Is it what you know or who you know?

4 10 2010

There was a perception, and perhaps there still is, that getting a place on the board of a quango depends upon who you know. If you had a pal on the board of a public body, or knew someone who was part of the appointments process, then they would give you the nod. There was a feeling that jobs were spread amongst a few of the usual suspects.

Over the past few years the application process has become more open and the intention has been that it should be ” what you know not who you know” that is the important factor in selection. But has this change in attitude brought a change in the composition of public bodies? I wonder?

When you look at the individuals who hold board positions you can see that many of them hold more than one post. It would appear that board positions are still being shared amongst a relatively small number of people. True, the more open process means that posts can no longer be allocated through the old boy network so how do the same names keep appearing?

My suspicion is that increasingly the “what you know” does not apply to the complete skill set of the individual but to their ability to navigate their way through the application process.

In my discussions with Karen Carlton recently, she indicated that the language used on the application forms was being interpreted by lawyers in a way that wasn’t intended and which had resulted in them being disadvantaged in the process. When I spoke to Anne McLean OBE she spoke about a recent meeting she had had with women at the STUC. The women didn’t recognise that the talents that they exhibited everyday were exactly the expertise and experiences required to sit on the board of a public body. The language used on the forms did not allow them to match their skills to the requirements of the post even when they had all of the skills needed.

Both of these experiences, and the comment made by Roseanna Cunningham MSP when we met that she was quite often presented with the same names when making a ministerial appointment, suggest that board members are being selected from a small pool of people who know how to apply.

But the problem of selection from a small pool works form the other direction too. In speaking with Beth Edberg she indicated that board members of the Women’s Fund are found through their own network, for example, via their own fund raising events. And a friend who is the full time official at a small charity which helps individuals with severe mental health problems found their newest board member from the circle of friends of the charity. I can’t help feeling that we are not making the most of the talent available when making public appointments.

Beth identified that the main reason that there are so few women on the boards of public bodies is that “no-one asked them!” That is probably true but is it good enough?

Time has been cited by many as the reason why more women don’t get involved and Anne McLean OBE and Jane Irvine are particularly eloquent in this regard but I, at least, cannot use this as an excuse. As most readers will already know, I spend several evenings and most weekends helping at a community for adults with moderate to severe learning difficulties so I can find time but for all of the voluntary work and the fact that I have held board positions since I was 29 years old, I haven’t once considered applying for a position of governance.

In my defence, I had assumed that these posts were only awarded to the great and the good. Reading the biographies of the fabulous women who kindly agreed to give their views in the3rdi magazine this month, it is clear that they are great and good but it is also clear that they are there on merit.

One of my intentions in forming the 3rdi magazine was to make a difference in the areas of work where women are still disadvantaged. To make a difference on a national or global scale what better way than to become involved in the public bidies that affect all of our lives? So, in line with Ghandis famous saying “be the change you want to be” I will issue a call to public bodies to come and get me and a challenge to myself to put myself forward!

Women and Body Image 2010

4 01 2010

Until starting the third magazine some six months ago I wasn’t a great reader of women’s magazines. I might thumb through a copy of Cosmopolitan in the dentists waiting room or Hello at the hairdressers but that was about it.

Over the last few months, unsurprisingly, I have spent a lot of time looking at women’s magazines and websites and have become increasingly struck by the uniformity of the women as presented in the press, film, tv and video. The overriding image is of a white, slim, beautiful, young woman with perfect teeth but vacuous smile. And the image is virtually always overtly sexual.

This is the image that we are portraying to young people – young girls in particular – as being “ideal”. In order to be a success, to be famous, to be a celebrity, this is how you have to look and behave.

The sexualisation is a real problem. More and more clothes for young girls, children not just teenagers, are small versions of adult clothes. You can buy bras for pre-pubescent girls. Tots look like teens and teens look like WAGs. It was not so long ago that children of the working classes had to go out to work to support their families. With changes in society over the past 150 years this is no longer the case but we seem prepared to rob our children of their childhood in a different way, by encouraging them to look grown up too soon.

The body is thin, but not athletic. The body shape is achieved by not doing (not eating) rather than by doing (competing in a sport).

The rise of eating disorders can surely not be unrelated to the body image presented as desirable but with the concomitant rise in childhood obesity, this complex debate will wait for another day. We see very few sportswomen presented as role models and those that develop an athletic physique can be subjected to a whispering campaign, or worse, about their sexuality. Look at the disgraceful way that the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya was handled at the World Athletic Championship.

And it is not just body image that is a uniformly presented in the media. Women are still presented in the media, particularly in advertisements, as superwoman….juggling shopping, husband, kids, cleaning, and hundreds of other tasks. While we have moved on from having to have the house spotless, dinner on the table and a gin and tonic ready for our man walking through the door… OXO mum is alive and well and serving hearty stews to her family some 50 years after she first hit our TV screens..

How many women do you know that look like the women on the front cover of Cosmopolitan? How many women do you know that go to A list parties on the arm of a film star every night? How many women are in the house, car and 2.4 kids perfect family? Judging by the way we are presented we all should know people like that as surely we are all like that?

But we are all, if not guilty, than compliant! I had to get new photographs taken for use in the magazine as the one I had used from launch was a few years old and not great quality. I agonised over which photograph to use so that I didn’t look old. STOP PRESS. I am old, or as Kath Temple put perfectly in last months issue of the magazine, I am in my “wisdom years”. But we all do it, don’t we?

One of the principles of the3rdi magazine is to be inclusive. We ALL have a story to tell. Those of us already successful can inspire and mentor the next generation of female entrepreneurs. Those of us doing a job we love, irrespective of fame and fortune can share their stories here. We are different colours, shapes and sizes with different skills and talents and different targets and dreams. Isn’t it time we took more control over the way we are portrayed in the wider media so that the young women coming up behind us wont be having this same debate in another 50 years time.