Manly Metaphors and Academic Power Games

We could relabel this diagram according to the gender hierarchy in geology:  real men at the inner core, wannabe men hanging around in the outer core, cowards and lazy boys seeking safety in the mantle, and girls peering in from the muddy fringe.

We could relabel this diagram to correspond to the geologic gender hierarchy: real men at the inner core, wannabe men hanging around in the outer core, cowards and lazy boys seeking safety in the mantle, and girls peering in from the muddy fringe.

Years ago, I went out with a renowned geology professor.  He was a lovely man, intelligent and funny. Also modest about his accomplishments, in an endearing way.

One evening he explained to me, in a lightly self-mocking voice, that one of the reasons his work commanded so much respect was that he studied the deepest parts of the earth, the volcanic core.  He had to travel to one of very few special labs around the world, once or twice a year, to do his research.  With a chuckle, he observed that this gave him status because, in geology, the harder the rocks you studied, the bigger deal you were. Volcanic rocks were best. The ones closest to the earth’s center were the highest status of all. If you liked sedimentary stone, you were doomed to lesser journals and lower salaries.

“So, you mean like ‘real men do hard rocks’?” I asked incredulously.  “Exactly,” he said, shrugging.  We went on for a few minutes discussing the way that arbitrary compartmentalizations of a field very often determine status in academics.  And then we mused about how gender metaphors were often overlaid on these classifications of power.  It wasn’t enough that “doing hard rocks” made you a good scholar, it also made you more manly.  And, by implication, the softer your rocks, the softer everything else about you was presumed to be.

bigandlittlerocksmThis “hard rocks versus soft rocks” schema is a perfect example of a useful concept that 50 years of Marxist thought brought to the academy:  ideology.  Sociologists, anthropologists, and all other social science disciplines have learned that people develop patterns of belief that dress up and justify their power systems. Such a belief pattern (the ideology), wherever you find one, shares with all other such clusters of thought one distinguishing characteristic:  if you poke at it even a little bit, it becomes obvious bullshit (in Marxist terminology, its “contradictions” are revealed), nevertheless, people go about their lives, setting their clocks to it and allocating their food by it.  They treat it as a given and the belief becomes utterly invisible to them (“naturalized,” as they used to say).

Think these kinds of desert rock formations are cool?  Look away quickly!  The very impulse could make you girly.

Think these kinds of desert rock formations are cool? Look away quickly! That impulse could make you girly.

My guess is that somewhere out there in geology, you would find women studying hard rocks and muscle men studying dirt. I suspect there is nothing inherently more demanding about studying one or the other type of rock–and that you have to be pretty smart to make a career out of researching any of it. The molten rock thought to surround the earth’s core throws a wrench into the whole metaphor. Nevertheless, this is the organizing belief system and I have no doubt that money and prestige and promotions follow it, because that is what happens in every discipline.

Today, Bloomberg Businessweek posts a blog I wrote in response to the recent flap over the bad gender situation at UCLA’s business school.  The essay argues that the gender politics at UCLA are not unique, but merely a microcosm of a power struggle that occurs across the entire field.  Thanks to the folks at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, I was able to get data to illustrate the resulting inequalities–such as lower pay for women at every level in every discipline for the whole sample of reporting US schools.  And I have addressed the most easily understood myths used to “explain” these discriminatory acts: women love children, women are bad at math, and women shouldn’t care about money. The academic ideology, however, is probably a bit much for a business blog. So here goes.

In business school ideology, only real men have the muscle to wield "hard" methods.  Like men use swords and women use knitting needles, get it?

In business school ideology, only real men have the muscle to wield “hard” methods. Like, men use swords and women are afraid, get it?

In business schools, the ideology is something about real men using “hard methods” and women using “soft” ones. The “hard” and “soft” in this case is mapped on to mathematics, rather than rock density. Using the most threadbare of gender stereotypes, discriminatory actions are widely justified with the assertion that women don’t use quantitative methods. Qualitative methods–where you interview or observe, then write up what you found–are said to be “soft.” Women are thought to use soft methods because they are not good at math and are afraid to handle the research tools men use.

It’s easy to see that volcanic rocks are harder than sand or mud, but what, exactly, is it that is harder about quantitative methods? Well, immediately, the implication is that doing math is simply more difficult than speaking and writing. Thus, women are not as smart as men and should be treated accordingly.

The whole body of research into the cognitive abilities of men versus women in mathematics has this bottom line:  there is no difference. Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has ever done a study to determine whether women, in fact, do less quantitative research than men in business schools. I find that male colleagues project on me that I only do qualitative research, when in fact I use multiple methods, including laboratory experiments and randomized controlled trials–and I am currently designing a major measurement system. The truth is most colleagues really don’t know much about what I do and, after all, I am visibly female and, therefore, must be “soft.” So, I wonder, do women actually do less “quant” work?  I don’t think we know.

Topics are also “soft” and “hard.” Sometimes the judgment depends only on whether the phenomenon can be measured; sometimes it’s just a topic that the majority of business academics (overwhelmingly male) don’t like, don’t see as important. The fact that I do research on women makes me not only soft, but irrelevant to business, as I have been told too many times to count. Other women in business schools report getting sorted into the same derisive bins–and, indeed, one of the most disturbingly familiar aspects of the UCLA situaton was that the men were constantly trashing the women’s research abilities and topics. In this usage, “hard” means “important in the eyes of men.”

There is also a weird belief that somehow by translating something–anything–into numerical form, you make it “harder.”  So, if instead of saying “there are two bags of marshmallows in the cupboard as well as three cans of beans,” you create a “taxonomy” of what is in the cupboard and count what goes into each category (as in “bags of marshmallows, 2; cans of beans, 3″), the whole exercise suddenly becomes “hard.”  Both marshmallow bags and bean cans are miraculously transformed into suitably hard topics for research–despite all sensory evidence to the contrary–just by counting and noting with numbers rather than looking and writing the same information in words. At one time, I think you could have sold this notion to alchemists. Why do 21st century academics buy it?

The hard method school seems to feel that using numbers gives them mastery over the external world.  So they get an illusion of control that they wouldn't otherwise have. They also claim that using numbers gives them the ability to predict the future.  Numerologists, of course, say the same thing.

The hard method school seems to feel that using numbers gives them mastery over the external world. So they get an illusion of control that they wouldn’t otherwise have. They also claim that using numbers gives them the ability to predict the future. Numerologists, of course, say the same thing.

Back in the day, there may have been some justification for saying quantitative methods were harder.  You had to collect the data yourself, in large enough quantities to analyze the sample statistically, and then do the calculations by hand (or, even worse, spend hours writing routines or making computer cards that did it). No doubt it was hard work, in the sense that it was time-consuming and required concentration.

Today, B-school quant scholars use software to do the calculations and they very often buy or beg databases from a secondary source. I often think about my colleagues, sitting in front of their screens doing point-and-click research, when Catherine and I are out in some remote area of a developing country collecting data. Where we are, it will be hot, the roads will be dangerous, the toilets will be non-existent, the threat of infection everywhere, wi-fi a distant memory, and it will take weeks on end to finish.  Yet, in the eyes of business school ideology, we are doing the easy stuff.

In the feminine work domain, the real power tool is a checkbook.  It is simply easier to pay somebody than to do it yourself.  Personally, I think this axiom applies to data collection in research, just as in housework.

In the stereotypically feminine work domain, the real power tool is a checkbook. It is simply easier to pay somebody than to do it yourself. Personally, I think this axiom applies to data collection in research, just as in housework.

Contradictions revealed:  the hard methods are not “hard,” in the sense of more difficult, more dangerous, more time-consuming, or even more challenging. They do not require heavy lifting, but can be done sitting at your desk.  And we don’t even really know whether men and women use these methods as alleged–it’s all just a metaphor. The discourse is so wrapped up with images of gender it is tempting to think “hard” is merely a signifier for masculinity.

Indeed, it’s telling that the “soft” metaphor, when it gets applied to men, is emasculating.  Just as the men who study sedimentary rock are made “girly” by the ideology, so are the men in business schools who either use qualitative methods or study topics that the “real men” don’t think matter (like, for instance, poverty).  I had an angry, but funny note from a male colleague in a US business school this week.  He is among the most published scholars in our field, but he is constantly under attack because he advocates for the importance of qualitative work.  In this email, he was talking about how all the hiring this year will be for people who do “big data.”  Big data, he said, “is a bandwagon that never seems to get full.”

The "hard method" language is so thoroughly conflated with terms of masculinity in this discipline that I often suspect "hard" really means something like "tumescent."

The “hard method” language is so thoroughly conflated with terms of masculinity in this discipline that I often suspect “hard” really means something like “tumescent.”

I laughed because “big data” is all the rage everywhere in the B-School world right now.  I hope I don’t have to spell it out for you that the combination of “big” and “hard data” is impossibly thrilling for this testosterone culture.

In sum, the whole “hard methods” thing, like “hard rocks,” is just the belief pattern that has grown up to justify the power structure.  Both are equally absurd, but also equally useful as a tool to divide the men from the boys and certainly the males from the females. “Hard methods” is brilliant as an excuse to pay someone less, because it can imply that the person is both less intelligent and less hard-working, therefore less deserving, whether true or not. As another perfect illustration of ideology, the business school fantasy of hardness is riddled with contradictions and lacks an evidentiary basis. And you don’t have to poke fun at it long to learn it is composed of obvious bullshit.



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Third Good Reason: Better Governance

Slide6Getting more women to the top of business leadership is an objective that should be as important to all of us as putting more females into political office.  Corporations decide many things about our daily lives, from what we eat to where we work to what we wear to how much we are paid.  I am always dismayed to hear someone who is otherwise strongly in favor of women’s empowerment dismiss the issue of women on corporate boards as an “elite” concern. That is a knee-jerk reaction (I always suspect the speaker is just posturing as a proper populist) when in fact having more diverse leadership in these posts would positively affect everybody, not just the rich.

Multiple studies, using large samples and various methods, have demonstrated that greater gender diversity among corporate boards would have a positive impact on the governance, transparency, and accountability of the private sector, as well as improving its overall performance and reducing risk.  Yet, throughout the world, women are represented in tiny numbers at the board level.

Given the widespread belief that the crash of 2008 was caused by homogeneous insiders who failed to question dubious decision-making, the promise of improving corporate accountability and performance by introducing more women is attractive to governments.  Such a reform is much less costly, cumbersome, and time-consuming–and probably more effective– than introducing and implementing a whole raft of regulation. Where quotas have been seriously proposed, the idea has been popular among citizens.

Not surprisingly, various groups have emerged to fight the suggestion of quotas.  Such organizations usually blow out a smokescreen of assertions that they support gender diversity–they merely question the method by which it might be accomplished.  They argue that unqualified women should not be imposed on private business, implying that such a rash act would negatively affect performance.  The specter of tokenism is raised: women should be asked to be on boards because they are qualified, not because they are women. The implicit next step is for businesses to have more time to act voluntarily–once there are enough qualified women around, it should be easy to increase the numbers.

This direction of argument is completely disingenuous.  First, the stance implies that, under current practice, corporate board members are chosen in an open, fair contest in which the most qualified candidate is found.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Corporate board selection is often done secretly and there has been a noticeable tendency to cronyism. To suggest that introducing diversity into an already inappropriately incestuous group would be “tokenism” is sheer sophistry. Perpetuating the traditional process just guarantees that the same close buddies will keep making bad decisions for everybody else.

But are there qualified women around? Well, that depends on what you think the qualifications should be.  Many of the big business schools have already produced lists of their own female graduates whom they deem to be “board-ready.” But the big obstacle is the claim that only those with board or CEO experience are qualified to be on boards. Those who put forward that argument hope listeners will not notice how unequal women’s chances are for getting into those positions–once again, they want you to think it is a race based on merit when it is not.

Slide31In 2010, the World Economic Forum did a study on the Corporate Gender Gap, which surveyed the top HR person at 100 of the biggest employers in 30 OECD and BRIC nations.  The pattern of advancement that they found was more or less the same in every nation surveyed: women are hired into management jobs in smaller numbers than men, even where they are the majority of employees overall (and even in countries where women are better educated than men), then they become a smaller and smaller group at each step higher in the corporate structure.  In the graph here, you can see that India has lower number of women overall in management positions (India only has 30% female labor force participation), but the stairstep pattern is the same as the global average.  The pattern is the same for the Scandinavian countries, with one exception, Norway.

Norway enacted a quota requiring 40% women on corporate boards–and, what do you know, they seem to be finding the women to fill the places! And, the need to have women on boards also appears to be helping women through the pipeline.

Over the long run, ensuring that there would be enough women to fill 30%+ of board seats (30% is a generally accepted threshold to be crossed before the people on the board settle into diversity and begin behaving in a civilized and accountable manner) would indeed require that countries do a better job of keeping women in the workplace, pulling them up through the ranks in numbers comparable to males.

When we look at the possible reasons for this “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, we might speculate that workplace hostility to children is a major problem, as the fertility decline discussed in the Second Good Reason post would suggest.  However, the attrition really begins well after the early child-rearing years, so there are probably other reasons.  In this same survey, most of the respondents (mostly men and all top employers) gave patriarchal corporate culture the top spot on the list of reasons why women can’t advance within their company.

Slide33Of the companies surveyed, very few were doing anything positive to promote gender diversity within their organization. Oddly, they seemed to think they did not need to track salary discrepancies.  I say “oddly” because there is a WEF question, asked every year for the Global Gender Gap Report, in which corporate managers consistently report that they pay women much less for the same or similar work.

Slide32Indeed, there is good reason to think that women really leave these companies because they simply get discouraged by the unequal treatment and the absence of real chances for advancement. That feeling may not get any better as you rise in the hierarchy.  OECD’s Closing the Gender Gap Report shows that pay inequality for women actually increases at the top (for more, see here). Ironically, many women at the top level are quite convinced there is no such thing as sex discrimination–yet they are likely the biggest victims.

I’m sorry to say there is little reason to think those same top-level women will do anything to help those lower in the ranks–research shows they tend to be fearful that the men will think they have a “woman agenda” if they promote other females (but nobody raises that with the men when they doggedly keep promoting their own). Nevertheless, the very fact of seeing another woman at the top has been shown to give hope and confidence to all those below her–and so the presence of a woman on the board or other top spot tends to correlate with better diversity right across the organization, as well as equal pay and other indicators of fairness.  Hard to say what the causality is there:  women at the top producing an equal, diverse workplace or, more likely, an equal and diverse workforce giving rise to more women at the top.

Let’s remember that many governments are wringing their hands over

(1) dropping fertility,

(2) crowds of poor old ladies to support in the future, and

(3) an economy that went haywire because a few rich men had it by the throat

then you can see why they might be interested in patching that leaky pipeline.  And when you also remember that equality legislation in most countries has been around for a while–nearly 50 years in the US and UK–there doesn’t seem much point in waiting for business to decide to clean up their act voluntarily.

In sum, there are very good economic reasons to start working in earnest on closing the gender gap.  We can reduce poverty and hostility.  We can maintain growth.  We can have better governance, more accountability, improved performance, and less risk in the private sector.  All these things are good for everybody. We do, actually, have good reasons to believe that the direction of causality is from gender equality to prosperity and peace.

These reasons are known by people working in some of the largest and most authoritative institutions in the world, which is why you see the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and OECD, as well as ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and other corporates pushing this agenda.  What I have written in these three posts is not particularly controversial.  But there is a long way to go to make the world accountable for progress.  We have sat by for 50 years waiting for corporations to open up equal employment paths for women, for example, and we still have a drastically lop-sided workplace.  In developing countries, there are still basic rights to be won or enforced (the right to have your own bank account or own property, for instance) and local resistance to rights for women can be intense.

So, this is why it is important to get behind the movement to ensure women’s economic empowerment is on the next round of the United Nations’ economic development goals. The list of items that is finally ratified by the UN will have resources and attention–and every nation will have to report their progress against the goals.  If you want to help, click here for more information or just sign here.

The other “Three Good Reasons” posts are here.




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Second Good Reason: Maintain Growth


In Eastern Europe, fertility has been below replacement rate for a generation already. (Click to see bigger image.)

As with all the benefits that come from closing the gender gap, the second good reason can be stated in both positive and negative terms.  You can say “maintain growth.”  Or you can say “avoid a total economic train wreck.” Why?  Because the second reason is all about fertility decline in the industrialized countries–and the implications of this trend are potentially devastating.  The solution is not to send women back to the kitchen, but to reform the workplace.

You see, the world economy is set up on the supposition that growth must be maintained.  It is certainly possible to question whether we should be chasing growth (and we really must think more carefully about where that ends), but, under the present ground rules, ever-increasing value is the ultimate measure on which everything economic stands or falls.  Whether you look at company performance or pension plans, the fundamental underpinning to this way of thinking is that the population (the market) is growing.  You can seek more markets elsewhere–which is what drives globalization–but in the end, there have to be more people, one way or the other.

We need ever more consumers to purchase goods or we need ever more families who will buy houses or we need ever more workers to pay for pensions.  Otherwise, companies can’t attract capital, the housing market collapses, or social support services go bust.  It’s unfortunate that previous generations set things up this way, but there you have it.

Most of us have been droning along for decades now, thinking that population is growing too fast. The big bugaboo for years has been that we have too many people and so we are at risk of drowning in our own refuse. But, actually, while we were marching along with this assumption in mind, a new trend cropped up, with eerie suddenness, all over the world, practically at once.  Population growth is going away.

Fertility is dropping rapidly everywhere, to a point where populations are actually contracting in some regions. The fertility rate reflects the long game: it is the average number of children females in a given place have during their lives. It is not a measure that can be characterized as a sudden or temporary dip and its trend cannot easily be reversed. To keep the numbers in a population stable, you need a fertility rate of about 2.1–that is each woman must replace herself and her partner, with a little extra overall to account for risk. At 1.8 or below, a population is clearly in decline. Much below that for very long and you can’t recover. Once babies are not born, you can’t reclaim them and if there are ever-shrinking numbers of potential parents, the whole situation starts to make a horrible sucking noise.

As of 2014 figures, 69 countries worldwide have fertility rates below 1.8, most of them in Europe.  Indeed, the European Union average fertility rate is 1.55.  The lowest numbers in Europe are in the eastern (Romania, Ukraine) or southern (Italy, Greece) areas.  There are a few outstanding examples among the most prosperous Western European countries, such as Germany, with a 2014 fertility rate of 1.43 (a Danish friend said to me:  “Yeah, yeah, we all know it:  don’t buy real estate in Germany”).  The Scandinavian countries are slightly better, between 1.75 and 1.85. The UK is hanging in at about replacement rate, mostly because there is a large immigrant population with higher birth rates (but this, too, is changing).

The East Asian outlook is the most dire:  Japan (1.3), Taiwan (1.11), Hong Kong (1.17), South Korea (1.25), and Singapore at the very bottom (0.8). The US, like the UK, is maintaining replacement so far, but Australia looks bleak.  Canada’s fertility has been dropping very quickly for the past five years (now at 1.61), but they have been well below replacement since at least the 1980s.

The blue line is the number of workers Poland will have if nothing is done about their attitude toward working women. though labor supply alone does not determine growth, this is a very scary line.   The middle line is how many more workers they would have if the female labor force participation rate began to converge with men's.  The  top line is what would happen if females began working the same number of hours as well.

The blue line is the number of workers Poland will have if nothing is done to include women. Labor supply alone does not determine growth, but this is a very scary line. The middle line is how many more workers they would have if the female labor force participation rate began to converge with men’s. The top line is what would happen if females began working the same number of hours as well.

When you reach the bottom of the nation lists–where fertility is 1.50 or lower–the pattern is dominated by Eastern Europe. These countries have been in steep decline for a long time.  Several also have outmigration issues.  Most have a labor supply outlook that looks like the graph for Poland on the left, where the decline in labor is set to drag substantially on future economic growth. And, all could significantly mitigate against the trend of a declining labor force if they had more women in the workplace, as the OECD forecast depicted here suggests. So, as I said, you can argue for closing the gender gap in order to “maintain growth” or to “avoid disaster.” It’s just a matter of how you want to spin it.

Like Poland, all the Eastern European countries in the table below have low fertility rates. You can see in the first column that they also have low female labor force participation rates (for an industrialized country, you are much more likely to see a number like 70% or even 75%, so 40% to 50% is very low). I have put two measures for equality of compensation in the next two columns.  These countries pay women an average of 60%-ish what they pay men, no matter how you measure it.


You might speculate that Eastern European women are not as qualified as the men. But take a look at the ratio of female to male enrollment in tertiary education.  Women are far more likely to be educated than men. (If, for instance, women index at 130 compared to men, it means women are 30% more likely to be in college or similar upper level education.)  The women are also quite a bit more likely to be in professional and technical jobs–in some cases, more than twice as likely (index 200 or more).  However, notice that, despite their better preparation and propensity to be in skilled employment, women are far less likely to be in leadership positions (this measure covers government as well as private sector positions). In sum, despite better training and experience, women are less often employed, are paid less when they are (even for the same job), and do not have the same chances for advancement, as compared to men.

You’ve heard it a thousand times:  the “explanation” for this inequality is that the women “choose” to have children, thus allegedly volunteering to put themselves at a disadvantage in the workplace.  We might flip that self-justifying notion around and say that the workplaces in these countries are so unfriendly to families that women are forced to choose between setting aside all their training to have children or giving up family to pursue a career.

On a macro level, this forced choice results in both low fertility and low labor force participation. Please realize that, in these circumstances–where only 50% of the women work and the other 50% must have all the children–each non-working mother must have four children in order to replace the population.  Well, how often does that happen?  You can answer, I’m sure:  not often.  That’s why labor participation and the fertility rate suffer.

Slide28These countries and others with the same pattern are clinging to old gender norms to a degree that is actually hurting them. Further, by not realizing the investment in women’s education, these countries are making inefficient use of resources and driving down their national competitiveness. In the graph on the left, I have plotted The Economist‘s Women’s Economic Opportunity Index against the World Economic Forum’s National Competitiveness measure.  You can see the relationship: the better opportunities there are for women, the more competitive the country.  Countries that are still trying to keep their women barefoot and pregnant are, shall we say, “not working up to potential.”

Yet we all know these family-hostile working circumstances are present, one way or another, most places.  The situation is perhaps not as pronounced in the US or the UK as in Eastern Europe, but the women are sidelined on the basis of child-rearing in those countries, too–and it is reflected in their lower pay and poorer prospects. By making it difficult for mothers to work and penalizing all women just because they can have children, employers are creating the phenomenon of the “aging population”–in which the demographics shift from a situation where most of the people are young to one in which most of them are old.

People age inevitably, but populations do not. In the absence of plague or war, the only reason a population becomes disproportionately old is that women have fewer children.

Aging populations put a severe strain on economies because of the change in the dependency ratio. With a large number of elderly–as well as some children–dependent on the working population, the whole machine suffers to keep up. Importantly, the burden of care also shifts from a situation where most care is focused on small children to one where it is focused on the elderly and ill.  Of course, these same societies will expect the women to pitch up and care for the old folks, just as they have expected them to care for children. That is, they expect women to do this work for free and to suffer a systematic economic disadvantage to boot.

Children grow up quickly and go off to school.  They can often help around the house and are usually a joy to their parents.  The elderly, in contrast, age slowly.  Their dependency is protracted.  The experience of caring for them has few joys–in fact, it is often full of grief and loss. Asking women to shoulder all this care for decades on end will further contribute to the phenomenon of dependency–because the women themselves will necessarily be economically dependent while they are caring.

This just gives you some idea of the impact that decades of unequal pay has on pension payments.  This situation backfires in a major way for governnments left to take care of poor elderly women.

This just gives you some idea of the impact that decades of unequal pay has on pension payments. This situation backfires in a major way for governnments left to take care of poor elderly women.

The governments of the future will be strapped for resources to keep up with the demand in social services because the elderly will outnumber the working young.  Ironically, the situation will be intensified by two other gender phenomena:  (1) women live longer than men and (2) because they will have been paid less all their lives, older women will have fewer resources and thus will be more in need of government help.

We have, in the making right now, an aging population problem the likes of which the world has never seen. 


Women are far more likely to be poor in their old age than men, often because they took off working to have children (which reduces savings and pension), in addition to being paid less throughout life, whether they have kids or not.

We should be making every effort to focus attention on the need to reform working conditions so that women can have children, as well as work on equal terms.  Those industrialized countries where it is relatively easier for women to do that are the ones where fertility rates are still pretty healthy, while the ones that make it really hard are the ones that are probably beyond saving. We need to stop punishing the women for having children and start blaming the employers for pushing whole societies over a cliff.

Some utopians will argue that we can invent robots to pitch in or that technology will provide gains in productivity to offset the decline in the number of people. I find it hard to believe we can build enough robots in time to empty that many bedpans. Even if we could, robots do not eat snack foods or go to university or buy their first car. Robots will not redecorate houses. They will not go Christmas shopping.

At some point, you have to have people. Yet we allow the discourse to continue as if child-bearing is a purely private matter, as if children are just ego-toys instead of investments in a future for everyone.  Think about this:  every time you go to a doctor or see a policeman or speak to a teacher, you are seeing the benefits of someone’s long years of care work.  If some mother somewhere had decided to stay at work, that person would not be there to cure your ills or stop crime or educate you.  In the end, we are all dependent on child-rearing.  To continue to behave as if child-bearing is a vanity choice for women that employers can rightly view as an economic burden they should not have to bear, is leading us to disaster.

If you are worried about this scenario, you can help by joining the movement to petition for women’s economic empowerment in the next round of United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.  It just takes a minute and the impact is potentially huge.  Click here.  

The other Three Good Reasons posts are here.


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First Good Reason: Reducing Poverty and Hostility

Slide13I now turn to the “first good reason” to empower women economically: reducing poverty and hostility. Let’s begin with the top 25 nations with the highest fertility rates, according to the CIA Factbook. If you look over this list, you will see, first of all, that they are all poor nations and, second, that they are places wracked with conflict. These also are all places where, as a practical matter, women have very few rights.

Slide14In the past, we have tended to view the relationship between poverty and conflict more or less as follows: Poverty and high fertility go together. There is no particular reason why this should be true, except insofar as birth control is made too expensive. But the common wisdom for centuries has run something like “the rich get richer and the poor have children”–or, put an equally silly way, that “poverty makes you pregnant.” Too many poor people put pressure on resources. This leads to disease as people huddle together in cramped quarters, can’t keep clean, and so on. This collective misery creates hostility, which leads to conflict, either within the group or between competing groups. Somehow, gender inequality comes out of this. Some argue that people who are living under extreme pressure need more gender inequality to survive.  I see no reason why that should be true.  (It reminds me of David Attenborough saying on BBC that the violence male baboons visit on females is “necessary” for maintaining order–whose order is that?).

Slide15If, on the other hand, we begin with the fact that these nations have low gender equality, which means, first and foremost that the females have no sexual sovereignty, then we can much more easily explain why there is high fertility. Populations with high birth rates have a pyramid shaped age distribution, such that there are always more young men than there are older men. As it turns out, the ratio of older to young men is predictive of the level of hostility and conflict in a population. Basically, the presence of older men has a dampening effect on younger hotheads. Without that calming presence, the young men will find a reason to fight. If you have a stable fertility rate, however, the population will always be balanced–and thus conflict will be less.

To illustrate the potential for change by empowering women, I show the text of an email I got about two years ago from a woman working for equality in the coffee industry within DR Congo:

I am involved in activities against women discrimination and support women economic empowerment since I was very young, in 1999. Thus, we found that women who grow coffee with their husbands do not have access to income generate after harvest. The coffee harvest is an occasion for men to drink alcohol and to marry several women as they have money. And during this time, women are beaten and driven from their homes with their children without anything. Apart from that, during periods of fields maintenance, they are often victims of rape by armed militias, the military but also unpatriotic persons. 
This constitutes a serious violation of the dignity of women and discrimination by their men and society as a whole.

You can see here that the conditions of conflict and the vulnerability of the women feeds the vicious cycle. The women are under constant sexual pressure and have no way to push back.  The fertility thus continues to rise.  The children can’t be cared for. And so on.  If you could empower the women, especially to harvest the coffee and get the income from it, the children could be fed and cared for.  But in order to make any of this happen, the women first have to have sexual sovereignty. This is why women’s economic empowerment can’t be achieved without confronting the violence.  Some people have a hard time seeing that.

Slide18Anyway, you can appreciate, then, why we might develop a different theory of poverty. In this, you start with the gender inequality (the rape, the lack of birth control, the need to engage in prostitution because women can’t earn money).  The gender inequality leads to high fertility.  In turn, this causes conflict.  Resource degradation always results from open conflict and also leads to disease (because resources can’t be marshaled to control it, because people are weaker). And then you have the kind of runaway situation that spirals into poverty.

The  inference is that if you can help these women get rights over their bodies and control over some money, everything will calm down.  Lots of statistics show that if women have money, they will spend it first to care for their children and next to build communities.  And their fertility will drop if they have access to birth control and the right to say no.  So the scenario is a gradual reduction in fertility, conflict, poverty, and disease.

The other Three Good Reasons posts are here.

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Three Good Reasons: An Introduction

Slide1I spoke to the Oxbridge Women’s Network in Hong Kong this week, courtesy of the Woman’s Foundation.  We had a really great conversation afterward and several asked me to post the slides. A similar talk also had a good impact at Oxford North America during the spring, so it seems like a good  idea to recap.

I began the talk by pointing out the authoritative voices behind the call for the world economic community to engage with empowering women.  The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the International Finance Corporation are joined by major corporates such as ExxonMobil, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sachs.  NGOs small and large (CARE, Plan, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women) are strongly engaged.

Much of the impetus comes from analyzing the global datasets we now have that document conditions for women around the world.  These data show that gender inequality is real, measurable, and has massively negative effects on a wide range of phenomena from national prosperity to human trafficking to the disease burden.  While there are many, many reasons to support women’s economic empowerment, I chose three  broadscale reasons to show how huge the impact would be–with implications for every nation and every citizen, whether male or female, rich or poor.  These three good reasons are: (1) to reduce poverty and hostility, especially in the poorest nations, (2) to counter the real threat to growth posed by declining fertility, and (3)  to improve governance and transparency of the private sector, while reducing risk.

Slide2If you take the nation-level gender data and arrange it in an array from best to worst, as the UNDP and World Economic Forum do, you immediately see a global spectrum that can be broadly characterized.  On the high gender equality end, the nations will be rich and stable.  They will offer universal education and good health care.  The best scores will tend to be Scandinavian countries or developed English-speaking countries (UK, US, Canada, Australia).  They will mostly have stable populations that maintain size at the replacement rate (average fertility for a woman = 2.1); however, there will be an increasing tendency for fertility to be dropping.  On the low gender equality end, you will see countries that are poor and conflict-ridden, that offer poor schooling and health care–and the females will have less access to both medicine and education than the men.  These countries will still have very high fertility rates (around 5 or 6).  There will be clustering of sub-Saharan African countries and poor Muslim majority countries.

Slide3The pattern is strong.  The question is:  toward which direction does the causality run?  Initially, the expectation was that the rich nations could afford to free their women, while the poor nations could not.  However, when you dig into the data, what you find suggests a different theory.  A key example is girls’ education.  National wealth tracks strongly with the level of female education.  [Click here to see graph on Girls Education and National Wealth.] You could say these are the countries who can spend to money to educate girls.  However, female education also correlates inversely with a variety of ancient practices known to have negative economic effects, such as early marriage [see Early Marriage and Girls Education graph here], and also runs in the opposite direction with poor health indicators like adolescent fertility (which in turn goes hand-in-hand with bad stuff like infant and maternal mortality).

People at universities and think tanks have been tinkering with interventions and studies designed to test the interrelationships.  The situation is complex, with effects running across domains.  In this short video clip, I explain how a single intervention on behalf of women can have multiple effects, rippling through societies with the benefits.

Various experiments across a number of years have changed the consensus among those working internationally with the whole phenomenon of women’s empowerment:  the common thinking at this point is that the causation runs counter to what was first thought.  That is, rather than believing that rich nations could afford to set their women free, we now believe that setting women free made the rich nations prosper.

We can see this effect at work as we turn to the “first good reason,” reducing poverty and hostility.  Please continue to the next post.

All the “Three Good Reasons” posts can also be accessed here.


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What We Know and What We Don’t: What, Why, How

OK, so it's a goofy picture.  But here I am at the American Club in Hong Kong, carrying THE BOOK.  This is the hard copy of the #DoubleXPetition, signed at Power Shift by everybody, starting with the Vice Chancellor.  I thought maybe these folks would want to sign the original.  They did!

OK, so it’s a goofy picture. But here I am at the American Club in Hong Kong, carrying THE BOOK. This is the hard copy of the #DoubleXPetition, signed at Power Shift by everybody, starting with the Vice Chancellor. I thought maybe these folks would want to sign the original. They did!

In addition to delivering the keynote at the 35th global conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, I was invited one evening to address a small group of corporations and foundations who are interested in the whole initiative behind investing in girls and young women.  Big names who have already invested heavily and totally “get it” were there, such as UPS.  Newer programs were represented, such as MetLife’s financial literacy program being delivered by the Girls Scouts in the USA.  (Big potential here.) Also evolving programs like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which began as a commercial initiative and has now joined forces with WAGGGS to deliver a global self-esteem program for girls in order to boost their confidence to engage with a wider range of activities.

The American Club is at the top of the Exchange Building in Hong Kong.  As in the stock exchange, the belly of the beast, and so on.

The American Club is at the top of the Exchange Building in Hong Kong. As in the stock exchange, the belly of the beast, and so on.

It seemed a good chance to talk candidly about where we are with the whole initiative of women’s empowerment.  And I only had ten minutes.  But no slides.  I decided to group the message into three’s.  First, the state of knowledge:

We know what we need to achieve:  Inclusion and equality for women across the entire global economy.  This includes everything from retaining girls in education (at least to the secondary level) to getting more women on corporate boards.

We know why we need to achieve these goals:  We can achieve greater prosperity through higher female labor force participation, more startups, and the better business performance that comes from diversity at the top.  We also have the chance to stop abuses on the darkest side of gender inequality:  human trafficking, domestic violence, andearly marriage have their roots in the perceived limited economic value of women–and also have massive economic and social costs to the whole global society.

But we still really don’t know how to do it:  Sorry if I am bursting anybody’s bubble here.  Yes, we have a general idea that equal pay will help the leaky pipeline problem, that greater access to capital would help women entrepreneurs.  Getting there (lawsuits? quotas?) is another challenge.

(Ed Martinez, president of the UPS Foundation added, in his speech that followed, that we also know who must be engaged:  that is, everybody.  Public sector.  Civil Society.  Private Sector.  Churches, synagogues, temples,  and mosques.  Once again, that would be everybody.)

So, I outlined a couple of areas that need more work, again conveniently packaged in three:  translation, innovation, discernment.

Translation.  Here I explained that there are programs like financial literacy that we know are important.  We know women are behind men, therefore vulnerable.  But financial literacy is generally measured, executed, and taught in completely “first world” terms–it’s all about money, interest, and time.  In remote rural areas, cash may be scarce for everyone.  Goods may be bartered.  Debts may be paid in marriage rather than interest. Time is short for women everywhere, but the notion of a future value for money is foreign.  So, a different translation, not just in language, but in material terms, may be necessary.

Innovation. Many times, unexpected practical barriers demand innovative solutions.  The whole problem of sanitary pads for poor school girls was my example. We know providing them will help girls stay in school. It seems like an easy matter to address, but it is not.  Disposable pads are the best option,  but they are hard to deliver to remote areas on the monthly basis required.  People in the West prefer cloth pads (for the poor Africans, not for themselves), but these present hygiene issues due to the lack of clean water and soap.  So we need to invest in new solutions, perhaps like the papyrus-based MakaPads from Uganda and the no-fuel incinerator invented by the same professor.

I mentioned that I have a new project coming along that looks at violence and microlending.  All the loans are made in cash, so the women have to walk home through urban slums carrying way too much money to be safe.  What we need in that case is pre-paid ATM cards, it seems to me.

Discernment.  OK, I admit it, I used “discernment” in order to avoid the word “metrics.”  People think “metrics” are only for academics.  But we all want to know whether the things we do have the impact we hoped.  And there is no way to know that if we don’t design appropriate measures.  Currently, we really do not have good measures, especially for gender effects.

What I said next was somewhat speculative.  It seems to me that an organization like WAGGGs would be well positioned to step in and help fill this gap.  They have boots on the ground everywhere.  They are in touch with all ages of female, but are focused on the ones that have the most potential (girls and young women).  They have credibility.  They have organizational skills.  They have a sense of mission.  They’re all about leadership.  They communicate in two directions.  They know what the conditions are on the ground and understand the goals on a global level.  It seems to me that this organization is in a perfect position to make a major difference.

Jim took this gorgeous photo from the balcony of the American Club at the Exchange Building in Hong Kong.  I never got out there--too many interesting conversations going on inside!

Jim took this gorgeous photo from the balcony of the American Club at the Exchange Building in Hong Kong. I never got out there–too many interesting conversations going on inside!

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Meeting the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides in Hong Kong

I was thrilled to be invited to address the global conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a huge gathering of the world’s largest voluntary organization dedicated to young women and girls, this week in Hong Kong.  There are 10 million Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 145 countries around the world–and an estimated 245 million alumni of their programs worldwide.


South Sudan, having gained independence in 2011, was accepted into the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts this week in Hong Kong. Just shows you the WAGGGS are “on top of it,” even if they are 100 years old.

Girl Scouts and Girl Guides began, in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, about 100 years ago, a manifestation of the Progressive Era and the women’s club movement.  The Boy Scouts, on which the two girls’ organizations were based, has always been a fundamentally conservative outfit, intentionally focused on shoring up white masculinity.  In contrast, because the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts were concentrated on outdoor activities for girls, an idea that challenged that era’s gender stereotypes, the girls’ movement has been forward-leaning from the start.

You can easily see how contemporary WAGGGS’ focus is today by visiting the website: the focus on girls’ leadership has been there at least since I was a scout, but the campaign to stop violence against women, the Advocacy Toolkit, and the “Global Action Theme” to support the Millennium Development Goals are all very 21st century.

Princess Benedikte of Denmark and CY Leung, chief executive of Hong Kong government, sign a triumvirate of comic dragons who pranced into the conference opening..

Princess Benedikte of Denmark and CY Leung, chief executive of Hong Kong government, sign a triumvirate of comic dragons who pranced into the conference opening.

Certainly that first night in Hong Kong was a statement of how global the movement is today.  The event opened with a jubilant celebration and welcome for the country delegations, including new groups admitted to WAGGGS this year from Myanmar and South Sudan. At dinner, Jim and I were seated with a group of advisors from the WAGGGS global board and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner conversations with these engaged, intelligent, future-facing women.  

The following morning began the serious business.  The delegates were arrayed in the large ballroom, at tables with country placards (looked like the United Nations) and all the proceedings were simultaneously translated into several languages.

When I arrived to give my talk, the delegates were hearing the results of a large-scale study of today’s preferences among girls around the world, done in support of their ambitious plan to increase membership to 12 million in the next five years.  The challenge goes beyond appealing to girls with the right “image” and activities.  Scouting is delivered by volunteers.  The role of troop leader, however, has become something that really requires capability and commitment–yet many women are so stretched for time that recruiting the right kind of volunteer becomes a big task.  Of course, there are also many obstacles to overcome in translating programs across cultures that range from the US to Oman, with different languages and religions, but also widely various physical and institutional conditions.

My own talk was about women’s economic empowerment (of course) and its importance to world wellbeing, but I also spoke a bit about my own early years as a scout and my rediscovery of the scouting movement when I was researching Fresh Lipstick.  I expressed my admiration for the new programs being implemented by WAGGGS, especially the badges and other programs on financial literacy.  I ended with an appeal to them to help push out the Power Shift group’s petition on behalf of financial inclusion for females:  #DoubleXPetition began trending almost immediately!  (You can sign the petition here.) (Track the WAGGGS buzz on #35woco.)

The video from my talk is below.  It wobbles a bit in the beginning and has some gaps, but is mostly complete (this was Jim recording from the front row and not the most flattering angle!). I have broken it into two parts in order that it could be uploaded to youtube.  I am speaking a bit slowly because of the simultaneous translation going on.  I also made a few remarks about the potential role of WAGGS in the movement to empower women economically, which I will reserve for the next post.  In sum, it has been a great experience to be reunited with this important force for women everywhere.

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This Video Made Me Want to Fight Like a Girl

Please share this video.  And please talk about what it means.

I have become a bit of a crank about the way people in power revert to “lack of confidence” as the “explanation” for women’s lesser economic status.  “Lack of confidence” gives them a handy excuse to blame the women.  Like what they are really saying is:  If women would just ‘man up’ and be confident, all their problems would go away, their businesses would grow, they would be appointed to corporate boards, they would negotiate higher salaries. . .  or whatever. 

With that excuse, the speaker thinks they can get away with ignoring the real problems–bigoted businessmen, misogynistic venture capitalists, anti-family employers, unethical recruiters–and focus on “teaching” women to “be confident” instead.  Let’s get out there and fix all these women!  

I’m not saying women don’t lack confidence.  They do.  Lots of research shows that.  But I keep wondering to myself, “Where does it start?  What does it come from?” Girls are not born lacking confidence, surely. I sift through my own memories, looking for the first moment of self-doubt.  I don’t come up with images from the media (so easy to blame the media, almost as easy as blaming women).

What I come up with is exactly the kind of rubbish this little video takes to task. Playground humiliation. Mean teasing from my own father.  Innumerable instances where I (or my female friends) were mercilessly ridiculed, ceaselessly taunted–and no one ever stepped in to stop it, to defend us, to shame those who mistreated us.  In fact, if we complained, we were just told we had to “learn to take it.”

I mean, having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at yourself, is one thing.  Being brought up to absorb infinite insult is another.  It’s like saying you deserve to be treated as a lesser person.

Years later, my own daughters put up with this same old shit.  I tried to support them, but we learned very quickly that if girls pushed back at all,  they would be reprimanded for it.  The boys would not hear anything about having behaved badly in the first instance.

It’s not fair.  It’s not right.  But it’s what this whole women’s empowerment thing is about.  We need to build our confidence, but we also need to put a stop to the things that drag us down, even as little girls, and last a lifetime.

Watch this video.  Then share it.


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What has the UN Working Group done so far on Economic Empowerment for Women?

In three short weeks, the United Nations Working Group drafting the world development  goals will finalize a list that will guide spending, planning, reforms, programs, and reporting all over the globe for the next fifteen years.

Women’s economic empowerment was on that list at one time.  In the twelve meetings the Working Group has held, the mention of women has been reduced down to items that, while important, give women themselves no agency and ask no accountability from governments.

For instance, one item promises “equal employment opportunities.” Making “equal opportunity” available can be done without any accountability for outcomes.  You can make a speech declaring everybody has equal opportunity and then never hire a single woman. (Universities do it all the time.)  It is not enough just to make “opportunity” available—governments need to be made accountable for actually achieving change, not just making promises. We now know that equal education does not translate into equal employment, for instance.

“Equal pay for equal work,” also on the list, has been included in the laws of most countries for many years—and yet it has not been achieved anywhere.  Instead of promising something already covered by a law most governments have refused to enforce, it would be better to set a goal like “full public disclosure of pay scales disaggregated by gender.”  Forcing sex discrimination out into the open would be more effective than relying on a resolution that lacks credibility because governments have already laughed it off for 50 years.

The current draft also refers to equal control over resources and equal chances for leadership.  These goals are unlikely to be achieved without firm provision for economic inclusion:  equal property rights, equal access to credit and financial services, equal inheritance laws, and so forth.  There is a $285 billion credit gap for women business owners–exactly how are women going to have equal control over resources when banks refuse them capital?

There is a LOT of stuff on the current list about reducing violence against women.  Again, we know that one of the best ways to reduce violence is to give women control over their own money.  With their own money, they can leave an abusive home.  With their own bank account, they can avoid being robbed on payday.  And so forth.

Without economic empowerment, vague generalities and rights principles are often inactionable.  Women around the world need an international agenda that makes governments accountable for achieving equality and gives women the agency to claim their rights.

There is a petition circulating that will be forwarded to the Working Group. Please sign it and help get this important item for women on the list of goals.  Please get the word out  as #DoubleXPetition.


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Press-Fueled Hate Speech Shuts Down Discussion

"'William Hague and Michael Gove, London Mayor Boris Johnson and prime ministers from William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith to Edward Heath.'  Oh, dear.  So that's where all these out of touch with reality pompous men come from." --eu_outnow, writing in response to the Daily Mail story mentioning Ben Sullivan's illustrious predecessors at the Oxford Union.

The powers that be at Oxford are determined to ignore the special challenges of sexual aggression among students, staff, and faculty.  Now, the discourse is being shut down by a one-sided press and public hatred.

A few days ago, the police called Ben Sullivan, president of the Oxford Union, and informed him they would not be charging him with rape, after having arrested him on that suspicion last month.

The national press has since gone on a shouting spree about how awful it is that this innocent young man has been through “six weeks of agony” as the result of what they are casting as a false accusation. Sullivan began once again stumping for his future political career by saying the law should be changed to allow anonymity for all those accused of rape (but not murder or assault or burglary).  (In the “mobile” press, this suggestion is translated as:  “Men facing rape claims should have the right to anonymity, says Oxford Union.”) Privileged males are arguing online that Sullivan should be able to sue his accuser for slander. 

“Those who accused Ben Sullivan should be named.  Why can’t he sue them for slander and/or libel?. . . For a woman (and it is mostly women) it is a risk free way to ruin someones [sic] life.  That is wrong plain and simple.”  Andy, commenting in The Spectator

If someone makes an accusation of this gravity then I think it incumbent upon the system to take some action if the accusation falls apart . . . Whether that be a slander or libel charge is irrelevent [sic].  What is important is that spurious allegations like that just cannot be allowed go unpunished.” Tom, responding to Andy, in The Spectator

None of the press reports makes the important distinction between “innocent” and “not enough evidence” that was pointed out by a reader from Qatar:

“For Sullivan to have been arrested, there would have needed to [be] some evidence of a crime having taken place. Not prosecuting doesn’t mean a crime didn’t take place, it means the Director of Public Prosecutions thinks it’s unlikely a guilty verdict can be won. This decision will only have been taken once the prosecutors have gone thorugh all of the evidence. How does this mean a crime didn’t take place?” –RJW, writing from Doha

The interlocutors in this pile-on are simply refusing to acknowledge the well-documented difficulty of prosecuting rape cases in the UK even when there is substantial evidence.

“And what has ‘convictions rates’ got to do with anything?  . . . maybe there aren’t as many rapes as the rent a mob want you to believe.”  Andy, again.

Guys writing online refuse to listen to the facts about rape in the UK. I am hopeful that the bright, caring, and worthy young men I have known at Oxford will lead more responsibly than these readers would have them do.

Guys writing online refuse to listen to the facts about rape in the UK. I am hopeful that the bright, caring, and worthy young men I have known at Oxford will lead more responsibly than these readers would have them do.

Indeed, I am shocked to see, across the press reports and the responses online, a general disdain for official government reports showing the rate of rape in the UK is high, the number of convictions is low, the main barrier to justice is the overwhelming harassment of victims (not defendants), and the frequency of false accusations is miniscule.

The myth that all rape charges are baseless attempts by frivolous women to ruin a man’s good reputation has slammed firmly back into place. The return of the rape-is-not-a-real-crime stance has further stimulated serious hate speech, such as yesterday’s outrageous Daily Mail column by Jan Moir entitled, “Shame On She-Furies Who Always Assume Men Are Guilty of Rape.” Moir savages the students who tried to organize a Union boycott in order to focus attention on the wider question of sexual violence at universities (not substitute for a trial, as Ms. Moir leads her readers to believe) . Despite the hateful title and use of inflammatory language (calling the Union boycott a “witch hunt” and casting Sullivan as “a patriarchal cherry on the cake”), Ms. Moir makes a few well taken points.  But her readership responded as if she had given them permission to air every ignorant prejudice they hold about women. It is this stuff that tells us why so few British women actually ever come forward about rape:

. . .if you are accused of a ‘sex’ crime you are not innocent til PROVEN guilty. You are guilty and a different set of laws apply. They want to humiliate you and scrape over every action you have ever taken regardless of relevance and convict you in the court of public conviction. Once convicted you will be treated with more contempt than murderers. It has to be one sided and if the convictions don’t come then we must lower the bar until they do. –Tony, from London

Well yes the police actually require a little thing called evidence and proof.  I know that can get in the way on the crusade against men by the feminazis parade. . . .–Jimmy Widdle

Moir herself begrudgingly concedes that this kind of public outburst “makes it a tiny bit more difficult for women who have suffered a sex attack to come forward, for fear they might not be believed.” To his credit, Ben Sullivan exhibited a more gracious attitude:  “I don’t doubt the organisers of the boycott have very good intentions and I do agree that sexual violence is a very serious problem at Oxford and other universities.”

Interestingly, the press are only alluding indirectly to the class issue underpinning the disproportionate attention to and very careful treatment of this case: they say Ben Sullivan went to a £22,000 a year prep school, St. Paul’s in London. This repeated observation, which in every case seems to come out of nowhere, is British codespeak for “This young man came from a rich and powerful family who could afford expensive lawyers.”

Sullivan makes much of how horrible this experience has been for him and his powerful family (and I am certain they have been through a nightmare no family could endure easily). The press obediently quotes him, but never even considers what this experience has been like for the accuser and her family. Having a daughter who you think has been raped is a horrible experience, at least as bad as having a son accused as a rapist. As a parent, you will believe her and you will bleed inside over this violence against your child. Now, this victim’s parents are also having to protect their daughter from a hostile public environment where she is being recast as a malevolent liar–with no one save the police having seen any of the facts of the case. Their daughter will likely be traumatized by this experience for years. Though the press wrings its hands over the potential damage to Sullivan’s future, he is strong enough at the moment to be grandstanding.


Female students will no doubt think twice before reporting sexual aggression after this public display. I wonder: how do all these ravings against victims help keep our daughters safe? No one seems to care about that right now.

The everyday world of sexual violence is perpetuated by such one-sided discussion. The ill-fated Union boycott tried to open a two-way conversation during the window of attention brought by the Sullivan case. Officials at Oxford took the stance that no one should talk about the issue until the case was resolved. Now it is resolved and we can see what always happens: a whirlwind of shame is blown up around the accusation and the entire topic is driven underground.

The window now has shut on having a dialogue about protecting female students from sexual aggression. Once again in place is the conventional wisdom that young men who attempt sexual violence against their classmates are actually being unfairly attacked by calculating tarts.  Female students being harassed or otherwise victimized will learn the core lesson: shut up or else.

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