My week in writing

20130413-140430.jpgWhat started on a quiet note – not much happening is there, commented my news editor on Monday morning – became rather a busy week, following the death of Margaret Thatcher.

I covered the news of the former prime minister’s death on the website, then compiled for our front page the various tributes and reaction of communal figures to her passing. I also picked up an amusing anecdote about Alan Clark and a dispute he had with Thatcher about the use of fur while he was a minister.

In non-Thatcher news, I noticed a study into pensioners living abroad, and whether their spending power had increased or decreased in the last decade. For those who upped sticks for Israel it was the latter, and I spoke to a couple of those affected by a rise in inflation and a correspondingly disastrous exchange rate.

Elsewhere, I wrote about the progress being made on communal representation for women, reported on the fact that Channel 5 is to screen the US drama The Bible, and found out 65 bizarre facts about Israel to mark the country’s 65th birthday this week: did you know that the glue used on Israeli stamps is kosher? Sixty-four more random gems here... Along those lines, I was pleased to feature British ambassador Matthew Gould on comment this week.

In arts, I interviewed author Jodi Picoult about her new novel The Storyteller, which I reviewed last week. Having read most of her books, I was intrigued to speak to her and she didn’t disappoint. She was intelligent, charismatic and spoke faster than almost anyone else I’ve ever encountered!

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Silicon Valley’s superwoman should stop writing and start campaigning (Running in Heels)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

It might be when she talks about sauntering up to her Google bosses and demanding a better parking space that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women starts to rankle. Or perhaps it’s the anecdote about finding nits in her children’s scalp en route to a business meeting – while on eBay’s private jet – that makes your blood boil, just a little. Or the way that each interview she’s done has been full of diversions – about being a geek, breaking down at work, or being terrible at walking in high heels – that are clearly designed to prove how much of an everywoman she is but instead come across as characteristics of the modern feminist icon that her publicist has selected straight from central casting. Here she is: Silicon Valley superwoman, Facebook’s second-most recognisable face, well-coiffed with the perfect family to boot, plus  a litany of career successes under her belt – and all before her 45th birthday. And she’s telling all the other women out there that it’s easy to be just like her; they’ve merely got to be more assertive.

Sandberg discussing her book Lean In…

To be fair to Sandberg, that’s a slightly narrow interpretation of her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is being marketed as something of a manifesto for the 20th century career woman. In the extracts and interviews with her I’ve read so far (of which there have been several – her marketing team needs a rise), her advice follows a familiar thread. Women, she explains, need to be less afraid of success and learn to appreciate achievement as the other half do.

Shesays: “Women internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives-the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men-and pull back when we should lean in.” Sandberg isn’t wrong, and her advice is far more tolerable and constructive than that of women who have broken through the glass ceiling and can’t see why everyone else is making such a fuss about it. She’s absolutely spot on when she talks about the phenomenon of women feeling like “frauds” when they are successful, rather than simply soaking up praise for a job well done. Her suggestion that women hold themselves back rings true; in my own experience, it’s noticeable how male writers are usually willing to pitch opinion pieces out of the blue, while female writers seem surprised that they might be able to float an idea. They wait to be asked, a trend that Sandberg acknowledges, in a way that men simply don’t.

Of the women I know – intelligent, capable and qualified twenty-somethings with bright careers ahead – many speak of the very concerns Sandberg raises. They confess to feeling inadequate, as if they were imposters in their roles, to believing that they need to better than the best just to keep up with their (mostly male) colleagues. Most assume that the myth of “having it all,” sold to us during our school years, is just that, that something, somewhere, will have to give.

The problem isn’t that her advice is unwelcome, unreasonable, or even that she’s stating the obvious. It’s that, ultimately, it’s meaningless. Sandberg is correct that pregnant women should get better parking spaces; that we should be demanding equal pay, and the appreciation men in the workplace take as their birthright. But it’s hardly a revelation – we’ve known for years that we should be heeding these feminist rallying cries. The problem is that we don’t. We haven’t yet, and it’s unlikely enough of us will.

This week Sandberg – former chief of staff to a US treasury secretary – told The Times: “really, honestly, I’m not going into politics.” Perhaps she’s just fooling us, or even herself. Let’s hope so. For if more women like Sandberg – the ones that have “leaned in to overcome their fears and sit at the table – were in politics, maybe some of what she is urging would take effect. If Sandberg could secure that parking space with minimal heartache, just imagine what she could do as a politician if she took on businesses over maternity rights or flexible working. Surely in the fight for more affordable childcare, someone like Sandberg should be leading the charge?

Ultimately, as she admits “the blunt truth is that men still run the world”. No amount of well-meaning advice is going to change the fact that this is, for many, a reality. Books and words advocating equality are great. But they would be far more valuable if she turned them into action.

This post originally appeared on Running in Heels.

Amanda Knox was a victim of the internet age (The Telegraph)

If you were to look through my Facebook photographs, from over the last five years, you would see two versions of me. On the one hand, there I am as a dedicated student at two different graduation ceremonies, a bridesmaid, a keen baker, someone who came perilously close to tigers in Thailand and caught piranhas in Brazil.

Then there I am at clubs and bars, in not particularly modest outfits and with a drink in my hand. There I am making cocktails in a messy student house, on a hen night, or with a disparate collection of male and female friends.

In reality, there’s nothing in my visual history that is particularly controversial and very little that you wouldn’t see in the photo albums of my friends. But if the unthinkable happened and I was thrust into the public eye, it would be very easy to paint my back-story using either the former or the latter. If the media vultures so chose, I could be the freshfaced innocent or her polar opposite.

I am the same age as Amanda Knox only, unlike her, I didn’t spend my last birthday in jail. Thanks to yesterday’s ruling, Knox will spend her next one in the world she was a part of until four years ago. While her family rejoices, and Meredith Kercher’s continue their search for the truth, it’s doubtful that this outcome will change many minds.

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here

Christine Largarde: Well done, little lady

Let’s discuss something that would never happen.

Say Mexico’s Agustín Carstens had been chosen as the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Would we have seen a nice graphic about other influential men?

Of course not. After all, there are just too many to count.

Nobody would even suggest it.

But The Times greeted Christine Largarde’s selection as Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s successor with oodles of praise for the new “First lady of finance” and a delightful sidebar of other “Women at the top”. Incidentally, all they could come up with was Hillary, Oprah, Angela Merkel and Irene Rosenfeld.

Well done, little lady, screamed this article and many others. You’ve overcome all the obstacles, risen against the odds.

You can wear a bra and still rule the world. You go girl.

Now, I’m well aware Lagarde is the first woman in charge of one of the post-war financial institutions. That is an achievement, and it’s not wrong to discuss the implications for the so-called glass ceiling.

Still. There’s no need to be quite so patronising about it.

There’s no need to mark the success of one individual, who happens to be female, by making her a poster child for every other successful woman out there.

Can’t we judge each one on their own merit, and acknowledge that just as some will succeed, others will fail. And that their gender has nothing to do with that.

Because if the glass ceiling had really and truly been smashed, we wouldn’t need a list of successful women just like Christine to illustrate it.

Circumcision: the phoney debate

Since I am one of four female siblings, introducing me to Judaism through a ceremony carried out at the age of eight days was not something my parents had to consider.

Seeing circumcision as something for Jewish parents to consider is a relatively recent notion. In the past, the Brit milah was as natural a step for the average Jewish family as lighting Shabbat candles or saying Kaddish for a loved one; an integral part of our heritage, the original covenant between man and God.

But we live in sceptical times. This chimes with Jews. Challenging accepted wisdom is one of Judaism’s greatest characteristics. Jews do like to debate. There are rules in debating, of course: times when you can intervene, limitations on heckling from the crowd etc. In a good debate, arguments are won on sound reasoning and hard evidence.

Come November, the people of San Francisco will have the chance to decide whether they want circumcision to be banned for males under 18, punishable with a fine or even a prison sentence.

In a country where religious freedom is not merely encouraged, but constitutionally inscribed, the idea of blocking parents from observing religious practice is bizarre. Individual states aren’t even able to ban the burning of the American flag.

This comment piece originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. Read the rest of it here.

The wife factor: why Sam and Sarah should keep silent

Ann Widdecombe agrees with me. 

At an event she spoke at tonight, I asked the veteran female MP what she thought of the Prime Minister and his opponents trotting out their respective wives on the campaign trail. Was it not demeaning, I asked, for Sam and Sarah, perhaps even Miriam, to be banded around like sparkling trophies testifying to their partners’ political prowess?            

 Widdecombe echoed my disgust, expressing her regret for the emergence of the ‘first lady’ of British politics.            

 Yet it seems unlikely her protestations, or my own, at the ‘wife factor’ will get anywhere. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen Sarah and Sam affirm to television audiences just how good their other halves are. Campaign strategists are beside themselves with glee about these so called secret weapons.            

 I’m not, and I suspect most female voters won’t be swayed by such a patronising play.            

 True, there is something intiguing about the woman behind the man in charge. We are fascinated by Jackie Kennedy and her latest incarnation in Michelle Obama. We want to know less about what Hillary’s aims were when she sought healthcare reform in the early 90s, and more about how she put up with that scoundrel Bill. Even Cherie had a perverse grip on the nation.            

 But just because I’m interested to hear the secrets behind Michelle’s wardrobe (J Crew all the way, apparently), doesn’t mean I take that as any reflection on her husbands political fortunes.            

Sarah Brown: campaign tool? (photo: Chris Greenberg)

 

       

            

We live in the age of celebrity. It’s the nature of our tabloid taste that we care whether Gordon is a bully, or whether Sarah is not. That’s fine; some may lament the personal and private becoming so political, but that ship has long since sailed.            

But an interest in the trivial doesn’t automatically discount one in the topical.    

Educated, intelligent and engaged women can read OK magazine and marvel over Carla’s fading beauty, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart enough to appreciate the details of Nicholas’ economic policy.             

 Give us some credit. Politics might be tedious at times, but that’s true whether you have an x or y chromosome.    

If men can understand the difference between tax and spend, private or public sector, big or small government, so can women. These interviews with the wives, the campaign appearances, tell us little but insult a great deal.            

 We don’t need to know what Miriam Clegg says about Nick’s saucy past to figure these things out. And if women aren’t going to vote based on the issues, do handbags or hairstyles really make them more likely to have their say?            

 For the record, I met Sarah Brown once at a charity event and she was as pleasant as she appears; eloquent, well-presented and down to earth.            

 But she could have been a total horror, and could have made the whole lunch of middle-aged ladies splurt out their expensive soup.            

It wouldn’t make the slightest bit to difference to whether I vote for her husband though.