Last night’s TV included 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile, a film I had not seen. As a period piece of cloying post-war American consumerist culture, the location, set design and wardrobe depts get full marks but the screenplay—written by two men—seemed both predictable and superficial. Most reviewers see it comparing poorly as a female version of the late (and greatly lamented) Robin Williams vehicle from 1989—Dead Poets Society. That did make a better fist of awakening young minds locked too early on an upmarket career path.
But, all that said, it did make a decent fist of examining the roots of modern woman and the still-ongoing conflict with traditional roles that brings her. The business world has been wrestling with this since at least the film’s setting in the early 1950s (c.f. Mad Men where the jobs are segregated but the power certainly isn’t) and is still found wanting, despite equalities acts and a genuine commitment to avoid wasting talent. But from California to Canary Wharf, the ground-breakers/high-earners remain driven by testosterone and sports metaphors.
Fortunately, the fact that aroma of stale cigar smoke predominates still in boardrooms does not hinder too many women; the real battle is on the career ladder leading there. Once women amass the requisite heft to their CV, they find climbing the final boardroom peak easier—dinosaurs like Fred Goodwin notwithstanding. Once there, they usually find allies in undermining a macho culture that butts chests over how long it’s been since you took a vacation and habitually uses vocabulary based on warfare to describe business.
Where business deserves brownie points is that it, in general, it recognises it still has a major problem in making proper use of talents in the female half of the population. Earlier efforts failed for lack of flexibility: California positive discrimination legislation from the 1970’s fast-tracked many latinas faster than their abilities could develop so that no-one benefited when many cratered.
Unfortunately, politics has not followed so pragmatic an approach. On the surface, there has been enthusiasm in UK parties and abroad for gender balance. The Scottish Parliament was set up as a ‘family friendly’ operation and even the gentlemen’s club that is Westminster has made concessions. But from St James to St Andrews, bias against women remains rife and the role of the presentable, support wife as career adjunct—basic to the story in Mona Lisa Smile—remains sacrosanct.
Take ‘enlightened’ Labour in Edinburgh as an example. It describes selections as fair and transparent, considering both all-women shortlists and a twinning procedure as progressive measures. In Edinburgh Western, two (minority ethnic) males, one other male and one white female all sought selection for the twinned constituencies of Edinburgh Western and Edinburgh Pentlands. She automatically received sole nomination while three male PPCs had to compete for the remaining constituency.
Similarly, even though identified as a ‘key seat’, Edinburgh Western eschewed an all women short list to select Cllr Cameron Day. In this, he was supported by major local figures like Traminatrix Cllr Lesley Hinds who chaired the selection, even though insiders complained the selection timetable was rushed through, objections ignored and she advocates all-woman shortlists. Soon after, the MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith (twinned with Western) announced retirement and an all-woman short list was promptly declared. When nominations closed, there was only one candidate: Cllr Lesley Hinds.
It would be easy to claim ‘stitch-up’ were other parties not equally guilty of besmirching equality with grubby ambition. But the net result parallels the over-promoted California latinas, as evidenced by the sweetie-swapping Karens who graced the early days of wur Pairlimunt but who could barely read a scripted speech, let alone contribute to debate. Did they show that ‘real people’ could be elected. Or did they turn off professional women who saw them—and their televised tribal yah-boo-sucks debates—as unedifying, a kind of Sex and the City without the glamour.
As well as the whole political process itself, poll after poll shows Scottish women are also considerably less keen on independence than men. Despite wur Eck reaching out to women voters since the campaign kicked off two years ago, fewer women seem engaged in what will be the biggest decision they are likely to make this century. Or it may be they just want more evidence: that doesn’t necessarily make you more disengaged or cautious, it just makes you more analytical. Jo Armstrong, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Glasgow says:
“If the hypothesis is that women analyse things differently, it’s unlikely that they would want to see policies promoted only for them. It’s about having policies where they can understand the implications for them and their families, which is perhaps not being communicated well in the political messaging.
“I suspect that the issues that interest women are exactly the same as the ones that interest men. I can’t believe that women think that childcare is more important than the economy, jobs, or more important than better services in general.
“The idea that you’ll be able to make women change their minds with women-only issues is misguided. It suggests that the political parties still have a poor idea of what equality is really all about.”
Traditionally women are more conservative than men in how they vote. Perhaps that’s because men were in the factories or the office, negotiating careers but finding common ground on which to do it and so forming networks whether in trade unions or golf clubs. But women are more about pragmatism. Old-fashioned as it sounds, in many cases women are the ones running the household budget and so they actually see what’s happening to the price of food, clothes, etc—the ‘sharp end’ of the economy.
Women want reassurance that independence is going to be better. They are the ones who ask: “What if something happens to my husband’s wage? What if something happens to childcare? “What if something happens to university fees?” They are far more engaged than the arm-candy-for-life girls of Mona Lisa Smile. Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen says:
“The trouble with making pledges about what will happen after the referendum is that there’s such a distrust of politicians nowadays. The only promises that either side can make to attract more women are ones where they can make them real.”
The old Scottish tradition of women not being heard is influencing what women are prepared to say or on how they are going to vote; women are more naturally cautious because of this culture of exclusion. No wonder we have low participation level by women in politics. Where are the female role models, women in leadership roles or on senior management teams? All this saps women’s confidence levels.
And this was my major gripe with Mona Lisa Smile—the Miss Watson (Julia Roberts) character went through obvious iconoclastic motions towards Wellesley and its broom-up-the-bum conventionalism but never resolved her own human frailties into life lessons; development; progress. That’s one characteristic where women typically surpass men.
I’m with Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History at Glasgow Caledonian University on this one when she says:
“There’s no easy fix here, but the first step is to recognise that we have a problem. We need to start for example by normalising equality in society. This can start with children by reinforcing understandings of equality through childhood and young adulthood. If you show a child how their mum and dad are equal in both home and employment, that child is going to grow up with a balanced picture of what society is and should be.”
But with one month to go before the referendum, we no longer have the luxury of time that needs.