Wednesday, 27 November 2013

P&IR Event: Who Runs The World: Do women make better heads of state?

The P&IR society, the best society on campus™ hosted an event this evening in conjunction with the Women's Forum with the title indicated above. I have come back absolutely fired up and will write briefly on what happened, with the customary diversions and digressions as thoughts arrive in my head.

Please also note that I have not done as much reading as I should around feminist and gender theory. I apologise if any offense is caused either by my realisations, which many will think either blindingly obvious or utterly incorrect, or by incorrect data or information. If the latter is the case please make me aware through comments and I will make changes as quickly as I possibly can (generally within 24hrs).

I confess that I went to this event intending to give the organisers a stern telling-off. The title is deliberately inflammatory; to ask Do women make better heads of state requires an object for the comparative better. Better than whom? Men, the suggestion seems to be, though I will acknowledge that "drunk hippopotami" is also theoretically suitable. However, this seems a bit odd when you unpack it. To be better than men, women must have some innate quality which makes them superior heads of state.

What is it? Is it only found in ciswomen or do transwomen acquire it? I prod fun at this idea because it seems as utterly laughable to me as the idea that cismen are better leaders. It just so happens that because of a whole litany of reasons, from religion to tradition to gender stereotypes propagated from Middle-Age literary fantasies to literally everything we see in the media today that cismen have acquired their position at the top.

I don't think that means cismen are better leaders. I also don't think we can say that ciswomen (or indeed any group of people defined by gender) are better leaders because it requires gender to also have some magical leadership component. I don't think that's true.

Anyway, this was what I had prepared in my head and was going to say until within the first five minutes of her talk the speaker, Prof. Marysia Zalewski, promptly said it. And she said it much better than I could have done, and she's left me rather wishing I'd recorded her talk. However, from the notes I took - a page of scrawls that would leave the CIA's cryptographers disgusted - here are the important points from her talk.

Primarily: the first question. Who runs the world? The simple answer, of course, is men. They are at the top of every institution with power: politics, business, religion. The number of women at the top, if imagined as a triangle, is similar in every way to that of a standard business hierarchy (less people as we ascend) with one crucial difference. It is shorter. The peak of the "women in business" triangle is always one of two levels below the peak of the "men in business" triangle.

(I appreciate that it is standard notation to call these diagrams "pyramids", but a pyramid is a three-dimensional shape and quite frankly I will not stand for misnomers here. The same goes for those of you who insist on calling helical staircases "spiral". Begone and darken my door no more.)

However, there are certainly some female heads of state. Are they better? Is it desirable to have women as heads of state? If so, why? The questions kept coming, with no answers in sight. I was starting to realise that this question was not as simple as I'd thought - and I wasn't the only one.

Marysia broke down the question. Do we think they'll be better because they'll bring in more equality? She quashed that idea pretty quickly. There's no evidence to support that at all, she noted. So what else? Are female heads of state more likely to bring justice? Whence that idea? A sudden horrible flash of insight on my part leads me to the thought that it's because we've all bought into the idea - the gender stereotype - that women are caregivers, nurturers, mother-figures. Marysia invited us to consider Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia. A waitress interviewed by the BBC said "We need a woman to put things right." Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf herself said she wanted to become president in order "to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency"

Hmm. This seems a bit odd. We're back in the realm of "women = mothers" and "men = soldiers". Is that true? I think perhaps not. Marysia moved on to mention an idea in political theory that when there's a critical mass of women - around 30% - the whole institution changes. Again, she said, doesn't this rather rely on the idea that all women are the same? That they all want to change the institution? I rather suspect that many Tory women are rather keen on the way the institution is run because Tories, be they minority groups or white heterosexual men, have bought into the idea of the status quo as the way forward. This may be the right way. If anyone could convince me of that please be my guest.

(Again, I generalise - many Tories, some of my acquaintance, have practically revolutionary ideas. But they are not ideas that would revolutionise social justice; in fact, they are ideas that would simply further cement the status quo. But I digress.)

The fact is that "women" are not a single, hive-minded creature. They are, much like everyone else, individually moulded human beings with their own thoughts and desires. One need only consider the vast, yawning gulf of ideological differences between (say) Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton to see that women are not all united under a feminist banner.

So why are we so keen to see women in politics? Marysia pointed out that it is fantastic from a symbolic point of view - but is it merely symbolic? Do we get to three women in Cabinet and say "Welp, equality achieved"? (This author suggests this is on a par with Bush Jr standing on an aircraft carrier declaring "Mission Accomplished" in 2003). The question at the beginning was Do women make better heads of state? - but do they actually make worse heads of state? Not many minority groups would argue that Thatcher made the world a better place (aside from the gay Thatcherite I met the other day, whose cognitive dissonance I still cannot get over.) and she did invade the Falklands. A bit. And break the trade unions. A bit. And took milk away from children. A lot.

However, one bad egg doesn't necessarily spoil the basket - but to me it points towards a larger truth. Women don't make better heads of state. Neither do men. There must be some other qualities, other than their gender, which make men - or women - good leaders. So why aren't there more women at the top?

Let's look at the women at the top. They show typically masculine qualities. Is that because you have to be a man to get ahead? I would say no, because we're once again linking gender to sex in far too strong a way. Say instead that you need to act in the way the institution demands you act. You have to become institutionalised. You can't be a man or a woman who doesn't act in the way the institution demands you act. To be a woman in business the institution demands you work long hours, that you are superior to your male colleagues, that you are alternately queen bitch and office mother. It's a game; not the Game of Thrones - not quite - but close. And the only way to win is not to play, because every failure is held up by the institution as the reason they don't hire more women. It's a heartless circle, because if a woman "wins" - if she makes it to the top - she's not her own person any more. She becomes the institution; internalises the sexism and then pours it out again. There's no escape.

So that was a cheering thought. But Marysia hinted that this is where she felt we should look. There's no point having a symbolic few female politicians, or even fifty percent female politicians, if the institutions stay the same. After all, the money that funds the political institution comes from global capitalism - so maybe there need to be more changes there. The question is whether you can get more feminist women to the top in business to effect this political change - and, indeed, if you want to keep the whole rotten political system intact. Why not wipe the slate clean and try something new?

This was a startling - but fascinating - idea from the floor in the discussion that followed Marysia's presentation. Why not make like the ancient Athenians and make election to the halls of power contingent on a lottery? It's an astonishing idea. Every Athenian, if elected, had a duty to represent his fellow men (Ancient Greece being what it was) for a set term. He would be given a wage if he spoke, turned up to meetings, and remained sober. If all our politicians knew they had only a limited time to make their changes, would they act differently?

Of course, this is contingent on your average member of the public being inspired and fired to help his fellow person and not, for example, being the sort of person who comments on Daily Mail pieces.

Text reads: "There'll be the usual rush of female fans writing to him when he is banged up inside no doubt fascinated by him and deeply allured [sic] to him. Meanwhile there's a million other decent hard-working ordinary blokes looking for relationships but they're probably too boring. What a world." Regarding paedophilia charges against Ian Watkins, lead singer of The Lost Prophets.
Can we all look at that for a minute and then imagine him in charge for one minute and then agree to never speak of this again? Ever?

The fact is that sexism is all around us, all the time. Consider the X-Factor, Marysia said. Look at the turnover in female judges. I wasn't the only blank face, but since there were nods around the room, I'd bet a penny to a pound that it's a whole lot higher than the male judge turnover. She mentioned the Everyday Sexism Project, that daily reminder that there is still a so much latent sexism in the world, and the disgraceful attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter as well as the inability of police forces to do anything about it.

The last thing to consider (in an evening which was as enlightening as it was depressing) was quotas. Are they useful? Should they be encouraged? Marysia reminded her interlocutor that quotas for men already exist; that the bias to elect/promote men already exists. Why not balance the scales? She also noted that there is hugely widespread resistance to quotas, both from men and women - all of whom are taking the neo-liberal line that we are already equal, and we don't need quotas because we are a meritocracy - we just take the best.

This line of thought has only one logical conclusion, however, and it is that white heterosexual men are the best. That's not a conclusion I find particularly convincing.

So what's to be done? There aren't really any answers. If there were answers, one rather suspects there would be more being done. But there were some incredibly smart people with some really good ideas in that room this evening, and if anyone can find the answers, I suspect it might be them. 

And me? I'll help where I can, try not to get in the way, and recommend that everyone get involved in this because it involves everyone already. I've already learned enough to know I don't know much at all. Here's to learning more.

Special thanks to Veronika, P&IR President, and Monique, Women's Forum Co-Convener, for a fantastic event and a very stimulating discussion.

Monday, 25 November 2013

What a week

Alright. The last five days have been an absolute, non-stop torrent of stress and I'm through. I have reached the other side. I have survived - but not without taking some hits along the way.

Thursday was the deadline for two essays, one of which I wrote in French as the most passive-aggressive, idiotic protest ever. That's right, I wrote an essay for French in French and I'm pretty sure it'll get marked down - not through a petty aversion to French from the staff but because I'm not very good at expressing myself fluently in French. (This is in itself because from the very beginning of the course we've been encouraged to write in English - but I digress.)

Thursday, the day of deadlines, I managed to get everything in, relearn straight line mathematics and ask pertinent questions in my Atheism lecture/seminar without pissing anyone off. I appreciate that you may not realise this, dear reader, because you see only this highly edited and time-intensive portrait of me but occasionally I manage to irritate people through not thinking through what's about to spring from my face-hole.

I have managed this in every single one of my Atheism lectures this term, although this fact is moderated somewhat by the infrequency of these lectures. However: I managed to ask questions without getting a single eye-roll, patronising sigh, or aggressive response.

I will further note that it's always the same person.

After Atheism I taught a young man called Darren (not his real name) how to find gradients, tangents, and other exciting things to do with straight lines. Darren is a couple of years younger than me (that's not actually true; he's about 5/6 years younger than me, but in my head I'm still 21. I am seriously surprised every time people ask me what I want for my 24th birthday because in my head that's still three years away.) and has decided to join the armed forces - and to do so, he needs certain qualifications. So he picked me to teach him for the next half a year. I'm absolutely pumped, especially because Maths is what I want to teach when I (eventually) graduate.

I'm also teaching a young lady called Chloe (also not her real name), for Maths and English,  and a young man called James (not his real name either), for English. We're doing analysis on Edward Scissorhands and I'm about 90% sure we've gone way, way, waaaaaay too into depth. We made five pages of notes on the first 15 minutes. Film studies, eat your heart out. We rocked it.

In any case, by the end of the day I felt immensely tired and just a little pleased that everything had been tied up. There were no loose ends. (Unlike a certain long-running British television show - yes, Moffat, I'm looking at you.) So I went and had a long chat with a friend. She even cooked me dinner in a microwave/oven.

(I am, perhaps, giving evidence to those of my friends who say I'm hopelessly out of touch. But apparently the trivection oven that I thought was a made-up thing to make Jack sound like an executive ass in Thirty Rock is, in fact, actually a real thing. I have never been so excited. Never.)

I walked home at 1 in the morning, and the walk was exhilarating. Aberdeen is kind of icy right now, and there's nothing like unexpected ice/frantically trying to find your feet again to make a fellow feel alive.

In any case, that brought me to Friday, where your hero slept for approximately 14 hours and woke up with a pounding headache. I sloped around the flat, somewhat at a loss. What do people do when there aren't deadline looming? What, exactly, does one do when there aren't books to be annotated or essays to be avoided? So I cleaned the flat and ironed shirts. Conclusion? I don't like cleaning and shirts are annoying to iron. I need to wear more t-shirts. And somehow produce less dust.

Oh, and I realised I was an adult because I was ironing a shirt and a spider the approximate size of my thumb, fleeing the heat, ran out from under the collar and legged it down the sleeve to the floor. I realised I'm an adult because I didn't follow through my first instinct, which was throw the iron across the room and burn down the building. 

I really don't like spiders.

What followed, however, has been three days of long shifts where things just went wrong. And kept going wrong. Indefinitely. We ran out of glasses, spirits, staff. And that's an awful shame, because these guys are amazing. But we need more bodies to run a restaurant that size.

Today was the last straw. The restaurant was packed while staff was so bare bones it made the Grim Reaper look positively obese. Drinks went walkabouts, checks got lost, and people started getting snappy. At one point a previous member of staff wandered in and was pressed into working for a couple of hours in her Nike airs and jeggings. She absolutely killed it, too.

But it was essentially a six hour shift of what the fuck is going on. At one point people started ordering drinks from the future, because the drinks were from the new cocktail list and that's not supposed to even be available until tomorrow. I was getting drinks orders from people who'd seen drinks I'd not even seen. That was almost the last straw. We finished at last at eight, and did cocktail training with the hardcore of staff - the ones I know I can rely on in a pinch. It was great to see the waiting staff asking questions, because they're the most important ones - getting a drinks order for a "gin martini" is incredibly frustrating to any bartender. It sounds awful to non-bartenders, but it's like going into a clothes store and asking for a skirt and then saying nothing else. And imagine in this shop that each skirt needs to be sowed individually, and that you have a hundred different fabrics and thirty different styles.

But some of them came, and they'll know what questions to ask. And that makes me seriously damn happy. I don't expect waiting staff to be as excited as me about the difference between, say, bourbon and whisky. But just seeing them getting excited about the new cocktails, and trying them - wicked. Very pleased.

The rest of them went out for a drink, but I'm so far over my budget for this month that my wallet has an echo, so I've come home. And written. And eaten a plate of pasta with tuna.

I need something to occupy my mind or this happens. Mr Conan-Doyle knows what I mean.

"My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation."

Alright, I'm not quite at that level yet. But it feels that way.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The horror of independent study

I've been pushed into this by my ex-girlfriend, which is a weird thing by itself, but let's get cracking.

This week has been interesting. I've taken a cut in hours at the bar, because I'm hoping that tutoring will start to pick up - but so far, nothing. I'm starting to worry I've made a huge judgement error, so I'll give it another fortnight. Fingers crossed there really are kids out there who need tutoring.

I feel a trifle bad for essentially hoping that some children are being failed by our education system, but come on - a man's got to eat. In addition, I'm doing a couple of hours for a website called; basically a student-led, student-oriented accommodation website. It's pretty self-explanatory, and I'm writing content for their blog. When I have time.

ie: Never.

Classes are ticking along nicely, and I managed to make enemies in my atheism class already - one who resents that I speak a lot (but doesn't speak herself) and one who disagrees diametrically with everything I say on Christianity, because she is a Christian and knows God exists.

Quite what she's doing in an atheism course is beyond me. Employing a "know your enemy" strategy? Who can tell. I've also had great discussions with other atheists, and another believer whom I would class more as a Spinozan pantheist - but of course, this is all deeply uninteresting to anyone who hasn't spent their life dissecting the minute differences in atheistic and theistic thought. Moving on.

My science in society course also cracks along at a good pace. We've been divided into groups and are working out which assessment to write about; personally I'm keen on Tesla vs Edison or homeopathy, because both are things I can get passionately, ink-spillingly furious about. The other members of my group are a mixed bunch; a chemist and a geographer and someone else who's completely absent. This will make his contribution trickier to track, I confess, but a three-person group has a nice sense of unity.

French in the Middle Ages is getting meatier as we move into actual texts. The weird thing is that they bear a certain resemblance to modern day text language - who in French is qui, but youngsters with their textophones often shorten that to ki - a phonetic spelling. So too, apparently, did monks in 12th century France. Weird, but as they say, plus ça change...

It's only week two in French language and I've an English to French translation to do, which is going to be so much fun I think I might explode. We had a lot of interesting discussions in class over our French to English, including one or two where I'd completely missed the point. Let me demonstrate.

That was me.

Finally, French emblems become more and more complex all the time, but hopefully with the introductory lecture out of the way we can more into the actual "stuff" of the course. A vast history with hundreds of names and dates is absolutely not my idea of fun.

My friends are getting stuck into classes too, and I'm making interesting friends (whose names are starting to blur. I need to start carrying around a Polaroid camera.) on the same courses. Freshers are still approaching me and calling me by my name, which I find bizarrely cheering - am I really so impactful in the lives of others?

The thing is - and I realised this only recently - I am. I mean not just me, obviously; my planet-sized ego is not sufficiently large that I think all interaction revolves around me. But everyone. Everyone is bouncing around like ping-pong balls and deflecting off each other. Our paths are continually altered by others, who are only brought into our paths because theirs were altered earlier on.

It's just interesting. We're not really in charge of ourselves. But we do affect lives, all the time, even in tiny ways. When you think about that....well. It's a bit scary.

Halloween's coming up. Maybe I could go to a party as the terrifying odds of non-existence, and give everyone a sense of joy in their lives. It'd be meta. Right?

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The year ahead

A couple of people - and I do mean a couple only - have asked where my blog went. Apparently they enjoyed reading it, and so in deference to them I continue. This year, and the next, will be my last two at Aberdeen - after which perhaps I can settle down somewhere and stop moving every 12 months. It gets very tiring.

This term I have a couple of exciting courses to get my teeth into; Science in Society, Atheism (oh boy, this is going to be interesting) and French Emblems. I've also scored Fridays off completely, so for the next twelve weeks it's a three-day weekend. That I will be working through. Obviously.

Work is another interesting matter. I have been offered two jobs; neither of which by themselves are enough to live on but, together, will stretch me to my limit. I'm really excited to see how we progress, and if I can summon the strength to get back to the grind.

I'm well installed in my flat; there is a chess set on a central table and shelves groaning beneath the weight of dictionaries, bibles, and The Lord of the Rings. There's also a poster that I need to get round to hanging: the entire text of Hamlet on one sheet of paper.

This week has been hectic and nocturnal as I volunteered for the 4th time in our Freshers' Week: 8 days of shepherding freshers about the city, rescuing them from foam parties, and bumping into two-ex girlfriends at the same club night. The latter part doesn't happen every year, I'll point out, but to bump into the both of them on the same night seemed unhappily like Fate was messing with me. However; it was very amicable - I suppose it's one happy note that none of my breakups have ever been dramatically awful.

The week has gone as smoothly as you would expect the mass movement of nearly 1,400 new students to go. All the volunteers are amazing, and it's so incredible to come back from a year out and see so many familiar faces - some old hands, and some who I distinctly remember moving into their halls the year before last. As always there were hiccups, and sometimes those hiccups were literal hiccups followed by literal vomit, but it turns out that people are genuinely good-hearted and helpful. Hungry freshers shared food with people they'd only just met, scarves and jumpers passed from the prepared to the underdressed, and queue-jumpers were roundly shouted out.

Next year will be, heartbreakingly, my last opportunity. I can only hope it's as good as it's been this year.