Harriet Harman on women leading the country

// 5 August 2009

harman.jpgDaily Mail has a reaI doozy of an editorial on the unfolding media hysteria over Harriet Harman’s week in charge of the country while Gordon Brown is on holiday (or, as the Mail headline writer put it “Seven days of feminist fantasies”):

Harriet Harman has been acting Prime Minister for only a week, but in those seven days she’s unleashed a veritable blitzkrieg against the male sex.

That’s the lede. The whole editorial is a sort of backlash must-read, but this line is probably the low point:

Scarce resources are being diverted to silly ideas like compulsory lessons in domestic violence.

After all, two women a week are murdered by their current or ex male partner, and one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime in this country. What a “silly” thing for Harman to want to spend those precious resources on! That’s pretty fucking cold, even for the Mail.

All this has spiralled out of an interview Harman did with The Times.

Here’s some of what she actually said:

But the battle for equality goes on — for Labour in general, too. Harman feels strongly that voters are fed up with “boys running the show” and is convinced that every big organisation needs women at the top.

“Men cannot be left to run things on their own,” she explains. “I think it’s a thoroughly bad thing to have a men-only leadership. In a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men just running the show themselves. I think a balanced team of men and women makes better decisions.”

Harman is deadly serious about this. I was recently told that when she first took up her post — in fact, she holds several, including minister for women and equality — in 2007, she secretly tried to change the party’s rules to formalise this principle. She apparently proposed that either the party leader, or the deputy, should be female.

She nods: “We haven’t actually effected a rule change, but I don’t ever think there will be a men-only team of leadership in the Labour party again. I think people would look at it and say, ‘What? Are there no women in the party to be part of the leadership? Do they want to do it all themselves?’ It just won’t happen again.”

This will certainly prompt a bit of groaning, especially from those who criticise Harman’s relentless focus on egalitarianism. But she is used to sticking her neck out. She recalls a “hell of a row” over her ultimately successful campaign for all-women shortlists in the Labour party, but believes she has been proven right. While almost a third of Labour MPs are women, the Tories, who have steered clear of all-women shortlists, have just 18 female MPs.

The contentious, and possibly a bit unfortunate, phrase was “Men cannot be left to run things on their own”. I doubt this is how Harman intended it, but the problem is this suggests stereotypes of men as incapable cretins.

The unusual thing, and what has caused all the commotion, is that this stereotype has been invoked in relation to politics and the economy, i.e. areas where men don’t like being portrayed as cretins. It’s a stereotype that is quite happily trotted out in other contexts – as Sady Doyle said in the Guardian this week:

The average straight man, if dating guides for women are to be believed, is a fragile, delicate flower, ravaged by primitive desires beyond his control, needy to the extent that he requires constant, fawning admiration (but not too much – the idea that a woman is actively pursuing sex or a relationship will scare him, as he is a skittish creature) and absolutely incapable of dealing with any sort of criticism or challenge from the women in his life. This is conveyed in the movie in a scene where Mike reveals that his macho front is a put-on, caused by dating women who “didn’t like him”. (The question of why on Earth he deserves to be liked is neither asked nor answered.)

Sexist tropes often play on infantalising straight men (and by contrast painting women as mother figures, who are doing all the housework, for example, because men just aren’t capable of doing these things for themselves). This is (I think), which Laurie is getting at when she talks about Harman’s statement as misandry:

Men can be left to run things on their own – indeed, they managed to run central government all by themselves for a number of centuries without setting the Commons on fire or leaving the Civil Service strewn with empty kegs, takeaway pizza-boxes and porn.

It’s true that pizza boxes were not left strewn around parliament during the centuries of male-only and then male-dominated government. But it’s also true that the needs of everyone but wealthy white men were (and still are) put second, that everyone else’s basic rights had to be pried from the reluctant grip of this elite.

Laurie says that the point is in a truely meritocratic society, the top jobs in government will generally go in roughly equal fashion to women and men. I agree of course; a male-dominated government is a symptom of a sexist culture. And it’s important to emphasise that we’re a long way off from a ‘meritocracy’. The concept that we are selecting the ‘best candidate for the job’ when it comes to running the country, or running the economy, relies on a bunch of assumptions we know to be false, like everyone has equality of opportunity, and no-one discriminates on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, etc.

Although Harman’s choice of words wasn’t the best, perhaps, it’s interesting to observe the knee-jerk reactions to making some quite uncontroversial points about the need to increase female representation in government. As Yvonne Roberts said in the Guardian:

The idea that the individuals running an organisation ought to reflect the market that the organisation is trying to serve is increasingly common practice (ie it generates profits) in the commercial world – so why is it deemed such a revolutionary concept in politics?

Much more change will be needed than just more representative government, I agree with HarpyMarx. But it would be a start.

(Photo credit to my work friend Selina who has pinned this up on the wall of our office :-))

Comments From You

sianmarie // Posted 5 August 2009 at 11:35 am

i have been horrified by the coverage of this story. what she said makes sense, in a society where women have (in name) equality, men can’t be expected to run things on their own, that women should have a voice too.

i’d really recommend kira cochrane’s article on this issue, it’s the only rational report on it i have read (until this one of course!)


i was also horrified by the mail writing that about DV. i left a comment on their site but they never print them! maybe we should have a mass letter writing sess and bombard them with complaints?

Emily // Posted 5 August 2009 at 11:57 am

The furore caused by Harriet Harman’s comments (unfortunate or not) actually prove her point(s). I think a lot of women don’t want to go into politics because they know they will be vilified if they have any feminist agenda, and even if they don’t. I think she’s brave to stand up to it, I don’t think I could. The only reason Margaret Thatcher was able to stay in power for all those l-o-n-g years was because she never said or tried to do any damn thing which could have been considered remotely feminist. And you see the outcry that happens when a woman politician tries to do something for women. It is horrifying.

The Daily Mail is a toxin, a blight on British society.

If anyone can’t see that it is crazily unrepresentative of modern day Britain to have a cabinet composed almost exclusively of middle-aged, middle-class white blokes, then…I don’t know what to say any more.

HarpyMarx // Posted 5 August 2009 at 12:47 pm

Thanks for the link Jess.

I agree that there should be more women but what kind of women politically are/were getting cabinet positions?

Blears, Jacqui Smith, Caroline Flint, Kitty Ussher, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman…. etc

They are women who have adhered to the ideology of neoliberalism and frankly, they’re warmongers.

And neoliberalism fundamentally attacks women.

Lets not forget Harriet Harman attacked lone parents benefits in the first term of the Labour government.

This is an ideologically driven government and many of these women MPs have stood by while the pay gap widens between men and women, rich/poor gap widens (much more under NL than the Tories btw), welfare reform that systematically attacks some of the poorest in society…and many will be women etc etc.

Labour has such a massive majority in the first couple of terms yet they squandered it, mainly to be used to back illegal, unjust and barbaric wars. the majorities could have been used to transform society into a more progressive and equitable one, which would have had an impact on inequalities and oppression and this would have been reflected in the power dynamics that exist in patriarchal capitalism.

But no, Harman et al, have preferred to scratch the surface of inequalities and oppression.

And shouldn’t it be about the politics of these women as well, do we want more of the same?

I wasn’t that impressed with Kira Cochrane’s article.

John Des // Posted 5 August 2009 at 12:55 pm

One of the annoying things about this type of article is that it presents any advance for women as a defeat for men . Equality is presented as a battle of the sexes , a nil sum game where a gain for women is a defeat for men . Sweden has managed equal political representation between men and women and Spain has a female majority in cabinet without a “blitzkrieg on the male sex” . Why do they think that calling for equality represents an attack on men ?

Troika21 // Posted 5 August 2009 at 2:19 pm

You could make this country a better place over-night by banning the Daily Mail.

Sometime I wonder if the whole paper is a massive, carefully constructed spoof.

Saranga // Posted 5 August 2009 at 2:57 pm

“Seven days of feminist fantasies” I bloody wish.

nick // Posted 5 August 2009 at 3:35 pm

Harriet Harmen criticizes men when things go bad ……..I cant remember her praising men when things are going well ………yep men made a mess of things last year …..but aren’t men trying to clean the bloody mess up as well ?????

I dont get it ……….

one question …….

if a male majority cabinet ( as now) is bad ……would a female majority cabinet ( futureville) be good ???

surley it cant be ………

Catherine Redfern // Posted 5 August 2009 at 3:58 pm

Here is a hilarious take on this:


“Now PC Harman wants to ban wife-beating.

Abusive husbands were left furious today after a ‘controversial’ new drive to reduce domestic violence against troublesome women was unveiled by chief feminazi Harriet Harman.

Under the contentious scheme, children as young as five will be taught that time-honoured traditions of men beating their wives when they take too long doing the dishes or refuse sex because they ‘have a headache’, are no longer acceptable in today’s politically correct, ultra-feminised society.”

It’s very, very funny.

Joanne // Posted 5 August 2009 at 4:22 pm

I blogged this morning at Feministing Community about the Daily Mail article on Harman’s “feminist initiative” anti-DV lessons, but I hadn’t seen the editorial. Now I’m even more disgusted with them!

Here’s my post: http://community.feministing.com/2009/08/daily-mail-calls-school-anti-d.html

A cold and noxious blight on the country indeed. What exactly IS the agenda of the Mail? Why should helping the numbers of people who experience domestic violence be criticised?

To Ms. Harman, more feminist initiatives please!

Rob // Posted 5 August 2009 at 4:42 pm

HarpyMarx is dead right, Harman’s done very little for women in the years she’s been in power. Interestingly, most of her pronouncements on women in power seem to coincide with leadership positions she feels she should take.

Expect a similar one along the lines of: “The leader of the Labour party must be a women if we’re ever to regain the trust of the country, it’s a scandal that in this day and age, etc.” after the next election once Brown stands down.

IHatetheDailyMail // Posted 5 August 2009 at 5:37 pm

I can’t actually believe it spends the whole article (the daily mail) talking about aggressive teenage girls!!

We’re talking about women dying from domestic violence, and yes it DOES happen every day (to the nonplussed DM commenters) – someone was right when they said the daily mail has turned cold.

I just don’t understand the outrage over her. She said some pretty logical things, and only privilege of course is being threatened – I can’t believe the national outcry. This is no country I want to be part of!

Solve half of feminism’s problems? Ban the Daily Mail. She should get rid of it while she has the power to..

Jennifer Drew // Posted 5 August 2009 at 6:06 pm

Yet again the majority of media critics who engaged in dismissing Harriet Harman’s comments as ‘man-hating’ Harriet Harman is correct a balanced team representing women and men equally is far more representative than our current male-dominated systems wherein politics and corporations comprise overwhelmingly men.

Whenever a woman dares to speak out and demand equal representation for women such demands are always treated as irrelevant, trivial or ‘how dare women demand equal representation.’ Male power will never be reduced without pressure and this situation has been proved time and again.

However, Norway has succeeded whereas the UK continues to live in the dark ages with men stereotyped as ‘incapable’ and women stereotyped as ‘harrigans.’ But stereotyping men as ‘incapable’ is a deliberate method of hiding the realities of how male-centered power operates.

Why do so many men become ‘hysterical’ at even the mention of equal representation? Why is it acceptable for women to be constantly subjected to misogynistic and sexualised insults but daring to critique how male power operates is seen as ‘horrors – man-hating!’

In 2004 the Government of Norway took affirmative action on improving

gender equality in the corporate sector. It passed a law that required

Norway’s 500 Public Limited Companies (PLC) to fill 40% of their board

seats with the under-represented gender within two years.

In 2003, 7% of PLC boards were made up of females. By July 2008 it

had increased to 39%. Businesses have experienced an enhancement of

their corporate reputation and corporate leaders say they needed

something dramatic to open up their eyes to the talent they were

missing out. Many women have been approached for top management jobs

as well as board positions. Women are now visible in corporate Norway.

(Above news item is courtesy of Global Sisterhood Network).

Dan // Posted 5 August 2009 at 6:43 pm

Got to say Harriot Harman has had me want to smash my head against a brick wall recently, she knows how the media works, she knows there are nutjobs running the daily mail, and yet she seems to have deliberatly gone about saying silly things like the leman brothers crisis wouldnt have happened if they were called leaman sisters (ok she was apparantly quoting someone else but she knew how the media would report it, shes not an idiot) and her points about the labour leadership have been made in such a lazy way as to make it all to easy for the press to dismiss her as a man hater and now her serious and in many ways sensible postponement of the inquiry into rape-domestic violence is going to get caught up in this and lined up to fit into the ‘harman the man hater’ news arc that the media has got going.

Perhaps I’m being synical but part of me thinks this is all about her, almost deliberatly trying to wind up the right wing papers to promote her agenda and to gain support from the left of the party for a leadership bid after Brown finally goes.

Karen // Posted 5 August 2009 at 7:46 pm

With regards to “meritocracy”, all well and good, except those of us with wombs instantly lose points on this one because a “merit” to a company apparently is to have no potential need for maternity leave or other considerations that affect “profitability”. Cobblers! We would do well to have more women go for government, especially minority and LGBT women to help balance things out but as long as women are made to feel intimidated for daring to mention the “e” word (and the “f” word, chuckle!), this will remain a long way off. As for the Daily Male, we could do with them on our sewage works, they are probably the best shit-stirrers on the planet!

Kath // Posted 5 August 2009 at 7:46 pm

Jennifer Drew – spot on!

Katie // Posted 5 August 2009 at 8:50 pm

I’ll admit I thought she had lost it when I heard the unfortunate quote out of context but am glad to have been able to read more now. I wonder how everyone would have reacted if Mr Brown had made this statement!?

Jon Des makes a very good point here about how equality is viewed as a loss for men. Perhaps that is because gender equality conjures images of a long awaited backlash that unenlightened people assume means women making men wear make and high heels while doing the vacuuming, or worse (!) making them stay at home… all these bloody women growing up into responsible adults, trying to take our jobs… etc etc.

I very much enjoyed Sady Doyle’s run down of the image of the modern man in relationships. She has put succinctly what I have been trying to explain to people for a long time!

janeB // Posted 5 August 2009 at 9:50 pm

“Surely, any initiative that helps reduce violence against women is a good thing, innit ?”

bob roberts (daily mail)

A voice of reason in a cloud of idiots. But this guy got the worst rating! 60 people apparently voted to disagree with his comment.

Someone pinch me, is Britain actually loonytoon land?

Fiona // Posted 5 August 2009 at 11:33 pm

My first thought was that the Canadian House of Commons (actually, the whole Parliament buildings) was in fact set on fire, five years before they let in the first female MP.

Still… what sickening reporting.

SammySam // Posted 6 August 2009 at 5:49 am

Probably redundant to say here, but Norway has had a voluntary 40% representation of women in political parties well back, I think to the 70s. This was then intro’d to their Gender Equality Act and since 1986, no Norwegian government has had less than 40% representation by women. The requirement extends to publicly appointed councils, committees, etc.

My mother-in-law is Norwegian, and I get lessons in Norway’s governmental policies daily. :)

New to your blog and absolutely LOVE it!!



Kit // Posted 6 August 2009 at 10:02 am

@John Des “Why do they think that calling for equality represents an attack on men”

Widening the pool you source from by removing restrictions on everyone else means straight white men like them will have to work as hard as everyone else to get anywhere. They see it as an attack because they don’t realise they haven’t been restricted like others have and think they actually have to work harder than them. Or if “they” are women, they might “see” it as an attack because the alternative is being on the other side, getting crap for wanting equal treatment… That’s my guess anyway.

John Des // Posted 6 August 2009 at 11:21 am


I must have seemed very naive in asking that question ! I accept your explanation for the hostility to equality . My point is that equality shouldn’t be seen as a loss for anybody . A person may lose privilige , but be better off in other ways .Unequal societies are unhealthy for all , (though obviously some suffer far more from inequality than others and sadly , some are quite happy to enjoy being on the “right” side of it).

It just frustrates me that the likes of the Mail tries to set men and women against each other instead of actually trying to move forward and improve things for everyone ….

Anne Onne // Posted 6 August 2009 at 12:09 pm

“Men cannot be left to run things on their own”

I can see where the ‘misandry’ can be seen to come from, though it itself originates from the patriarchy’s insistence that men are useless at certain ‘menial’ (i.e. under-appreciated) tasks which should therefore be left to women. The insistence that men are incapable of cooking and cleaning and looking after kids or themselves does not do many men credit at all.

However, as Jess noted, that’s not the context of this comment, and I do believe a lot of the reason some people take issue with it is nothing to do with implications of male politicians being giant man-children. Nobody can with any seriousness imply that male politicians are incapable of basically doing their job on the basis of their gender, the entire context of Western politics doesn’t allow for men to be ‘oppressed’, and it’s very telling that the backlash would use this kind of quote as ammunition without considering the more likely interpretation.

Looking at history, where in many cultures across many time periods, men have held all the power, what does “Men cannot be left to run things on their own” mean to us? Is it REALLY implying that men are babies and that therefore feminists and Ms. Harman hate men? Or is it saying that it is unfair for men, who after all only make up half the population at most, to continue to have the vast majority of political power? In an equal society, men cannot be left to run things on their own, not because they are incapable, but because no group ‘deserves’ to be given utmost power over everyone else, to make all the decisions and to decide what is best for the others.

I agree one must ALWAYS be careful with one’s wording, because there will be plenty of ways one can interpret or misinterpret something, and plenty of people who will do so, no matter how disingenuous they would have to be to take a particular meaning. And I do think a lot of people are confusing Ms. Harman’s anger with a system in which men are privileged with an anger at all men in general, because to someone privileged unfairly by the system, anger at the system feels like it’s directed at oneself, hence a lot of defensive comments from men who don’t feel it’s fair to lose a privilege they’ve always had.

I agree phrasing is important. But not that it’s someone’s fault if the Right wing media misrepresent what they say. This kind of twisting misrepresentation and ignoring of context doesn’t get foisted on everyone, there are people who have the privilege of having to take less care over their words because they will be given the benefit of the doubt. Given that it’s activists, who may be female, POC, LGBTQI, fat, etc who are most likely to be misquoted, treated with contempt and ostracised by the media, I don’t think it’s helpful to suggest that if they would only have said it in such a way that they wouldn’t get a backlash. Because it’s not true. When you’re pointing out the flaw in the status quo, there is no easy way of calming (often extreme and personal) criticism of oneself for saying something unpopular.

I do roll my eyes at less than perfect wording, but I don’t harbour any delusions that no matter how perfect her phrasing, she would still get the same complaints. When one wishes to believe feminists are raging castrating man-haters, what they actually say is beside the point.

“Surely, any initiative that helps reduce violence against women is a good thing, innit ?”

bob roberts (daily mail)

A voice of reason in a cloud of idiots. But this guy got the worst rating! 60 people apparently voted to disagree with his comment.

Apparently violence against women just isn’t important. Ditto rape and anything else ‘women-related’. Because women aren’t really people, duh!.

Jess McCabe // Posted 6 August 2009 at 12:20 pm

@Anne Onne I agree re: the wording.

It could have been phrased better, but at the same time there’s no magic way to phrase this point which is not going to produce a knee-jerk reaction, I can’t help but feel.

It’s the agenda of better representation of women which has produced this reaction, and the right-wing media has seized on and twisted the phrasing out of all proportion. Especially compared to the outright hysterical ‘ooohhhh look what happens when Brown leaves a woman in charge!!’ subtext behind so much of this media reaction.

Ruairidh // Posted 6 August 2009 at 1:58 pm

I think part of this is not about the particular wording of a given phrase but Harman’s previous form. She is an open advocate of positive discrimination either in all women shortlists or rules that one of the two top Labour jobs is held by a woman. For all its good ethical reasons positive discrimination does mean penalising a gender and/or race and for that reason some people in those groups will always see these policies as attacks on themselves. So comments that to them appear to show her true ‘man hating’ feelings are leapt upon as further evidence.

I think few people will argue against total equality. The concept that gender, sexuality and race etc are completely irrelevant to your life and career is one we can almost all accept. This does imply a loss of privilege for previously advantaged groups but it takes a fairly narrow minded sexist or racist person to argue for retaining it. Had Harriet stopped there I think the reaction to her would be reserved for the loony fringe.

Positive discrimination like the Norwegian law mentioned above is another thing. It is the removal of privilege from one group and bestowing it, albeit temporarily, upon another. I understand the rationale but the inescapable impact in the short term is discrimination against the previously privileged section of society. The thing to note here is that it is not against those individuals who personally benefited. The white male who got to the top of the ladder over better women or coloured men is not about to be fired. Instead it is those at the bottom who happen to share his gender and skin colour who suffer. Some will argue this is a price worth paying but that is little consilation of you’re on the wrong side of it. That is why Harriet Harman elicits such a response. There is a feeling held by some that, if you’re male and or white, she is out to damage your career. Not by levelling the playing field but by positively discriminating against you.

By way of an example let me take the two rules she promotes regarding the labour party. They currently have 27% of their MPs as women. If you imagine the labour party gets 200 seats at the next election and that 10% of those are new MPs. That would mean 49 returning women and 10 new ones (this assumes that no woman wins an open contest, which of course they could). Leading to the share of MPs rising to 29.5%. Now on a purely gender basis that feels like a reasonable and fair rule as long as the number of applicants is broadly equal but it has been observed that the group most disadvantaged by it are black and Asian men. Now the other rule kicks in so of the two top jobs each male MP now has a 1 in 141 chance of landing one of those jobs while each woman has a 1 in 59 chance; giving the female MPs a massive advantage over their male peers. In a fair and equal world every MP would have a 1 in 100 chance of getting one of those jobs. It’s how we all get there that is also important.

Duncan McCurdie // Posted 6 August 2009 at 2:32 pm

I think some of the backlash is anti labour sentiment. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of anti female sentiment too but if this had been a tory idea would they be screaming from the tree tops? Interestingly the comment from a tory politician wasn’t criticising the notion of teaching children about domestic violence and social responsibility but was criticising that they aren’t already being taught it.

Jess McCabe // Posted 6 August 2009 at 2:34 pm

Now the other rule kicks in so of the two top jobs each male MP now has a 1 in 141 chance of landing one of those jobs while each woman has a 1 in 59 chance; giving the female MPs a massive advantage over their male peers. In a fair and equal world every MP would have a 1 in 100 chance of getting one of those jobs. It’s how we all get there that is also important.

Except the selection of PM and deputy is not based on chance, it’s on experience, seniority, perceived electibility, political capital, building up of support in the parliamentary Labour party, the wider party, and ultimately with the public. So you can’t say that any female MP has a 1 in 59 chance, in your scenario, Harriet Harman had a much greater chance than a backbench MP with one term under her belt.

Certainly, if there are more women MPs, more women given ministerial jobs, etc, then there’s a wider pool and it becomes possible for female MPs to build up those things which put them in the running for the top jobs and Cabinet posts.

I’ve not heard about any observations on black and Asian men being disadvantaged by all-women shortlists, but would be interested in reading more if you have a link or something? However, there are currently only two ethnic minority women MPs, and ethnic minority women are the least represented in parliament – there is definitely a major issue there, which this system is not delivering on.

Anne Onne // Posted 6 August 2009 at 2:57 pm

It is the removal of privilege from one group and bestowing it, albeit temporarily, upon another. I understand the rationale but the inescapable impact in the short term is discrimination against the previously privileged section of society.

Is it, though? Because it doesn’t seem like it to me. No matter what kind of shortlists or ‘positive discrimination’ Harman might wish to enact or actually enact, it could never approach the status quo in terms of discrimination. No matter how much women are ‘positively discriminated against’ (something I’m not sure is actually the case), the situation would never be reversed so that nearly all positions were filled by women, or POC. It simply would not happen. Yet all of the arguments against trying to bring about equality imply that any move to increase the numbers of minorities would be AS BAD or worse as the current situation, the implication being that we should do nothing apart from hope that more women and POC etc would eventually trickle up to the top.

I don’t believe there would really be what one could call discrimination in a meaningful sense, against white, able-bodied men if they would still be represented fairly fairly numbers wise. I get that it would be harder for the next generations of young white men, but it wouldn’t be because they were being unfairly treated if many of them are still chosen (and they would be).

Having less privilege and being discriminated against aren’t the same thing because the former implies having gotten closer to a middle ground and losing an unfair advantage one should never have had, whilst the latter implies that you have less privilege than anyone else, that people are unfairly advantaging anyone else over you. Which I think is unfairly assumed whenever efforts are made to decrease the advantage white men have over everyone else. Whilst plenty of white men are still getting top positions, how can it be easily said that they are disadvantaged simply because they have more competition?

sianmarie // Posted 6 August 2009 at 3:58 pm

i can’t remember who said it on this site before, when we wre discussing a smilar issue but it always stuck with me.

white middle class men are positively discriminated against (is that the right way of saying it?) all the time. but because we live in a patriarchy and they have the greatest privilege, they just never stopped to notice it.

Qubit // Posted 6 August 2009 at 3:59 pm

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_United_Kingdom) data from the last census reveals

50.5% of the overall population are female

49.4% of the population between 15-64 are female

This makes it slightly odd to consider women as a minority group. Of course there are problems with race in representation as well but I think it is illogical to argue that women are a minority group and having 30% of Labour MPs female disadvantages men. White men at least occupy a greater percentage of the positions of power compared to their existence as a proportion of the population.

By saying having women in power disadvantages men from ethnic minority groups you are ignoring the fact that women still don’t have a representation that is equivalent to their existence as a proportion of the population. While I think it is important both men and women from ethnic minority groups need representation this shouldn’t have to be at the expense of another group that hasn’t got its fair share of representation.

Duncan McCurdie // Posted 6 August 2009 at 4:24 pm

The next generation shouldn’t be punished for the sins of the previous. If people get jobs on the basis that they are the best for person for said job then a natural balance will be reached. With statistics showing that females outperform their male counterparts at most subjects in school then soon there would be a female dominated parliament. I think it would be dangerous to promote people to high profile jobs based on ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

George // Posted 6 August 2009 at 4:30 pm


How, logically, is insisting upon 40% representation of women any form of discrimination? It isn’t that all companies should have female directors, or all high level posts should be filled by people of colour. It’s that companies should be made up of an approximately equal number of men and women.

Moreover, everyone who calls out the issue of privilege (as opposed to ‘discrimination’) is right. It isn’t the case that there is a massive NO WOMEN sign on the door of every office. There’s actually whole sequence of gendered events that lead up to the man becoming CEO and the women staying as a PA – and merely removing the ‘easy’, visible barriers won’t do much to rectify the imbalance. Hence the need for ‘positive discrimination’, or, as we might call it, actively working towards becoming inclusive.

Ruairidh // Posted 6 August 2009 at 5:08 pm

Jess: Yes I know my scenario was horribly simplified. The true beneficiaries of the 50% top job target, or a 50% cabinet target would be the existing female politicians rather than the new intake. I was trying to show that setting a 50% target on recruitment and a 50% target on a specific grade at the same time produces a big advantage. It is more complicated than that I grant you but the principal holds that setting targets at various grades gives a bid advantage to those already there. Anyway I accept the parliamentary party of any political party is a poor metaphor for a company in the real world.

The observation on black and Asian men was shamelessly plagiarised from an article in the Spectator without any references or further detail. “… as black Labour activists will tell you, one of the biggest obstacles in the path of getting more black and Asian Labour MPs has been the party’s insistence upon all-women shortlists….” So I don’t know if it represents the journalists personal opinion or something more that that. You can easily put down a logical argument that if you exclude ethnic minority men from 50% of the seats you disadvantage them but I have no idea if there is any evidence out there to suggest there is a problem.

Anne Onne: This is partly about fear and perception as much as reality. Also you don’t need to completely reverse the position so that it is 100% female for there to be discrimination. Setting targets of 50% (or 40) for women in a top grade when the current level is lower than that produces discrimination in their favour for as long as the grade below is less than 50% female and so on down the chain.

Sianmarie: I think that increasingly white middle class men do feel discriminated against. They do notice it but are reluctant to voice it because it is such an incredibly un-pc thing to say. There is possibly also some macho pride in there too. It’s the kind of thing they’ll grumble about after a few pints and is a driver of the backlash against people like Harriet Harman. In many cases their probably wrong though, losing privilege will feel like discrimination if you never realised you were privileged!

Since coming on this site I’ve picked it up as part of the lexicon here but the funny thing is as a white middle class Scotsman from a rural upbringing and a comprehensive education I can’t say I feel particularly ‘privileged’ by the patriarchy. There was no old boys network helping me along the way; not that I noticed anyway. I’ve had more female bosses than male and I’m yet to meet someone with the same school tie. That said I have met a fair few Scots so maybe it’s the Scottish mafia working behind the scenes for me.

Jess McCabe // Posted 6 August 2009 at 5:18 pm

@Ruairidh I’d argue that’s a strong case for similar policies to address the issue of underpresentation – particularly of ethnic minority women, but also ethnic minority men, not an argument against all-women shortlists.

On the issue of male privilege, I’d suggest looking at the male privilege checklist – you’ll have to adjust for its US-centric approach, but it gives an idea what is meant by this.

Kath // Posted 6 August 2009 at 5:30 pm

Sianmarie: you mean white men are positively discriminated in favour of (I think?)

sianmarie // Posted 7 August 2009 at 8:38 am

Kath – yes! that’s what i meant. i couldn’t work out for the life of me the right way to phrase it, because we always say “discriminated against” but postive discrimination means in favour of. so thank you for helping me out on that one – my brain was a bit tired yesterday!

in light of that – Ruairidh says:

“Sianmarie: I think that increasingly white middle class men do feel discriminated against. They do notice it but are reluctant to voice it because it is such an incredibly un-pc thing to say. ”

nope that is NOT what i meant at all but i can see how you thought i meant that because of my confused phrasing (as i say, my fault on that one!). i guess white middle class men might feel discriminated against but what i was trying to convey is that whilst we live in an unequal society, white middle class men are the beneficiaries of positive discrimination ALL THE TIME. pretty much. i know that’s qute simplified but you know what i’m getting at. otherwise, how do you explain the huge imbalance? are white middle class men just better at everything else? do they just beat all other class/race/women in everything because they just are innately better? or is it in fact a clear cut case of positive discrimination in favour of white middle class men (and upper class in politics too, old etonians and all!).

if white middle class men think they are being discriminated against i think they need to check their privilege. i try to check my privilege whenver i can because i respect the fact that my struggles are different to other groups. this is something i have learned to do as i have discovered more about feminism and different political struggles. i’m so glad places like the f word helped me understand the nature of privilege as it is something that’s easy to forget about. i think everyone owe everyone else the respect that is innate in questioning and checking your privilege.

Ruairidh // Posted 7 August 2009 at 1:07 pm

George: there are two Norwegian laws being referred to. The one that says 40% of a political party should be female does not lead to positive discrimination (as long as around 40% of applicants are women). However I was talking about the law quoted that said that 40% of a company’s board should be. As this relies on promoting people from within the company it gives those women in middle ranking positions a big advantage over their male peers if they number less than 40%. So I think setting a target of 50% of new candidate MPs being women does not necessarily constitute discrimination against men but setting a target of 50% of cabinet positions or 50% of senior leadership positions does (or any % that is higher than their % of the parliamentary party).

Jess, thanks for the link. My work firewall blocked it but I’ll take a look later.

You have a point that if we accept women only shortlists we should extend the principal to ethnically limited shortlists. The Labour party have toyed with this idea for years but it is controversial and not universally popular with black and Asian activists. I’ve heard it described as creating a political ‘apartheid’.

It also has the potential to open a can of worms. Gender is (for the most part!) clear cut, ethnicity is not. You can also pretty much be guaranteed that any electorate is more or less 50% female (age profile and migrant working have an influence) but ethnicities are disparate and this all causes complications.

Do you group all black and Asians together? It is inevitable that one ethnic group would become overly represented in such a solution compared to their proportion of the population as a whole. Do you then create sub divisions of all black African, all black Caribbean, all south Asians and all Far East? That may seem sensible but Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and Sri Lankans don’t all get along. Telling an Indian community that their ethnic quota is covered by someone ethnically Pakistani is not going to go down too well, especially when we have the next Mumbai. Then there is the issue of where to place your two or three Chinese MPs (250,000 in the 2001 census, so 0.4% of the UK pop, therefore 2.58 of 646 MPs) as being a fairly well integrated community there is no one constituency in the UK with a Chinese component of more than a few thousand. So this would mean holding a contest where over 90% of the local population and 99.6% of the national population have been barred from entering. We’ve never had an ethnically Chinese MP but would this really be the way you’d like to see it happen, does it feel democratic? What if someone has more than one ethnicity – do we count them twice? Do we sub-divide for religion and sexuality too? Should we also ensure that the 2-3 Chinese MPs are split equally across genders as well?

Exclusionary shortlists are fraught with problems when you get beyond the relatively simple case of all-women shortlists.

Natalie // Posted 7 August 2009 at 1:48 pm

Ruairidh, exactly. Lots of men do not gain any particular advantage from patriarchy and are in fact disadvantaged by it in many ways, such as the gender pay gap, inflexible childcare arrangements and cultural stereotypes. If there was a level playing field there would be no need for any talk about balance-redressing all-female shortlists or ‘positive discrimination’.

My question is why do so many men continue to shore up a system that mainly works just for the privileged few at the top of the heap?

Ruairidh // Posted 7 August 2009 at 4:27 pm


In the USA if you look at average income by ethnicity you’ll see that Asians (there is means Japanese and Koreans more than south Asians) outperform whites. Does this mean that Americans discriminate in favour of Koreans over Americans? More likely it is because of something like differences in Korean-American and Japanese-American subculture that place more pressure on them to perform well academically and get good careers. Just as it is a current feature of our culture that men are expected to be the breadwinners. Yes you can call it sexist and patriarchal but it’s not discrimination. I’m sure there are ethnic groups that outperform whites in the UK as well. Is the fact that women outperform men academically in the UK evidence of discrimination?

The existence of a gap does not always mean there must be discrimination, there can be other social factors at play too. (Although from our last discussion on another thread I’ll accept that up to one third of the gender pay gap in the UK is).


Mobot // Posted 7 August 2009 at 4:49 pm

Sorry if I’ve missed anything as I’ve totally skim-read these comments on my way out of the door… Just wanted to say I’ve been so frustrated with this issue. I’m not the biggest fan of Harman, after all she represents a party I (like practically everyone else, it seems) I am at best pretty damn disillusioned with. But despite her unfortunate and headline grabbing turn of phrase, I think a lot of what she’s said makes sense. She made a good defence of her comments on Woman’s Hour I think it was yesterday… basically saying that she got into politics specifically to be a voice advocating for women and that if she didn’t speak up, who would, given that practically everyone in influential positions in government is male? I think it says a lot that she has been lambasted from almost all angles – people clearly feel threatened and uneasy about such frank public discussion of gender inequality. But having said that, I’m disappointed that her comments were so alienating to men and I’m unsure of my views on ‘positive discrimination’ as yet. I do like the idea that it isn’t discrimination at all, it’s setting the balance straight. But couldn’t this happen without quotas? That seems like a strategy that would do little to change the attitudes which are arguably the root of the problem.

George // Posted 7 August 2009 at 5:22 pm


The point still remains that affirmative action (“positive discrimination”) counteracts a prevailing trend of one group being deeply privileged over another group, in a way that just opening the doors to everyone does not.

For example, in my current academic department, all of the high-level staff are male and straight. If young women such as myself come into the department, even as highly successful candidates (I will obtain the highest marks in the year for this Master’s), they are treated differently by the professors, even if the professors don’t know it themselves. Amongst the undergraduates, more than 50% are female, but this still isn’t reflected in the Master’s or PhD population. Therefore, equal representation at entry-level does by no means translate into the higher levels.

And you know what? If more white, privileged men get turned down for or pushed away from jobs that they are more than capable of doing for a few years, I kind of think I don’t really care, seeing as it seems like making a big ol’ fuss about what happens to a lot of people (women, PoC) already. Not that I’m recommending an eye-for-an-eye approach, I just mean why should the emphasis be on what will hypothetically happen to the poor ol’ men, when it’s already happening to people right now?

As for the race issue – I’d like to hope that breaking the white, public-school educated, male stranglehold on parliament might improve things for lots of different groups, but I don’t think that would happen automatically, especially if we ‘ignore’ it to concentrate just on women (because that will inevitably just mean white, straight, middle-class women). Need more thought on this one.

CMK // Posted 7 August 2009 at 9:09 pm

“if white middle class men think they are being discriminated against i think they need to check their privilege.”

I think this view typifies what many think, i.e. that white middle class men are always privileged. In terms of hitting the career ladder it is likely to be a fair statement in general, but it fails to recognise that not all white middle class men want this. If they want to move into childcare or become a stay at home parent there are huge barriers to them.

Regarding restricted short lists, these are always unfair at the individual level but I tend to think of them as a necessary evil for society and at the end of the day, the collective needs are greater than those of the individual. If getting more under represented groups into certain roles is important to society then the quickest way is to have such short lists.

Anne Onne // Posted 9 August 2009 at 12:16 pm

Also you don’t need to completely reverse the position so that it is 100% female for there to be discrimination. Setting targets of 50% (or 40) for women in a top grade when the current level is lower than that produces discrimination in their favour for as long as the grade below is less than 50% female and so on down the chain.

I get what you mean. Yes, setting a high quota for women would make it harder for men in the positions below if they make up a huge majority. It would mean competition between all those men for, say 50% of the positions (though I don’t believe if quotas were to exist, that 50% would be at all realistic). However, had they been in a non-discriminatory context assuming a roughly equal likelihood for a woman and man of the same qualifications to get a job, they would be facing the same competition, because there would be more women competing for jobs, leaving them still only really likely to get 50% of jobs on average.

Not forgetting that there must be a reason the chosen area is male-dominated, and the likely discrimination against women wanting to go into that field leading to the large male majority.

When I referred to completely reversing it, I meant to say that discrimination has degrees. That temporary discrimination against men (if you see it as discrimination rather than loss of privileges unfairly earned) cannot be as bad as years and years of systematic discrimination of women in far bigger numbers. That men would never be allowed to become a tiny minority like women are in many fields (except in low-valued work). Not to say that the situation has to be exactly reversed to be discriminatory, rather to point out it’s unfair to suggest ‘positive discrimination’ is a bigger evil, or as discriminatory as leaving things as they are. It’s not an opinion often suggested here, but it’s quite a common one in general, and I think it always bears pointing out as false.

I think that increasingly white middle class men do feel discriminated against. They do notice it but are reluctant to voice it because it is such an incredibly un-pc thing to say. There is possibly also some macho pride in there too. It’s the kind of thing they’ll grumble about after a few pints and is a driver of the backlash against people like Harriet Harman. In many cases their probably wrong though, losing privilege will feel like discrimination if you never realised you were privileged!

I doubt there’s that much reluctance, since many of us have heard such opinions loudly voiced! They are quite openly voiced in newspapers, on websites and in real life conversations. Some people may have some compunctions about exactly how openly they state such opinions, but they are not rarely or secretly voiced.

Since coming on this site I’ve picked it up as part of the lexicon here but the funny thing is as a white middle class Scotsman from a rural upbringing and a comprehensive education I can’t say I feel particularly ‘privileged’ by the patriarchy. There was no old boys network helping me along the way; not that I noticed anyway. I’ve had more female bosses than male and I’m yet to meet someone with the same school tie.

I get what you mean. That’s the thing, a lot of privilege is so subtle, we don’t feel it. It also occurs on a sliding scale, so we don’t need to be the richest, whitest heterosexual alpha male to be privileged.

I can’t say that I really feel my being caucasian has worked hugely in my favour especially when most first conversations start with ‘So where are you from?’ (don’t bother with such conversation if you don’t know where most countries are on a map, you’ll only look stupid.), yet I know that it probably has in many ways I would never have realised and my POC friends experience some problems to a greater degree than I do, as well as some problems I don’t.

The best way to illustrate it is to think about something in which we are not privileged in, something we are painfully aware of the benefits other people receive (e.g. not having a private education) and how someone with those benefits probably doesn’t realise how subtly they may benefit over someone who doesn’t. We all notice the ways we feel hard done by, and if we use that to relate to other people’s experiences, it makes understanding discrimination easier.

Considering the vast majority of highly desirable/well paid/high profile jobs go to people with a private education, it’s a good example. Theoretically someone without a private education can enter these fields, yet there are many practical disadvantages (less grooming towards top universities, less social benefits, less teaching attention etc) that make it much harder to be in that group if you are from the less privileged minority, even though on the surface it looks equal.

As a minority, you often see this: a certain avenue is theoretically open to you, yet you see that nearly everybody involved is not like you. It’s a big ‘no X allowed’ sign that most people don’t see because it doesn’t affect them, but someone who is in this minority realises that their chances of getting ahead in said field are small, or at least smaller than for the other group. It may not mean that it puts one off, but it is demoralising, and it’s another barrier that people face. It certainly encourages less people like you to go in that area, which helps continue the cycle.

It’s possible to work hard without a private education and get far, obviously. But it would be wrong to say that people with private educations are always working hardest, yet they are the ones at the top. Meaning that you may well work very hard, but still not get as far as if you had the privilege of everything that comes with the private education of the example.

CMK // Posted 10 August 2009 at 7:17 pm

The difficulty that I have with positive discrimination is that it is usually tackling the consequence of discrimination rather than the cause so you end up having to continue that second dose. It is far better to tackle why people are discriminating in the first place.

There may be circumstances where short-lists or affirmative action programs are tolerable for the collective e.g. where there is deep seated doubt on the ability of a group to do the job – but these should be very limited in my view.

The only real benefit I see about positive discrimination/affirmative action is that it is quicker at getting things to appear to change.

kensington and chelsea // Posted 10 August 2009 at 10:52 pm

I feel discrimination is wrong.

Jess McCabe // Posted 11 August 2009 at 10:45 am

@CMK It’s true that ‘positive discrimination’ (in as much as we have it in this country, which is not much) is a quick-fix, band-aid approach. It doesn’t deal comprehensively with the underlying attitudes.

But, in the case of these shortlists, what it does do is change the make-up of Parliament, which does create real change. So, no, it doesn’t get at the root causes of sexism or racism, but it fast-forwards a little bit what is likely to be a long, slow, process, to deliver results now. In this case, it means there are more women MPs, therefore more chances for women to get ministerial jobs, therefore more chances for women on the cabinet.

It’s worth looking at the impacts of some of the affirmative action stuff in the US – although it’s hard to see the same policies coming into force here in the UK, and despite the inevitable backlash, it has produced a certain amount of change. =How much does it ultimately matter that people grumble about affirmative action? Increasingly, I think there’s going to be a backlash whatever the policy, or however the power balance changes, so maybe we should set that aside as a criteria on whether we support that policy or not.

lindsey spilman // Posted 20 August 2009 at 1:29 pm

It appears that some men feel sorry for themselves when they are not in control, when there is as many men as there is women some men feel out numbered. When women are as powerful as men then they are scary…., when women speak there mind they are having a go at men. Some men want the lives of every woman to be based around them and cannot except the fact that women are free thinking individuals. But i think that the biggest danger to any further progress towards equality are anti feminist women, these types of women have become so much a part of the male dominated system that they stand to lose if it falls. This is because they have gained privilege under this system from doing what men want.

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