Brutish, bitchy sexism highlights need for sisterhood

X Factor judge Cheryl Fernandez-Versini , Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the longst-serving British monarch Queen Elizabeth II all in the news this week.

It’s a free-for-all when it comes to denigrating women online. And women are often willing participants. As X Factor’s Cheryl has said after being ‘body shamed: ‘There is no
sisterhood,’ sad but true, writes Clodagh Finn

YOU mightn’t put them together but three women who made headlines this week reveal a lot about what it means to be female in today’s world. In no particular order, they are: X Factor judge Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Queen Elizabeth II, who became the longest reigning British monarch ever on Wednesday. Congratulations Ma’am.

There was much to celebrate. I, for one, punched the air when X Factor’s Cheryl hit back at the so-called ‘body shamers’ who called her a “bag of bones”.

But there was also much to lament. ‘Body shamers’, for instance. How did we ever let that odious term sneak into the vernacular? It’s been knocking around since circa 2008 and it somehow makes it all right to say repellent things about women’s – and men’s – body shape.

As Cheryl said in a gloriously spirited interview with ES Magazine: “Something has to be done, changed, even if it’s done in law.” And so say all of us. But here’s the upsetting thing. While reading Cheryl’s inspiring words, pictures of her flashed across the screen and I thought to myself: “Oh my, she does look thin.” Shame on me.

Like it or not, all of us are living in a sort of fairground hall of mirrors that throws back a shifting, often distorted reflection of the human body. We are conditioned to judge both ourselves and others, though heaven only knows what the parameters are.

The ideal woman has been through many incarnations; luxurious, looping figure of eight, Flapper lollipop-stick, post-war hourglass, super model, waif and now… Well, what does the perfect woman look like now?

It’s hard to know in an era when Kim Kardashian’s bottom is breaking the internet, but American comedian Tina Fey was on to something when she spoke about the laundry list of attributes women are supposed to have. Here are a select few from her list: “Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, a Jamaican dance-hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the hips of a nine-year-old boy and the arms of Michelle Obama”.

It would make you want to lie down in a dark room because although it’s an amusing exaggeration, it’s far too close to the truth for comfort.

Cheryl is doing everyone a favour when she says enough is enough. She’s spot-on, too, when she points out that some of the people writing this bilge are women. “There is no sisterhood,” she said and, sadly, you have to admit that it’s true.

How else can you explain the reaction to the news that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is expecting twin girls in December? Ever since she posted an upbeat dispatch on tumblr, there has been an ugly outpouring of prejudice from men — and women.

When she had her first child in 2012, she went back to work two weeks later. She has indicated she’ll do the same when the twins are born.

There was a rush to condemn her for sending out the wrong message to women. The “wrong message”? I don’t know any woman — pregnant with twins or otherwise — who is waiting for any kind of message.

In any case, shortly after Mayer returned to work she extended Yahoo’s maternal and parental leave and offered new parents a $500 (€445) stipend to buy baby clothes.

That message seems to be forgotten now as the heave against her starts again. The suggestion this week by Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, that she would be out of a job within six months if she hadn’t announced she was pregnant with twins made me retch.

He went on to say that Yahoo wants to be seen to be ‘leaning in’, a reference to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book about the ways women are held back — and hold themselves back.

In it, Sandberg urged mothers to continue to be ambitious in business, but they’re going to need a whole lot more than ambition to counter that kind of brutish sexism.

Galloway clearly doesn’t think much of Marissa Mayer. He believes she’s the most overpaid CEO in history, but to bring her pregnancy into the discussion constitutes a new low.

Study after study shows that women still come up against a ‘motherhood penalty’ in the workplace. Once motherhood is brought into the mix, a potential employee is considered less competent and less committed.

One 2011 study found that mothers in the US were offered a starting salary of, on average, $11,000 less than women without children.

Where are fathers in all this? Where indeed. Has anyone ever once challenged a man’s ability to do a job on the basis that he is the father?

I’m being naïve here, but apart from the fact that women carry and give birth to children, I can’t see a single difference between a mother (of twins or otherwise) and a father. What am I missing?

It makes you wonder if it’s time to reimagine a sisterhood for 2015. Thanks to the brave women who went before us, the world is now much more open to allowing women to be whatever they want to be – working mothers, single mothers, stay-at-home mothers or not mothers at all.

But there’s still a long way to go. Just ask Cheryl or Marissa.

You don’t even have to be in the public eye to feel the harsh brunt of gender inequality. A United Nations report has predicted that women’s income will lag behind men’s for another 70 years. At least that’s something. It means women and men will earn the same by 2085.

Those with longevity might be around to see it, which reminds me of a woman who has made longevity an art form.

When the 21-year-old Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, women here couldn’t write a cheque, join a library without their husband’s permission or keep their public sector job after they got married.

Of course, a monarch is never going to be a revolutionary force or a leading light for change, but the Queen has shown that a woman can be powerful, conciliatory, adaptable and inspiring.

She’s had to deal with awful tragedy, more than her fair share of royal scandal (and a husband afflicted with a very amusing case of foot-in-mouth disease), but she’s just got on with it day after day, for 63 years now.

Sexism just doesn’t come into it. Or indeed ageism. There are many occasions to remember in her reign – her extraordinary visit to Ireland high among them – but if one stands out it was her role in the James Bond spoof at the opening of the London Olympic Games in 2013.

In a surreal sketch, she welcomed 007 into the palace before she (all right, a stunt double) jumped out of a helicopter and parachuted into the Olympic stadium. At age 87.

If any woman is looking for a message, they don’t get much better than that.


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