Wednesday 28 May 2014

‘Rabenmutter’ – the undermining of women

In the same way that the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi did not herald the equality of women, let alone the rise to the top, in the UK or India the undoubted success of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and possibly the most successful European politician, is not an indicator of the success of German women in the workplace. I am now wondering if her nickname of “mutti” ie Mummy is affectionate or ever so slightly patronising.

I have just returned from a few days in Berlin. I never need an excuse to visit Berlin but the reason this time was to attend the Cornerstone Conference of the International Women’s Forum – I am on the board of the UK organisation and have been involved in our international collaborations so it was about time I joined in the fray.

The conference was a fascinating mixture of talks, debates and socialising with our German hosts and our international colleagues. A thread running through was how very difficult the position of women with children is in Germany.  It is perhaps notable that Mrs Merkel does not have children – being a rabenmutter is not an insult that can be hurled at her.  A rabenmutter – literally a ‘raven mother’ is the epithet used to denigrate mothers who work. The interpretation is that a raven mother is a loveless, heartless, cruel, unnatural, or uncaring mother; a bad mother who does not take good care of her children – and not because she is hanging around the pub, the tennis club, lunching with friends or shopping - but working.

Germany has a problem: the birth rate is declining rapidly, there is a brain drain of talent out of the country - the brain drain is particularly acute in information and communications technology and the worry is that where the labour goes the companies will follow. And yet, and yet, they are losing women from the workforce once they have children or women who wish to pursue careers are choosing not to have children or to limit the number of children they have to one. Only 14% of women with a child return to full-time work and only 6% with two children. I am connecting the dots, are you? 

We heard from a number of very senior women and with rare exceptions they made their mark in non-German companies first – academic careers at Harvard and MIT, jobs with Shell, BP, in the pharmaceutical industry – and so on. The men we heard from seemed to be more home-grown. The educational system is excellent with a powerful focus on vocational careers and the intake into universities is about 50:50. Educated women are excellent mothers and it is good for child and mother (er, and father?) to spend as much time together in the early years – then what?

There are inequalities in pay in the UK, very few women at senior and board level in major companies (improving slowly) but the situation is much worse in Germany: Germany may no longer be the country of the prewar - Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) but this was disappointing. Berlin on the other hand never disappoints, neither do my women colleagues.

Saturday 17 May 2014

The butterfly effect and trafficking of women....

In chaos theory the butterfly effect is a metaphor that postulates that a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere: the example is that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can contribute to a hurricane in another.

The horrifying kidnap of schoolgirls in Nigeria and the inaction of the Nigerian government for so long, now gradually slipping down the news agenda - and this is just one example of the low status of women in many developing world cultures. I saw an interview with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe– see Time 100 for her speech about the work she does in Uganda taking care of girls who were kidnapped, forced into slavery and to become child soldiers, shunned by family and their villages and now raising their children born through rape.

Women are objectified in our society – and if they don’t measure up to someone’s physical ideal they can be vilified – reference what happened (mostly on line) to Professor Mary Beard. See her lecture The Public Voice of Women at the British Museum – a brilliant piece by a brilliant woman starting with Odysseus and Penelope and their son Telemachus, throughout history and referencing her own experience, and I quote “

For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth.”

We still don’t have universal equal pay for women in Europe (and other developed countries), there is a lack of representation of women on the boards of most major companies and we have a very poor showing of women in politics – let alone in government. There is a series of trials underway of men who have used positions of authority to abuse women and sexist and misogynistic behavior is still part of our everyday life.  It can be overt, offensive or subtle but pervasive.  We were getting off a tour bus in Amsterdam recently when the guide said, “please remember to take all your possessions, your coat, your cameras your wife” cue laughter..... This is hardly abuse but it jarred – if he had said “husband” instead would I have laughed?  – but he didn’t.

This brings me to the butterfly effect.  Does the effect of naked breasts on page three of The Sun (not breasts feeding a baby, wouldn't that be shocking) contribute to the kidnapping, forced marriage, rape and trafficking of women in Africa? 

Monday 12 May 2014

Black is black – not café au lait

There used to be a joke doing the rounds about the incompetent waiter who, when asked for coffee without cream, said, “we don’t have any cream, will you have it without milk?”  Boom, boom!

I drink my coffee black – Americano, filter, (anything but instant) and I don’t add anything to it: no sugar, no sweetener, no milk, no cream no creamer. Yet when I order a black coffee (black Americano, black filter etc) it inevitably comes with milk on the side – in a jug, in a pod but milk.  If I wanted the milk separately I would ask for “milk on the side” or “milk separately” but I don’t.  I ask for black coffee.

I have started to become a bit obsessed with this and I believe that the odds of getting just a cup of black coffee are something like one in ten. This is not only in the UK – I noticed the same phenomenon in Amsterdam.  I worry about all those little jugs of milk where, presumably, once they are returned to the kitchen undrunk they are thrown away.  Of course they may be recycled and given to the next person who orders black coffee ..........