What’s Been On My Mind This Week

Question Mark1. Making the headlines on Wednesday was the news that technology giants Apple and Facebook are to provide an egg-freezing programme (costing up to $20,000) for their female employees. Unsurprisingly, there were varied reactions to the announcement. Some, like Zoe Williams in the Guardian, argued that it’s another example of ‘creepy corporatism’ and that it sounds like the plot from a Sci-fi movie. However, I think that the two women writing about it for Prospect magazine were more measured and analytical in their responses. Serena Kutchinsky argues that egg-freezing treatment is a ‘logical extension’ of many healthcare plans that make provisions for such things as pregnancy, childbirth and infertility treatments. She sees it as giving women more of an opportunity to ‘pursue their dreams on an equal footing with men.’ I’m not sure I would go that far (and see this rather sobering article in the Guardian, which, among other things, points out that only 20 babies have ever been born from frozen eggs in the UK), but both Kutchinsky and Jessica Abrahams acknowledge the struggle that modern women continue to face when it comes to balancing a career with having a family, with Abrahams making the point that, while offering egg-freezing is good in an industry where employees are 70% male, this benefit is also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that women delay having families while they build careers. Companies shouldn’t be accommodating this, Abrahams argues, but should be working to change the corporate structure so that working life is more flexible. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics here in the UK has revealed that one in five new mothers is aged 35 or older, and that 51% of all live births in the UK in 2013 were to mothers in their thirties. The average age of first-time mothers is now at a record high of 28.3 years, and nearly two-thirds of births are to fathers aged 30 and over.

It was interesting, however, that this was announced in the same week that the New Statesman ran an article that demonstrated how the majority of the UK’s major political parties could be lead by women within the next few years. We already know that Nicola Sturgeon will soon take over from Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP, and we might well see female leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties next year, depending on the general election result. This, despite the fact that still less than a quarter of MPs are women, and at a time when newspapers like the Daily Telegraph are printing articles with the headline, ‘Mother of three poised to lead the BBC’. You would never see a headline about a male business appointment that began with ‘father of three’, or ‘husband and father’. Women who are not mothers are often misjudged or misunderstood by society. Those who want to have children can face unfair maternity provision and can feel as though they are forced to make sacrifices in their careers (and often are). While Apple and Facebook’s decision is certainly not altruistic and may be seen by many to be mercenary, they are offering women another option (but no guarantees). Fertility, childbirth and procreation make the sexes unequal, but any step towards greater choice is positive. Again, how the importance of how the media reports on such announcements cannot be overstated, and the media exerts a great deal of influence over how we as a society perceive women. Until the media takes the lead in demonstrating that a woman’s qualifications are more pertinent in a job than her ability or desire to procreate, questions of female fertility are likely to remain a taboo.

2. Sticking with the theme of women in a man’s world, the great actress Harriet Walter wrote a piece for the Guardian this week about Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Henry IV Parts I and II which is currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse. Walter also starred in Lloyd’s well-received all-female version of Julius Caesar at the same theatre last year (which later transferred to Broadway), and, having played both male and female Shakespearean roles, she writes about the differences between them. She notes how women’s speeches are about men, how their presence is defined by men, how men are their world, and yet for men ‘the whole wide world is their sphere’. Walter talks about female voicelessness (a problem worldwide), about women who are incarcerated (both of Lloyd’s plays are set in prison) and about the ‘novelty’ of having fourteen women – and no men – on stage. The idea of women playing male roles in Shakespeare isn’t new, but Lloyd’s all-female cast is interesting, and Walter writes about Shakespeare with knowledge and passion, despite the paucity of roles strictly meant for women. Walter says we should be looking beyond gender to find our common humanity, and that is something that cannot be said need only be applied to the theatre.

3. Of course, I’m usually always interested in something taking place in American politics, and this week it was this article in the Washington Post which wonders whether Mitt Romney might run again for President in 2016. Many see him as the head of the Republican Party, as someone with the knowledge and understanding of what’s required. Obviously the man himself has not made any comments, but then nor has Hillary Clinton yet announced whether she will run. Other Republican presidential candidates include Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, and apparently polls put Romney ahead by double the number of points of his closest rival. Clinton, on the other hand, dominates the Democratic field, which so far only really includes Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachussetts. With the midterm elections only two weeks away, and the likelihood of a Republican-controlled House and Senate, it will be interesting to see how this affects the standing of potential candidates.

4. Something a little different for this week’s reading, in that I’m going to mention a graphic novel. I haven’t read very many, but the few I have had the chance to read I’ve really enjoyed, and this one was no exception. It’s by a young Canadian illustrator called Emily Carroll, and is titled Through the Woods. It’s a collection of short stories inspired by folktales and fairytales, with dark, twisted and mesmerising illustrations. Just don’t read it alone at night!

5. This week I’ve been listening to Flesh Tone, the fifth album by American singer Kelis. Released in 2010, it’s not a new record, but I was in the mood for a dance album, and this one appeals to me in particular because of Kelis’ way of combining dance with pop, electronica, rap, funk, house and synth to create something a bit different. It’s notable for being a short album (only just over half an hour), with a lot of very lean tracks, but I think she was brave to ensure each song was just as long as it needed to be. The tracks are also conjoined, moving seamlessly from one to the next, and the album feels very cohesive.

 

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