The standard narrative is, understandably, a victim-orientated one, with women falling behind because the odds are stacked against us from scratch. However, without dismissing this, I’ve often thought it would be much more useful to construct a positive, action-based narrative that emphasises something else, gives us something to strive for and removes a slice of the anger and indignation.
I did a tweet yesterday highlighting an instance of daft engrained sexism I found on a blog. It was retweeted and faved about 20 times, very quickly. But what I had written was slightly innaccurate. I’d said there were no women in a list, but it turned out there was *one*, as anyone who’d clicked on the link and scanned through would soon have discovered.
The moment I noticed, I corrected myself in a follow-up tweet, but very few people checked, or cared. Twitter gives people an opportunity to be angry about something at the click of a button – but what worries me more is that these ‘causes’ are facilitated by Twitter as a form of public display. We’re not just being angry – we’re being seen to be angry.
I think the draw of the public display afforded by Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, which are primarily a way of establishing – and re-establishing – your constructed identity to your ‘public’, potentially impedes progress with resolving genuine problems. It can feel as though the cause is no longer about anything other than a very quick, cheap way of being seen a certain way. The scenario was summed up, for me, by the “make-up free selfies for cancer” meme that went around the other day. Totally unofficial, with no link or donating information, it went like this: take a photo of yourself without make-up on; get people telling you you look fab without make-up on; hashtag it, like, ‘cancer’ or whatever; nominate a friend; feel good on several levels.
Incidentally, in a fit of conscience, I posted another follow-up: “As well as tweeting about the profile of creative women, invest in individuals and projects you admire. Tweets are cheap, support goes far”. It achieved one measly retweet. Maybe no one saw it. Selfishly, of course, I want people to do more than simply display their allegiance to creative women – I want them to buy thousands of copies of my magazine and interview me on national television.
The power of anti-display
I have friends who run events on traditionally ‘male’ themes, and populate them with (at least) 50% fantastic women speakers, and NEVER MENTION that there is anything remotely noteworthy about that. Part of it is that old thing I’ve talked about before: people like working with their mates, and people’s mates tend to be like them in terms of broad age, gender, race etc. So women organising events will book lots of women to talk, just as men will do the same with men – it’s who they know and who they relate to.
But part of it is a conscious choice to use your position to profile ideas and people that aren’t getting profiled elsewhere. It’s got to the point where I’m so turned off by ‘celebrity’ appearances at very vaguely related events or publications that I won’t read anything about them, let alone publicise them. People complain about token women and quotas, but really, what justifies anyone’s place on the podium? There is always a business (display) decision behind conspicuous success. In the end, we’re all watching our backs. We all want to sell tickets, we all want to be seen to be standing by the right cause. So it’s not just women who should ask: why am I really getting this opportunity? And perhaps no one should ask that at all – perhaps, in the world of display-eat-display, it’s fine to look out for yourself.
We had a period of scrabbling when it felt like technology was democratising, then the celebrities and the cause celebres arrived. And now we’re enduring an era of display and statement. I wonder when we started trusting the showman. The truth lies elsewhere.
Why does it matter?
I don’t know how it objectively matters, I only know what I see. Let’s face it: I want to help women because I am one. I am massively personally invested because, like you, I’m all about self-preservation. I am not an empath – perhaps I’m a psychopath – but it would feel spectacularly disingenuous and suspect for me to jump on a cause that I had no personal investment in. Yet I see apparent empaths everywhere online. Conspicuous displays of charitable, but fleeting, social media-based interest in wildly different people and their lives. But while I believe people should be able to enjoy themselves and impress their talents on the world, the types of people I feel qualified to talk about, to side with, to stand up for – the types I understand best, aren’t socially-endorsed causes, they are just (and it’s not necessarily ‘better’) – people who are a bit like me.
I read something recently arguing that we need more female superheroes to inspire our girls, because superheroes take risks. Apparently businessmen take risks, but businesswomen don’t. Or rather, men see intuition as risky and women see asking for a pay rise as risky. Now, I don’t know a lot about business, but I have heard entrepreneurs say they are incredibly risk-averse and that’s why they’re successful. What if success isn’t something unreachable in the future but something to do with the inevitable expected fulfilment that arises from only embarking on ventures where you know you can win? Wouldn’t that feel empowering?
So when I talk about success, I don’t mean a fantasy, superhero thing: have they headlined TED? Have they been into space? I mean success in a much more meaningful and important sense: are they making a living doing something they love and are good at; are they getting a degree of recognition from people who count; are they getting what they want from their projects and, on the whole, their lives? Success, in the end, is probably as self-defined as everything else. But the women I’m thinking of in the list below are the ones I want to be more like. In the end, our heroes serve our vanity, too.
Based on my experience as a journalist, an event organiser, a podcast producer and generally, let’s face it, a woman, here are some of the things I’ve noticed. I’m sure they apply to men, too – or other ‘kinds of people’ – and I’m sure you’ll have more.
- Turn up. You’ve got to be in it to win it, but I don’t know what it is… confidence issues, having more demands on their time, having a sense of what they ‘should’ be doing instead? The fact is, unfortunately, I’ve noticed women cancel on me – socially and professionally – much more often than men. The ones who reliably turn up are the ones who bring the energy and the ideas. It’s a bit like the thing of ‘We think Australians are go-getting because the ones we meet in the UK have already got here, so they’re self-selected go-getters.’ Women who turn up are self-selected go-getters. Sometimes you’ve got to do things when you really, really don’t want to.
- Travel. Here’s one I only noticed recently. The greatest women artists, scientists and academics I know personally will travel hundreds of miles to do something often only hazily defined, for very little reward in terms of finance or glory. There is excitement about novel experiences, and pushing oneself into unfamiliar territory (literally and otherwise) regardless of how it turns out. Leading me to…
- Take a chance. Not gambling the house on the geegees, but gambling time and energy on the unknown. If entrepreneurs only take on risks they know they can win, perhaps it’s about how we define winning. You may have no idea what’s waiting for you when you sign up to a new project, but you say ‘yes’ anyway, confident you’ll draw something out of each experience.
- Get positively excited about things. Isn’t it amazing how, when someone’s excited about something, their free time suddenly opens up magically before them to accommodate it? Negative excitement (e.g. the kind of self-serving display facilitated by social media, mentioned above) is hemmed by time and informed by striving on in that rage-blinkered way. You don’t make time for the sentiments you express on Twitter; you expect it to work around you – you put yourself at the centre. Which is all well and good, but it’s not something I associate with the success of the creative women I know, who are lucky enough to have discovered the thing that they will always make time for.
- Are more interested in their goal than their gender. This isn’t a point about being a woman in a man’s world, it’s simply about not putting gender first in your value system, your decisions, your expectations about life. For most of us, gender is a fairly static thing – it’s not separate from our general sense of identity and it’s not something we can ‘work with’ creatively. I wonder, actually, if not thinking about it much can help with focus. Easier said than done of course, society puts its obstacles and reminders everywhere. But for the successful women I’m thinking about, the vision is bigger than the roadblocks, and there’s a lack of interest in them borne out of a faith that ignoring problems that thrive on attention can sometimes cause them to dissolve away.
- Promote each other and become connectors. There’s a degree of confidence in letting go of your own goals for a moment sometimes, hooking up a couple of your friends and stepping back to see what they do together. It can take a while to see this isn’t a threat to your own work. I don’t have any interest in the ‘feminine’ business arguments – that we’re better at collaborating or have better soft skills or better social skills. It feels like there are infinite excuses to pay women less and, to me, it just sounds like a modern reimagining of the ‘modest Victorian lady’ fantasy. But placing yourself as a connector both implies power and arises from it.
- Don’t expect things from people. Which implies independence of course, but it’s more than that. A characteristic of a lot of women I know is that they enjoy their co workers and collaborators without actually needing them. I’m aware this inverts the popular story of the woman-who-only-exists-as-part-of-a-network. But women who stand out, women people think of are driven by something beyond the offerings of fellow humans; they pursue ideas.