A plea for thinking for yourself

22 09 2012

I am an advocate for something that we seem to have lost,or at least lost respect for, namely thinking.

Nowhere is its loss more clearly demonstrated than n the inaptly named group thinking. This has been evident recently in the situation surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

In this case, the fact that he took an anti-establishment position in exposing government secrets via the WikiLeaks website puts him beyond reproach. That he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy to prevent extradition to the USA, where he would not receive a fair trail, is accepted as Gospel. Whether or not this is actually the case is not important at the moment, what is important is that each of us should feel free to think about the situation and feel free to comment.

For example, what has he to hide in refusing to stand trial in Sweden? Someone who has put their head above the parapets and exposed the secrets of those who would prefer to have them suppressed must surely respect due process when faced with a charge made against him, surely? A claim made in a country, Sweden, where one could reasonably accept a fair and open trial compared to, say, Ecuador?

And if we are talking about justice, what about justice for the two women who have brought the charges against him? Do they not deserve to be heard? Throughout history and on into the 21st Century influential men and the authorities who protect their interests have far too often dismissed allegations of rape. Reporting of rape, serious investigation by the police and successful prosecutions of rape are lamentably few. We must not dismiss or belittle accusations of rape. Advances for women’s rights in this area have been hard-won and remain fragile.

We  have to take these allegations seriously and not simply assume that because Julioan Assange did good things with the WikiLeaks website that he is a wholly good person and incapable of doing any bad thing. History is full of good men doing bad things. I only recently read o statement from a man who is serving a 16 year prison sentence for stabbing his wife to death in which he said, “ I have done a lot of good things, beneficial things, donated to charity. No-one remembers these things. All they remember is that I murdered my wife.”

And it is not for me to judge Julian Assange. He may well be innocent of the charges laid against him. But we have to be able to question the situation and not just go along with the group think that sees the only reason for his reluctance to stand trial is fear of onward extradition. When I posted a thoughtful, well argued piece by Laurie Penny to my Facebook page I was confronted by group think from his defendants. So I am using the case of Julian Assange to illustrate the group think phenomenon. I might just have easily have used the case of the Catholic Church who are asking all parishioners not to think for themselves but to place themselves fully and without question behind the churches opposition to gay marriage.

My assertion is that we need to think for ourselves. We need to think and apply thought all the time and not be uncritically accepting of anything, irrespective of who is relaying the message. If the investors in Bernhard Madoffs Ponzi scheme had done their own thinking, conducted just a little research, rather than relying on information from friends they could have saved a themselves a fortune

Dressing Up

18 09 2012

Recently the West Midlands police were criticised for launching a poster campaign aimed at giving information to women about how to avoid being raped. While I haven’t seen the posters I understand that they focussed on how to dress in order to avoid “sending out the wrong signals” and thereby becoming a target for rapists.

They were immediately harangued by feminist groups who insisted that the message should be “don’t rape” rather than “don’t get raped”. I agree. I have long advocated that we should teach the boys not preach to the girls. However on the issue of dress I find myself conflicted.

When I see young girls walking around scantily dressed I do wonder about the signals they are sending out. Not that wearing ultra short skirts means that you deserve to be raped but rather that this display of the body can only serve to continue to objectify women purely as objects of sexual desire. It caused one male comedian to speculate recently as to whether the feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies was actually masterminded by a man, as the result of the revolution has been exactly what men wanted – streets full of scantily clad women.

Clearly women should be allowed/able to wear what they want but are these young girls really dressing for themselves or dressing to attract the attention of men and as a consequence attracting the attention of specifically those type of men that see women just as sex objects.

Dressing for attention isn’t a new phenomenon. I recently viewed an exhibition of the lovers of Charles I and II. All of the portraits showed women with their ample bosoms prominently displayed; the bodices plumping up the breasts to the point of overflowing, the waists pinched in. Theses women were dressing almost exclusively with the intention of attracting a monarch or a courtier. In the past making a good match was vital for women as their was no hope of advancement other than by association with or marriage to an influential man.

So my question is really, has nothing changed? Are young women still just dressing to advertise their availability in the same way as Nell Gwynn and her contemporaries did centuries ago? Are the rules the same now in attracting a premier league footballer as they were in attracting a king? Do women still see that their only route to success is on the arm of a man; dependent not on themselves but on the match they make?

In wearing anything that they like, a freedom I would not want to deny, it would seem that some women do still choose to dress not for themselves or for comfort but continue to use their bodies to advertise their availability to potential a potential mate/match.

Having fought so hard for the freedom to dress as we like it does seem to me that it is reasonable to consider just how we use that freedom. Dressing scantily does not send out the message “rape me” but it does perpetuate the idea that women must put their bodies on display in order to succeed.

Is any woman better than no woman?

10 09 2012

Those reading this who are ages with me will remember a programme fronted by Ester Rantzen called “Children of Courage”.The format was to profile children who had been struck down by illness and illness and highlight their courage in facing adversity.

I remember disliking the programme immensely. Not just for it’s mawkishness and patronising attitude towards the young people featured but for the fact that I didn’t believe that they were truly courageous. To me courage was a matter of choice. Courage came when individuals chose to put themselves in danger and overcame their fears by doing so. It was unfortunate to be born with a disability or to contract a disease not a choice, so the possibility of exhibiting courage just didn’t arise

As I have seen more of the world I view courage differently. It is nothing to do with putting yourself in danger but rather a measure of how we face and overcome fear. I see courage in the articles that Lynne McNicoll writes for this magazine each month. Courage from the young people who face their illnesses with strength that I doubt I would be able to exhibit and courage from Lynne in putting herself in the path of suffering with little concern for her own health and wellbeing in order to help ease the pain of youngsters and their families.

So, do you show courage

I suspect that I am not alone in never having heard of Chloe Smith until this week. Her inability to answer questions put to her by Jeremy Paxman has since filled many a news programme and fills many column inches in the Sunday broadsheets. Her bosses are being blamed for letting her out alone but the fault is hers and hers alone. She performed badly on Channel 4 news and compounded this failure by not getting herself better prepared in advance of her later appearance on Newsnight. Had she never heard of Jeremy Paxman? Did she think that having seen the earlier mauling he would go gently with her?

And what has this to do with courage?

The problem is that there are so few women in public office that when one individual performs badly it is frequently represented as being a collective failure of womankind. The premise that her bosses shouldn’t have sent a woman to do a man’s job is clearly preposterous but one that has established a foothold in the aftermath of her performance. When Ed Milliband performs badly we reflect on his shortcomings and do not project these onto all men. The boss shouldn’t have sent Chloe Smith but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have sent a woman.

It is often said that women don’t put themselves forward for public office as they are unwilling to face public scrutiny and high profile disasters like the one that has floored Chloe Smith. I think that there is some truth in this. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in her shoes reading the newspaper reports this weekend but until more of us are prepared to put our heads above the parapets the few women who do put themselves out there, good or bad, will be seen to represent us all.

So while I cannot defend the incompetence that is Chloe Smith I have to accept some responsibility as she was the best that women in politics could offer – and, by the way, so do you.

Social AND Enterprise

10 09 2012

I make this distinction as the term social enterprise is often viewed, wrongly, as a synonym for charity. I believe that all businesses should be considered in, and responsive to, the wider social context.

In a real sense every business is a social enterprise in that it operates in the society in which it is based. It buys goods from other enterprises and sells goods to other businesses or individuals in that society, be that on a local or global level. However what we think of when we talk about social enterprise is a business established and managed for social good. In general we all agree that this is a good thing and that we need more of them but in tacling this issue we need to go back to basics and, as ever, the language we use is critical.

Creating a new enterprise is often called “Starting YOUR OWN Business” The business is acknowledged as something that you own. If you form a limited company and retain 100% shareholding then in this sense you do “own” the business but I feel that this language forms a barrier to social enterprise. It is far better to think about “Creating A Business”.

The business isn’t you. It is a separate and distinct legal entity. Money made by the business belongs to the business and while it may pay salaries to employees and repay loans and have other committments the primary use of the money the business makes should be none of these things. The money should be used to serve the purpose for which the business was created. If the business was created to build houses then it should, first and foremost, build houses. A business that is created simply to make money for the stakeholders and where the purpose of the business, for example building houses, is a secondary consideration can never be a social enterprise.

Consider banks. These were first created by people who set up strong vaults to look after gold for merchants while they were at sea. Had the merchants taken their gold with them they would have been easy targets for pirates. Knowing that the gold was held safely by a trusted third party allowed merchants to pay for goods and services with promisory notes which allowed the holder of the note to claim the payment promised from the vault at a later stage. No gold need be moved, the risk of piracy was reduced and over time the notes became accepted as being as good as gold. The bankers realised that since most transactions were made by exchange of promisory notes the gold was rarely taken out of the vault, so they could lend the gold itself to other merchants, for a fee of course. The banks started making money out of money – not even their own money! And so it continued to the present day with more and more complex ways of making money for it’s own sake.

  • We need to think about creating not owning a business.
  • We need to think of the money made by the business being retained by the business.
  • We need to ensure that the money made by the business is used for the purpose for which the business was created.

When we get these three things right we will create enterprises that are fit for purpose – a great starting point for being social and enterprising.

Women on Top

10 09 2012

In the last few weeks we have been treated to a seemingly endless parade of female high achievers. From Jessica Ennis to Sophie Christiansen, Ellie Simmonds to Victoria Pendleton. Female athletes delivered more than one third of the medals won by Team GB at the Olympics and are adding to that achievement daily at the paralympics. A brilliant effort, especially given that sportswomen receive less than one per cent of corporate sponsorship for sport and five per cent of media coverage.

It is fabulous to see women’s achievements celebrated in this way and to have a generation of young women who can act as role models for our young girls – a far better message to send out, surely, one that says that girls can be successful footballers rather than judging their success by marrying one!

While there isn’t a 50:50 male/female split the governing bodies do have significant input from women; UK Sport has two women at the top – Liz Nicholl the CEO and Baroness Sue Campbell the Chair, while 30% of the board of UK Athletics is female, including Sarah Smart, who is profiled in this issue of the3rdimagazine.

But what does it mean to be a Woman on Top?

In the Olympic arena it is clear. At the end of each event there is a podium with three platforms, the highest reserved for the gold medal winner, the lowest for bronze and the middle for silver medalist.  My youngest brother, a former PE teacher and semi-professional footballer, refers to second place as being the first loser.  He is now at the top of his chosen profession so you could argue that this philosophy works in getting you to the top. For those of you of a similar age to me, you may remember this attitude being displayed by Lord, then simply Sebastian, Coe who swiftly removed the silver medal award to him when he finished behind Steve Ovett in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics.

But is it really that clear?

When Rebecca Adlington won bronze for the second time at the 2012 games, having won gold twice in Beijing, she said,

“I am proud to get a bronze, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I hate it when people say it is losing because you have not done my sport. Swimming is one of the hardest events to get a medal at. It’s not like other sports. Hopefully the public will be proud of me getting that bronze.”

Clearly she was proud of her performance but concerned that her achievement wouldn’t be appreciated or be given the credit that it deserved.

Earlier in the year I had watched the UK Athletics championships, which this year also served as the qualifying event for those seeking to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. Here just being the best in the UK at your chosen event wasn’t enough. An athlete could win the race, beat all the competition and still be labelled a failure as unless the victory was achieved in a time, or at a height or distance that would allow them to compete with the best in the world, the athlete would not be selected for Team GB. This happened quite a few times. Success dressed up as failure.

I think that these lessons of achievement need to be taken into our working lives. Not the striving for the top but in the need to consider what success looks like, particularly for women.

For example, I’m considered by many to be a successful woman whereas my hairdresser is a hairdresser. She hasn’t won any major awards, doesn’t drive a flash car, doesn’t have any of the “stuff” that we associate with success. However she employs several staff, treats them all really well, supports all her team to continue their learning and development and earns enough to keep herself and her family comfortably. Most women in business are like her and should, in my opinion, be applauded.

Getting more women on boards is all well and good – in fact it is essential if we are to change the whole nature of big business and I am actively involved in a number of projects to further this aim. But as Napolean said, we are a nation of shopkeepers. To paraphrase, we are a nation of small businesses, a lot of which are women owned and managed. Most women aren’t working in corporates and have no interest in being Chair of a FTSE 100 company.

While we need to support the women who do want a corporate career we also need to look at what we mean by being “On Top” and to think more carefully about what success really looks like for most women.