The topic was that old but ever-fresh chestnut: Women excluded from directorships and top jobs. One of the speakers was a man who’s been successful in his job for almost half a century. Who was baffled by the topic. Just plain baffled, he was.
In all his working life, he told those present, he could — hand on Bible — swear that at no point had his team ever got together to exclude a woman from promotion to their ranks. Having delivered himself of this credible statement, he sat back, happy out. Argument closed.
Now, let’s pick that one apart just a little. We do not for an instant question the assertion that none of his team had ever united around the exclusion of a gender. What we question is that for at least three and possibly four decades, that team did not include a woman.
Just to make it clear, this man works in an area of interest to men and to women, involving roughly equal numbers of each gender. Yet no women made it to this operational team.
This wasn’t the army or the gardaí, where women were specifically excluded at the lower ranks until relatively recently and where, as a result, those in charge didn’t need to consider the input or needs of that gender. This was a business representing and involving men and woman alike.
The second problem with the man’s statement is that it misses the point about exclusion. It assumes that to exclude, you need to get out your hammer and your fence posts and deliberately create a barrier to a particular group.
Exclusion resides most devastatingly in attitudes and assumptions, in this case the assumption that women had not made the necessary extra effort to be even considered for inclusion. They were simply invisible, and the man was patting himself on the back for the fact that he hadn’t colluded with his male pals to keep them so.
It was fair to extrapolate from his initial position that, since his area of interest has and continued to be of central importance to Irish life, the best people must have been in charge, down all the decades, or it would have gone to hell in a handbasket. Ergo, by circular logic, the sector wouldn’t have been greatly improved by the presence of women at management level.
What was interesting about the public conversation was that nobody called him on any of this. A highly educated man who has always been, as the phrase has it, “on the right side of history” was allowed to clutch his own unexamined prejudices to himself and go home unchanged.
Park that for a moment, and consider a ratty paperback from 1969 with yellowed pages and a vague scent of teabags, lent by a friend who has kept it for years because of the narrative power of its account of the routes used by the Allies to smuggle POWs out of Europe during the Second World War.
The book — Saturday at M.I.9 — was written by one of the escapees from Colditz who then masterminded the escape of others: Airey Neave. Having survived all of the dangers the war could throw at him, Neave, having become a Tory minister and confidant of Maggie Thatcher, was to die in a car bomb atrocity orchestrated by the INLA outside the palace of Westminster in March 1979.
Paragraph two of the preface to his book includes these two sentences: “My wife did much of the research. Without her help I could not, in the midst of many other activities, have obtained valuable private information.”
You have to love that acknowledgment, with its careful indication that the only reason he needed his wife’s help was that he was busy “in the midst of many other activities”. Wives, of course, are never busy in the midst of many other activities.
But what’s central to the acknowledgement is that the researcher doesn’t have a name. Search as you will in the text, Mrs Neave doesn’t merit personal mention. She’s a possession. Neave’s wife. An anonymous chattel.
Ratty over this presumably unchosen anonymity, I googled to find out who this woman was.
She had a name. Diana Josceline Barbara Giffard, she was, before marrying Airey Neave. After his death, she became Baroness Airey of Abingdon, a Conservative member of the House of Lords after receiving a life peerage in August 1979 in deference to her dead husband.
The Google searches related to Neave are interesting, including, as they do, video clips from the 1980s of tweeded English aristocrats reading their Daily Telegraph in the grounds of their manor houses, and talking about the dead man.
Not much of the talk was about his heroism during the war or his later capacity to write vivid popular accounts of the war. Rather, they tended to major on his personification of “our values”.
In one clip, two elderly gentlemen nodded in agreement with each other as they talked about their values, one of them stating that it was those values which had made the UK the moral guardian of the world for the previous century.
The revival of those unstated values, a young Margaret Thatcher opined in a subsequent clip, would make Britain great again. Trump’s phrase tripping off the tongue of a long-dead prime minister.
The terrible certitude of the unexamined life of the powerful never changes. Thatcher knew. Trump knows.
WE IN Ireland are sufficiently nuanced, not to say cynical, as to mockingly quote Dev’s comment to the effect that “If I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart.” But at the time, his certainties ruled, just as did those of Thatcher. For the really powerful, there is never nuance nor cynicism.
Like my man who never conspired to keep women out of his team, but who just happened never to have a woman in that team over perhaps 30 years, the powerful know the truth. They have values.
For generations, particularly in business, that word “values” has been dragged about the corporate form like a self-protective banner, a statement of immutable merit. It’s time it was nailed for what it is: Pointless, unprovable, unevidenced boasting. Values are lived and demonstrable in the lives of those living them.
To that extent, while we might condemn the sexism of the preface to Neave’s book — the fact is he was of a generation which saw a wife as he saw his wife. He did, nonetheless, rise above this view of women outside of the domestic setting to plan the accession of a woman to the top political job in Britain.
What we have going for us in relation to Trump’s certitudes is that they are passing and transient by nature, expressed, thus far, via TV and Twitter. When he starts living his values as POTUS is when we’ll need to find us a bunker and a good book. I recommend Neave’s.
Values are lived and demonstrable in the lives of those living them