On the lived experience of being a woman

Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience.  Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment?  I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance.  And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.

My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment.  But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue.  After all, we have equality now, don’t we?

To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –

I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders.  There was an evening dinner.  I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day.  He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me.  I made my excuses and left.

Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention.  That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means.  Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens.  Or, worse, deny it ever happened.  Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?

But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others.  I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it.  I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again.  I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again.  And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).

It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel.  They see nothing wrong in behaving this way.  In part that is because it is so rarely challenged.  We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it.  Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.

[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally.  But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else.  If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met  or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]

In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale.  What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination.  The differential treatment. The mansplaining.  The being talked over, marginalised and ignored.  The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.

In all those cases there’s plausible deniability.  You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough.  And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not.  But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.

Of course, I’m relatively lucky.  I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities.  So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.

I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.

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Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey

In Miranda and Caliban (review copy from Tor, through NetGalley), Jacqueline Carey gives us a thoughtful exploration of the backstory to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Tempest.  It’s a short book, but one packed with thoughtful insight and commentary on the source material.

Miranda and Caliban focuses on Miranda’s childhood, with the events of the play only covered briefly towards the end of the book.  For all that it’s a close rendering of the play it gives a radically different and fresh perspective on the story.  Carey’s retelling draws out the toxic impact of Prospero’s desire for revenge and the abusive relationship that has created with his daughter.  Miranda is a tool for his revenge, a person he controls and exploits to enable that revenge and return to power.  She is infantilised and denied information, but expected to perform services in pursuit of her father’s revenge agenda.  This is a Prospero who cares little of her wishes or feelings, playing his daughter as a card to engage the interest of those shipwrecked on the island.

Carey’s Caliban is a misunderstood creature.  Judged for his physical appearance and isolated upbringing he is seen by Prospero as ignorant and fit only for menial labour.  It is under Miranda’s help and care that he grows and blossoms and learns.  Caliban is as exploited by Prospero as Miranda, his potential and skills overlooked except where they can be used to advance Prospero’s agenda.  But unlike Miranda, Caliban isn’t family.  And his status as the child of a witch means he will never be able to transcend the strict class boundaries of that society.

Goodreads rating: 3* 

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.

Gender politics is a very live and current issue.  Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism.  For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted.  Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.

Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men.  He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have.  A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness.  That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men.  But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves.  Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles.  As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.

Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world.  It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity.  Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.

Goodreads rating: 5*

On Gollancz Fest and the importance of panel diversity

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Celebrating their 10th anniversary of being published: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd.
For much of my time at Gollancz Fest this weekend, this was my view: three white men.

When two of them are Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie you kind of have to acknowledge the awesome, but even so. Some stats about the event:

  • Day 1 morning – 13 speakers, 5 women (38%)
  • Day 1 afternoon – 12 speakers, 1 woman (8%)
  • Day 1 evening – 3 speakers, 0 women (0%)
  • Day 2 morning – 9 speakers, 2 women (22%)

I make that 37 speaker sessions in the programme, and 8 of them taken up by women. That’s just 21%. There were no speakers from ethnic minorities. But while the audience was also overwhelmingly white, the gender balance was much closer to 50/50.

This isn’t just about the numbers. For me, it was a pretty alienating experience sitting in that audience. The event was so tightly scheduled that there was little or no time for questions. So I sat there reflecting on how this was demonstrating in microcosm what society is like for many of us. If we are not represented in the conversation we can do little other than internalise the message that our place is to be the passive audience for the achievements and creative work of others. Seeing someone that looks like me on a panel does so many things. It can be inspirational, showing other women what can be achieved. But mostly it adds richness and freshness to a debate and conversation that otherwise risks becoming a tired rehashing of the same topics.

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Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. Talking about the Great Men of SF: Arthur C Clarke and H G Wells. Inevitably.
And what happens when diverse voices aren’t there? You only had to look at the Saturday afternoon panels to see. Of all the books mentioned during the afternoon panels, only one was by a female author (an essay by Rebecca Solnit that the moderator referred to when framing a question about people’s response to crisis). It was probably unintentional, but that will perpetuate the idea that the only good quality books are written by white men, making it even harder for anyone who looks different to get recognition. And the bias was reflected in the books on sale in the room too. While many of the men on the programme had multiple books by them displayed for sale, including in splendid 10th anniversary hardback editions, none of the women had more than a single title on offer, even though many of them are prolific writers. If you were Elizabeth Bear, there were none of your books on sale in the room at all. So, your husband might have to write in the blinding reflected light of all your Hugo and Locus awards (as he revealed during one of the panels), but none of your work was available to buy.

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Can you find a book by a woman here? I count four on the whole table. That’s less than the number of books by Joe Abercrombie on sale.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the problem. If you checked the GollanczFest hashtag on Twitter you could see in amongst the enthusiastic live tweeting of the wit, humour and insight of the panellists an increasingly vocal set of grumbles about the diversity issues of the event. By the third all-white, all-male panel of Saturday afternoon it was getting pretty vocal indeed, with links being shared to pieces about the importance of panel diversity and ways of improving it.

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Definitely no books by women here …
I’m a firm believer that providing feedback is the best way of getting issues like this addressed. During a lull this morning Marcus Gipps, one of the Gollancz editorial team, was filling time and asked for feedback, so I raised the issue. Fair play to him, he ruefully acknowledged that it hadn’t been the best, and they’d clocked all the comments made on Twitter. He pointed to some scheduling difficulties that had apparently made it difficult to achieve greater representation. It was a very graceful response, and I hope that the organisers will take the feedback on board if they run a similar event next year. But as a publisher-run event, GollanczFest can only draw on Gollancz writers. Looking down their list of authors I can’t help but wonder if it’s Gollancz that has the diversity problem rather than GollanczFest.

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Joanne Harris (with Ed Cox). One of the few women there.
Either way, as a community we deserve better. And unless we keep highlighting these issues they won’t get fixed.

UPDATE: I’ve had some fantastic conversations this evening with various Gollancz staff. I’ve been really touched by the way they’ve approached this issue with a genuine willingness to engage. I’ve been told that there had been plans for an additional three female panellists, but they’d had to pull out at the last minute for various reasons, including childcare reasons. The opening out of the programme to non-Gollancz writers like the awesome Catriona Ward and Antonia Honeywell (who write for other Orion imprints) was in part intended to address the gender balance issues. I’m also told that Gollancz only publishes Elizabeth Bear in ebook, hence the lack of physical copies of her books for sale. Refreshingly, Gollancz have acknowledged that these points aren’t the whole solution, and they will reflect further. I’m left feeling much more positive. This is why it’s important to speak up in a respectful and constructive manner, folks.

The English Girl – Katherine Webb

They say that travel broadens the mind, and in The English Girl (review copy from Orion), Katherine Webb shows us what it takes to be a pioneering explorer, the human impact of that and the cost of hidden secrets.

The novel follows Joan Seabrook, a young woman who travels to Oman with her fiance, Rory, in the early 1950s.  Joan had grown up fascinated with the Arabian peninsula and takes advantage of a small inheritance following the death of her father to travel to Oman, where her brother is serving in the military.  One of the aims of her trip is to meet her heroine, the pioneering explorer Maude Vickery.  But while she is there, Joan gets enmeshed in a local rebel insurgency.

Much of The English Girl focuses on Joan.  Her trip to Oman forces her to confront family secrets about her much-loved father, her brother and her fiance.  She comes to question her planned direction in life: a job at a local museum, marriage and motherhood.  But most of all, Joan explores her appetite for adventure, and learns the cost as well as the glamour.  She faces life-threatening danger when she becomes involved in a local insurgency.

Far and away the strongest and most interesting part of The English Girl is the character of Maude Vickery.  Loosely based on Gertrude Bell, but entirely a fictional character, Maude is introduced to us as a notable Victorian explorer, and the first woman to have crossed the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), narrowly beaten only by her friend Nathanial Elliott.  Large parts of the novel are flashbacks to Maude’s childhood, her exploits as an explorer and her relationship with Elliott.  The novel shows the romance of exploration, while painting an uncompromising picture of the challenges and deprivations Maude faced, and her own personal resilience in overcoming them.  We see Maude’s toughness and pioneering spirit turn to bitterness in later life, soured by the social attitudes of the time that make it near-impossible for her to obtain justice for the betrayal she has suffered.

The English Girl is a bit by-the-numbers at times, but it is a great story about adventure, secrets and having the courage to break away from expected paths.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Snow Queen – Joan D Vinge

For a 35 year old novel, Joan D Vinge’s The Snow Queen still feels relatively fresh.  But that doesn’t stop it reeking of the 1980s from every pore.  The novel is very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. But Vinge moves the setting to the colony planet of Tiamat in the far future.  Tiamat is nearing the end of its 150 year ‘Winter’ season, which will lead to great change.  As Winter changes to Summer, and the planet moves too close to its nearby black hole to enable safe interstellar travel, the interplanetary Hegemony (which has a monopoly on all technology) will withdraw, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to revert to a pre-industrial society for a further 150 years, until Winter when the Hegemony can return again.

Like in Anderson’s original story, Vinge flips fairy tale tropes on their heads.  Her female lead, Moon, is the one on a quest to rescue her lover, who has fallen under the sway of Arienrhod, the titular Snow Queen.  The redemptive power of love lies at the heart of the novel.

But Vinge overlays on that, some very contemporary concerns, informed by her background as an anthropologist.  She examines the tension between nature and nurture.  Moon is a clone of the Snow Queen, part of Arienrhod’s plans to buck Tiamat’s apocalyptic tradition of Change.  The queen hopes that by training her successor she can break a pattern that keeps the planet under the control of the all-powerful Hegemony.  But Moon is raised by the pastoral Summer people.  Kept away from the cynical politicking of the Winters, she may share Arienrhod’s charisma and intelligence, but she is raised to become a kind and generous person.

Gender politics is a theme running throughout.  In the interview printed at the end of my copy, the author talks about her frustration with late 1970s feminism.  In her view it was falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender roles of women as ‘naturally’ caring and nurturing.  This involved painting science and technology as inherently damaging, and advocating a pastoral, matriarchal utopia as the ideal.  Vinge presents an alternative vision, closer to the original ideals of feminism: that women are just as capable of carrying out the same roles and tasks, and are not inherently predisposed to the domestic.  The senior police officer Jerusha PalaThion is frustrated by the conservative gender stereotypes of the Hegemony.  She is promoted to please the Snow Queen, but – despite her obvious competence – has to bear the attempted sabotage of her career by her colleagues.  The tech-smuggler Elsie has escaped from a cloistered existence, but at the expense of personal dishonour and severed ties with her family.

There is also a strong ecological thread running through The Snow Queen.  Vinge does not shy away from showing us the impact of the Hegemony’s technological development.  The planet of Kharemough became nearly uninhabitable from industrial pollution.  Production has been moved off-world, enabling the planet to recover.  Tiamat is starting to show the signs of damage from pollution.  And the slaughter of the sea-creatures known as mers, to make an immortality drug has led to their near extinction.  Tiamat depends on its long Summers to enable the planet to recover its equilibrium.

All of this makes The Snow Queen a vintage piece of 80s “science fantasy”.  It’s easy to see why it won a Hugo at the time.  The novel has long been out of print (I vaguely remember reading it as a teenager), but has recently been republished with a new introduction from the author and other additional material. It’s well worth tracking down a copy if you’ve never read it.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Black Widow – Chris Brookmyre

I must confess, Jack Parlabane isn’t my favourite of Chris Brookmyre‘s characters, even if he is the author’s most famous creation.  There’s something about the grumpy journalist willing to resort to unethical methods in pursuit of a good story that normally just doesn’t click for me.

In Black Widow, Brookmyre’s latest (published by Little, Brown, who gave me a review copy through NetGalley), Parlabane is approached by the sister of a man killed when his car apparently ran off the road in an accident.  The sister believes her brother was murdered by his wife, a surgeon, who used the ‘accident’ to cover up the murder.  Scenting a story, Parlabane agrees to investigate.  From there, the story rattles along at a satisfying pace as Parlabane and the police investigate in parallel.  As always, it is full of satisfying twists and turns and surprises.

The Parlabane of Black Widow is a diminished man.  He is separated from his wife and living in a post-Leveson world of online media and recycled press releases that has little place for a journalist of his skills.  He ekes out a living writing content-less content for various online publishers: puff pieces and glorified advertising material.  In many ways, this bitter and self-pitying man is a more interesting character than the at times overbearing investigative journalist at the peak of his professional success.

But the real strength of Black Widow for me is in its portrayal of Diana Jager, the surgeon accused of her husband’s murder.  Jager has a controversial past: her anonymous blog about sexism in the medical profession went viral after she was critical of hospital IT staff.  Jager became the victim of doxxing and death threats, ultimately losing her job.  In Black Widow, Brookmyre examines the way we judge women, particularly those bold enough to articulate their opinions, and the prevalence of threats of violence to silence them.  Any woman who does not conform to a meek, wholesome stereotype is vulnerable to suspicion.  Although she was the undoubted victim of online harassment, the episode makes it easy for people to suspect her of the revenge murder of her hospital IT worker husband of six months.  The parallels with cases like that of Christopher Jefferies, whose reputation was destroyed by the media when he was arrested for the murder of missing woman Jo Yeates are obvious.  (She was actually murdered by a neighbour.)

This contemporary, thoughtful sensibility is what lifts Black Widow,  as so much of Brookmyre’s work, above the normal run of comic thrillers.

Goodreads rating: 4*