Today marks International Women’s Day: an occasion that is both celebratory and frustrating. A bit like Black History Month, it’s a disquieting reminder in our societal calendar: we’re moving towards a place of genuine equality and lack of prejudice, but quite clearly are miles away from it still, so instead we just acknowledge it loudly within a defined period of time.
I go out and buy today’s Guardian. The front page includes a piece by a brilliant journalist, Polly Toynbee, on why it’s a bad time to be a British woman: rising childcare costs (yup, that resonates), cuts to childcare credits (that too), the hours we spend on unpaid caring, the attrition of public sector jobs, the pathetic number of women in boardrooms nationally (now just 14%), the pay gap…
It makes me empathise with other working mothers—I’m also trying to figure out if I can make enough money to pay for someone else to look after my child. It makes me hugely grateful to my husband for being so brilliant about cooking (well, he’s a chef), and keeping the house from the slum it would become if it was just me in charge. And for looking after our kid more during the week than I do. It makes me proud that the chair of Spark+Mettle is female, and it makes me feel good about being this part-time CEO of sorts.
And then I turn the page and see the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, splashed across page 3 of The Guardian, surrounded by her girdled troupe, under the headline “It’s all about the bottom line: inventor of Spanx squeezes on to billionaires’ list.“ And it makes me feel conflicted: pleased to see an ambitious and successful businesswoman up in the ranks of men, frustrated that it’s such a big deal, bothered that she got there through underwear, questioning whether the whole concept of Spanx is empowering or disempowering. What does that say to the young women growing up today? You can get on Page 3 of The Sun by taking your underwear off, or on Page 3 of The Guardian by making it—and profiting handsomely from our (literal) out-of-proportion expectations of beauty?
For the last ten years my life has revolved around raising aspirations in young people. And although Spark+Mettle is aimed at both young men and women, I’m proud that for the Star Track pilot over two thirds of our co-creators are female. Today I’m lucky that I have a little time to reflect on everything, and to try to piece together what exactly I would want to share with young women growing up in the UK (and perhaps beyond): not just to help them raise their aspirations, but also to empower them to realise their aspirations too.
I turn away from The Guardian, and to what is literally right in front of me.
As I write I have eight books on my cluttered desk, stuffed between my printer and the Yellow Pages. A novel by Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, not yet begun. The Household Box, by Will Hobson is a brilliant, creative and beautifully-crafted assortment of games, insights and ideas to improve relationships and family life. Then there are a couple on happiness and flourishing, courtesy of Sonjya Lyubormirsky and Martin Seligman respectively. Also a copy of genre-fusing What is the What by my ex-boss and still-hero Dave Eggers. You’ll be able to see that there’s also a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse—something my dad gave me for Christmas, and something I haven’t actually opened yet. And then there are two left: Caitlin Moran’s utterly brilliant How To Be A Woman, and Craig Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance To Change The World.
The books make me think about expectations of women today in Britain: the ones they have of themselves, and the ones that others have of them. I don’t think there is any one way to realise our aspirations as women today: the methods are as diverse as we are as individuals. But if I had to hammer home 5 points to a young woman, I think they might be these:
I’m leafing through Dearden-Philips’ Your Chance to Change the World. It was the tool that turned my idea for Spark+Mettle into an actual thing, an entity, an organisation. It was the ladder that I could put between little tiny me and my big, nebulous aim. And having those rungs were key. Especially here, in the UK. I encountered so many people who were negative. “You want to start up something, now? In this economic climate? When you have no experience of running anything?”
It made me long to be back in California, where if I’d mention a little idea or a little scheme people would positively enthuse about it: giving some good advice, some constructive feedback, and handing me a host of contacts. To be ambitious and female is much better tolerated in the USA. But to young women in the UK, let me emphasise: it is not impossible, wrong, shameful, nor unfeminine to want to achieve great things in your working life.
In the book there’s a quote from Mark Twain which I love:
Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great.
It’s also possible to do this now, here, in this economic climate, with all around us going to pot. It takes a lot of baked beans for supper and robs a lot of easy downtime with friends or family, but it can happen. Find people who give you faith in yourself, good advice and the occasional free lunch. They’re out there.And they are wonderful. Find them.
Yesterday I was at an event with the RSA. Matthew Taylor took the floor to start. I haven’t heard him speak before and I long to hear him speak again. He was talking about social enterprise, and how excited he was about it. He was talking about how often there’s an assumption that being caring and being ambitious are mutually exclusive. And he was talking about how social enterprise is an exciting intersection of these two key characteristics. Thinking about what he said now, through my #IWD lens, I recognise how dementingly gendered these characteristics are perceived as being. And if it’s possible to have both in a business, then it’s sure as hell possible to have both in a human.
Be funny. Or, at least, don’t always be earnest.
Caitlin Moran is funny. She talks about body issues, abortion, motherhood and masturbation and she is funny. She talks about empowerment and emancipation and she is funny. In How To Be A Woman she proves to the world, via the bestseller list, that us women can make serious points about big issues and be funny all at the same time. That’s my sort of multitasking.
As women we can be taken seriously and we can be flippant, irreverent, light. Just as we can wear mini-skirts and not be sluts. And wear high heels and not be totty. Although we may well be tottering…
Women wear heels because they think they make their legs look thinner, ENDOV. They think that by effectively walking on tip-toes, they’re slimming their legs down from a size 14 to a size 10. But they aren’t, of course. There is a precedent for a big fat leg dwindling away into a point—and it’s on a pig.
I’m not much of a pig these days—at least when it comes to shoes. My feet put the loaf into loafer. But that’s not really the point. The point is: well, it’s sort of this. A friend’s mum always told her: “Darling, in life there are the fountains, and then there are the drains.” And by the way, that doesn’t mean you have to be a bubbly little conversationist to be someone to whom other are drawn. Crikey, no. Introverts can be fountains too.
Be a straight-talker.
But at the same time as all this light, multifaceted, spouty talk, we need to speak up and out too. Directly, immediately, reasonably. We can’t hide behind giggles, or whisper behind closed doors.
It comes down, in my opinion, to integrity. And integrity can be shown through humour, as well as through honest dialogue.
In The Household Box, Will Hobson suggests setting up a Suggestions Book: an idea that perfectly encapsulates my two wishes of being both funny and direct all at the same time (in a wonderfully, tongue-in-cheek passive-aggressive sort of way). And boy, how great is the UK at passive-aggressive, not-saying-what-I’m-really-meaning conversation? So this is the moment when I go all product-placement and wholeheartedly advocate for the Ronseal approach to conversation: do exactly what it says on the tin. If you can have a direct conversation with someone without their needing to check your footnotes, life will be a whole lot easier.
Not necessarily with money. Although that’s always nice. But absolutely with time, with ideas and—most important of all—with specific praise.
Generosity is a core tenet in Seligman’s Flourish. He suggests writing letters of gratitude, and then reading them out loud to the person to whom it’s written. You might not feel comfortable doing that, we are in the UK after all, not California, which is fine. But in this country where we say ‘sorry’ such an absurd amount, can’t we find ways to reduce how unnecessarily apologetic we are, and find opportunities to be generous instead?
In The How of Happiness, Lyubormirsky produces a list of happiness-inducing activities, many of which could be sub-categorised under ‘be generous’:
- Express gratitude
- Avoid social comparison
- Practise acts of kindness
- Nurture social relationships
- Learn to forgive
- Take care of your body
That last ones remind me that it’s important to be generous to yourself (and that’s not the same as being selfish). Go ahead, watch another episode of Community. It’s really funny, and funny stuff is good for your soul. How about that video with the crazy techno cat? Oooh, here it is:
Ahahahhaaa! What a treat! And that’s just on screens. If you don’t treat yourself: you’ll be no use to anyone, just a grumpy pig in heels.
Whether it’s with memory (What is the What), or with genre (What is the What), or with language (What is the What), or with children’s minds (826 Valencia) or with the book form (McSweeney’s)… Dave Eggers is a source of creative inspiration. The thing is: he is brilliant. But at the same time (and I say this with the deepest admiration) he is nothing special. Or at least, he shouldn’t be anything special. He just makes stuff, and he makes stuff happen. We can all do that. In fact, he now spends a large part of his life helping other people do that.
I’m a bit late to the “let’s get creative” party. It’s been a huge, but uncelebrated part of my life. Something I haven’t really ever acknowledged as being a fundamental component for a flourishing existence. But it is. I see it now, it is. It’s so simple. So obvious. So awesome.
And let me be clear: being creative doesn’t have to mean quilting eiderdowns or writing the next zeitgeisty novel (Eat Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Out?). And it certainly does not mean Blue Sky, Out Of The Box Thinking. And it doesn’t mean doing something that feels forced or unnatural or pretentious or hipster. You don’t need to knit an army tank or upcycle your old kitchen.
To me, being creative means simply finding little slivers of time when you can have a sense of awe or wonder and seeing where that takes you. Or getting absorbed in an activity (however menial) to such an extent that your mind wanders free. For the godfather on this subject, check out the man-with-the-impossibly-Hungarian-name and his book on Flow, or watch him talk at TED here:
See? Nothing grand, no skyscraper-high visions or plans: just you back with your mind, checking out the world and your place in it, and getting a little buzz from just that.
I think that does so much for us: it sparks off new ideas, it dusts off old ones. It reenergises. I’d say it’s a mental espresso but then I’d sound like a git…
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So there are my books and what they make me think. What you don’t see in the photo of my desk is the inbox piled high with unopened mail. You don’t see a ball of wax, a hair clip, a lone taxi receipt. Or the two bikes that I almost always hit my head on, hanging just to the right of the desk, above the little-used filing cabinet.
The desk and all its clutter is a pretty good representation of my life right now. Here I am, on International Women’s Day, carving a living out of working on my own at this desk. Balancing paid freelance work with getting Spark+Mettle off the ground with family life and the occasional moments of free time, typically spent in front of screens watching Community or Parks and Recreation. Failing, hourly, at a whole heap of things. Having little time and even less desire to do uxorial things such as tidying, cleaning, vacuuming, ironing. Ironing? Last did that in ’96.
What I do have some time—and a lot of desire—to do is to support young people, especially young women, figure out what they want from life and how they might go about getting it. If I can be any sort of ladder for them, between where they are and where they want to be, then I am a fortunate woman indeed.