might marry another. Names are really a very trivial part if marriage.

Just do what you want to do, and let everyone else do likewise.

Danny, which isn't my real name, but it's what I asked you to call me.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Precious moments and FOMO

I’ve turned down lots of invitations. I’ve made lots of apologies. I’m lucky I’m still getting invited.

While most parents get to spend every weekend with their offspring, I only get half. So every minute of my weekends with my child is precious.

This year is a big year for many of my friends – the year many of us turn 40. But I’m repeatedly turning down invitations because they involve daytime activities without children, and I feel that I should be there for my daughter at weekends.

It’s not about getting childcare. She and I have a supportive family with lots of people who help us out and love spending time with her. It’s simply that if I don’t see her at the weekends, and I’m working four days a week, then when will I see her? Whenever she’s away from me at weekends, the next day she looks up at me and asks, heart-meltingingly: “Why don’t we get to see each other much?” 

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had the conversation “Sorry you've got childcare problems.” Sometimes I bother to explain that it’s no about finding childcare, it’s about being there for my daughter. Other times I just shrug and say “maybe next time.”

Fear of missing out

I’ve been conscious of the preciousness of these days throughout my daughter’s four years of life. As a single parent, there have been lots of occasions I missed out on. But while a few years ago the FOMO would have got the better of me, I’ve tried to look at what I have. It’s a kind of growing up – learning to appreciate the good things in my life and accept that I have to make sacrifices to have them. Mostly I’m OK with that. 

Photo by George via Flickr Creative Commons

For every missed party has been a bevy of beautiful moments – cuddles, tickles, milestones, the funny, profound and downright crazy things she says to me. Family life simply means you can’t do everything anymore. That’s not just something for single mums, that’s all of us. To be apart from her, by choice, on some of the few days we have together feels wrong.

I struggle to work out if I’m doing the right thing. Is this what a good mother does, or am I being a sap? Am I letting down my friends (who will only turn 40 once) and being overprotective? Am I allowing myself to be manipulated by a four-year-old?

Please just keep on inviting me. I'll come when I can. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

A tide is turning

Every other day it seems some new scandal of sexual harassment comes out. It’s interesting. Or tiring. Or dull. Or scary. It depends on your perspective.

Most people agree that the serious sexual offenders who have used women’s sexuality against them, manipulated them, blackmailed them with jobs for favours, should be discredited. They shouldn’t get away with it (although it disconcerts me that people are being sentenced without a trial).

Then there’s #MeToo – with women across the world using social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. Some call it standing up for ourselves, others call it whingeing.

A lot of men, and maybe some women are confused by this. I can see why. Do men feel that women are looking for any excuse to take them down? Is this a chance to get at men? Are we blowing things out of proportion? 

Maybe there will be the odd false accusation – isn’t there with everything? But I think the truth of it is that there is and always has been a horrible culture of treating women and their bodies as objects. It’s something that every woman experiences to a greater or lesser extent. And now we are at one of those rare moments in history where we rise up and shout that it’s not fair, that it shouldn’t be like this.

I once knew someone who admitted to occasionally copping a feel in the odd nightclub crowd. And then someone else did it to his girlfriend. That put a different perspective on it, and he stopped. The problem? He hadn’t thought it through. It simply hadn’t occurred to him how his actions affected the person, and how he would feel if someone did the same to the women he was close to.

Legs by dsasso, via Flickr Creative Commons

Having your bum pinched isn’t as significant as other forms of sexual assault. It’s a long way from rape. I mean, it’s really not that bad. You feel a sense of indignation for about ten minutes and then you move on, because you don’t know who it was and your bum has basically recovered from the affront. Where it’s scary is not in the action itself, but when it’s used as manipulation, to imply that you’re getting a job because you’re pretty, or worse, that more is expected of you. Or a dress code that says you have to wear black underwear and stilettos to do this job. It’s a sign of a culture where men see women as objects for their delight and delectation, not as people like them.

If people feel confused and threatened by the turning tide, is it that they don’t understand how widespread and unpleasant sexual harassment is? Do they understand that their wives and daughters have experienced it? Do they think it doesn’t matter?

I'm delighted that there is now a chance my daughter could grow up in a culture in which no one thinks it’s their right to touch her body without her consent, to see her as an object. I want what she does with her body to be her decision, not somebody else’s right.

But this is a dramatic culture change in the way that women are perceived, both by ourselves and each other. It was never going to be an easy transition. Maybe the current vogue for harassment stories will be just a tiny chip in the iceberg of inequality. But, just maybe, it is helping us get to a place of greater freedom and respect for ourselves and our bodies.