Saturday 16 December 2017

Ballbreaker or babe: How best can young women get ahead in today's workplace?

The TV show Girls and feminist websites are inspiring young ambitious women, who are tired of being made to play second fiddle to male colleagues, to demand change

THE model agent had tried everything in her attempt to find Irish girls who would fit a high-fashion brief.

She had travelled around the country, held open castings and done some media interviews, but the ideal woman remained elusive. Then a weekend spent surveying the crowds at a Dublin festival led to her hitting the jackpot. Girls with that all-important quirky quality, of above average height and fake-tan free were popping out of every corner at the seaside event. So imagine her disappointment when they all rebuffed her offer of fame and fortune. One or two were admittedly too young, but the others, she told me, just didn't want to know.

The look of horror on one girl's face summed it up, "modelling, oh God, no", she exclaimed as she rebuffed the proffered business card, and took off at speed down the promenade. One student of my acquaintance had an equally confused reaction when she was asked to do some modelling recently. Unsure whether to say yes or not, she asked her mother for advice. Mammy didn't hold back, she would not be taken seriously if she did modelling was her summary, certainly not in the business world.

"She said I couldn't do both," the student told me later, "as I have to think of what it would say about me if it came up in an interview situation." In hindsight, Mammy was probably right, young women are having to negotiate a much more complex world than previous generations ever did.


Part of that is due to the unfounded belief that you can be both an object of desire, respected for your intelligence, and break through ceilings, glass or otherwise. Writer Jeanette Winterson probably summed it up when she wrote about "the not-so-subtle message that feminists are ball-breakers, but real women are babes".

Small wonder that TV series like American comedy show Girls, that reflect that tension, are proving a hit with generation Y, or that feminism is having something of a comeback. Critics of Girls, which revolves around the lives of four twentysomething New Yorkers argue that it's just a show about whining entitled losers, a slightly sharper Sex and the City.

Fans love that the lead actress and show writer Lena Dunham is not the usual airbrushed Hollywood starlet. The fact that the show's protagonists are constantly on the brink of unemployment, failure, bad sex and hopeless relationships has touched a chord with younger female viewers. When Dunham's character Hannah says of her relationship with her parents, "I feel that I'm constantly asking them to stay out of my work life, but also to please bring me soup", she probably sums up the dilemma of the millennial generation.

Used to being told that they can achieve anything, they falter when they come up against the same problems faced by earlier generations of women.

Feminism at least named the issues of imbalance and gender stereotyping. Now younger women are facing an uphill struggle to find their place in a world where airbrushed perfection is seen as the norm. If they feel isolated in the workplace they will more than likely blame themselves. The increasing problem of intern exploitation particularly affects women.


There's a great scene in Girls when Hannah tells her boss, "my circumstances have changed and I can no longer afford to work for free", and he replies without a hint of irony, "you'll come back to me when you're starving".

One of my graduate students, who secured an internship with a high-profile company, discovered she was doing the same work as a paid male colleague. The breaking point came one Friday when he outlined his plans for the weekend, a trip down the country to stay in a luxury hotel, and she faced going home to ask her parents for another 'loan'. Her female boss was none too sympathetic, telling her that there were no paid jobs available with the company and plenty of interns clamouring to get in.

Some of the problems of traditional feminism – ie the 'all women good, all men bad' scenario – lay in its refusal to accept that women could equally exploit other women. The mantra at a recent women in media conference, that there's a special place in hell for women who do not help other women, ignored one very large elephant in the room.


Women whose success comes from the exploitation of other women, from cleaning ladies to childminders, to unpaid interns are equally guilty of pulling up the ladder behind them.

Younger generations of feminists are less easily impressed by Queen Bee women, and quite rightly believe that sisterhood means looking out for talented younger women as opposed to undermining them.

Even though online media can be used to propagate the most appalling sexism, it's also where the fight- back by a new generation of Irish women has begun. Websites like Fanny.ie, where the personal and the political are entwined; WomenOnAirIE, which is doing exactly what its name implies; and the Anti-room podcasts, are but a few of the growing women-friendly online ventures.

The last WomenOnAirIE event with a keynote address by Dr Rhona O'Mahony sold out, belying the myth that women are under-represented as media experts because they just aren't bothered.

Similarly the hottest ticket for the Dublin Writers Festival was an evening with feminist author and columnist Caitlin Moran. Hundreds of women also booked into this year's Countess Markievicz School in Dublin. The Anti-Room tagline, 'women writing about everything from fashion to feminism, pop culture to politics', takes the 'po-faced feminist' tag and turns it on its head. Broadcasters who ignore these women do so at their peril.

Every week women who are blogging and tweeting on politics are highlighting the lack of female voices on Irish radio and TV. RTE's The Week in Politics has come in for particular criticism. Politics wonk Frances Byrnes tweeted about one particular show, "four men in a television studio discussing abortion.#Ireland". Anyone who has ever produced live radio or television would cringe on receiving a comment like that. And hopefully vow to do better next time.

Advertisers spending fortunes trying to tap the lucrative female market would equally do well to realise that the women they want to impress are turned off by stereotypes.

Or as Mary McGill, writing on Fanny.ie succinctly puts it: "On any given day, I'm helpfully reminded – lest I forget – that I'm hairy, a bit bloated, possibly smelly, covered in the twin evils cellulite and wrinkles, from the lacklustre hair on my dandruff-riddled head to the un-manicured nails of my poor, neglected feet. My pores are eating my face, there's a ladder in my tights and the only way I can experience true pleasure is by eating chocolate in a bath filled with Chardonnay." Few women could read that without grinning.

Women are writing online because it's the one place where they can say exactly what they really think, and in a country that is as small as Ireland, such honesty is unusual and refreshing.


The young women who are setting up an Irish women's museum are also taking the kind of initiative that older feminists, who were fighting battles about equal pay and contraception, can only admire.

The renewed interest in Countess Markievicz for example is not just confined to her role as a rebel leader in 1916, but has also touched younger women who have no connection with this country.

Markievicz's dictum when asked to give advice to other women – "Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver" – has been reblogged on Tumblr from New York to London to Japan.

Or as Hannah from Girls mused, "I feel like a delusional invisible person half the time so I need to find out what it's like to be treated well before it's too late."

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