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A Disconnect At The Top : Violence v Women

Posted on June 11, 2013 at 7:00 PM

I have been thinking about the disconnect between the 'tone from the top' advice we keep hearing in the UK about boardrooms, the very 'top' of our companies - and the message being given (or not) by government at the top when it comes to the way its own business is conducted.

By that I mean the way women in politics - or those who aspire to it - are treated in both Westminster and by the media. Media coverage does, of course, have a great deal to do with how they are then perceived by the public at large. It possibly has even more to do with whether women then want to place themselves under the sort of personal scrutiny and attack that often follows. But surely something could also be done about the everyday sexism in Parliament.

I think it's rather wonderful that we now have a multitude of groups that have cropped up to represent women in the City, in finance, on boards, in science, engineering and more. We have even seen three young women take on Facebook and misogynistic advertising with aplomb - and results.

But where is Westminster in all this ? Surely not following a trend, rather than at the front leading it. Can it really be that hard for women to stand together across political parties on such a matter ?

Or is it another example of an 'old-fashioned' ethos in GB on how things get done. (The same ethos that means the average age on boards is around 59 and there is still more wrinkling of noses than action on getting ahead w/a digital revolution and a need for true diversity in business).

I was delighted to be asked to participate in a debate at the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union last week on just this subject. My brief was to discuss the role of the media. Does the media 'get' the concept of violence against women ? No, I don't think so. 

There are some great intitiatives - at global level - on stopping what we usually mean by 'violence': of the physical kind. But bullying and initimidation is also a sort of violence, often the most insidious kind. It works below the surface, under people's radar, and if not 'outed' it just carries on - and on.

In late 2010 I was asked to write a piece for the FT Non-Executive Director Club's website. It was about women aspiring to become NEDs. I therefore spoke to a whole host of senior women - and the subject matter was so rich, one piece became three. But what really shocked me was how difficult it was to get women to talk to me on this subject. Some of it because many were uncomfortable about talking about women, particularly - fair enough. They preferred to see themselves as professional individuals.

But many more were just plain afraid. They would talk to me, warm up, and tell me a great deal. Then they would suddenly go off the idea of being quoted - or even being featured at all in a piece about non-executive directors that just might be critical of headhunters and the system as a whole. I was gettting late night text messages from senior women already on FTSE100 plc boards concerned about their input. Really?

Surely they were not afraid of being 'blacklisted.'

This resonates with what the US-based  LeanIn campaign of 'what would you do' ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com is talking about. At any rate, those concerns - and what I felt was too much media coverage with 'glass ceiling' in the headline, was the reason I launched this blog, when Lord Davies launched his review on the under-representation of women in the boardroom.

It has been an interesting journey. Women are far more willing to talk, and it isn't only because of the relationships I have built, involving trust. It is also because we have moved on, and found support both from each other and in surprising places.

There is a strong wave of feminism in the air. It is global, and it demands change and equality after too much talk on the subject and not enough action. The economic sense of it  - more women in the workforce being productive -at a time of prolonged recession might actually help this time.

But we need to ensure that the message coming down from Westminster is that violence - including intimidation and bullying - is unacceptable, in the Chamber - and in the media's reflection of it. For that women in politics need to stand together. 

Categories: Women, Behaviour, Leadership