Comment: What Happened to Kate and Caitlin?

20 February 2013, Varsity Online Comment Section

It’s that time of year again when industries give themselves pat themselves on back – the Awards season. Every year I am disappointed with the nominations, bored during the ceremony and left with a feeling of dissatisfaction when the inevitable winner takes the statuette. Yet the next year I am once again drawn into this cycle of anticipation and inevitability in the vain hope of surprise or approval.

This year I was given fresh hope as Women’s Hour decided to add to the accolades with the inauguration of their 100 most powerful women in Britain list. I eagerly followed the panel as they debated on the program. The judges included Eve Pollard, Oona King and Dawn O’Porter, media savvy women from a range of social and working backgrounds – which seemed a promising sign for those hoping for an interesting, modern, stereotype busting perspective of power.

Inevitably, the list did not deliver on its promise placing, as almost anyone would have predicted, the Queen at the top of the list. The majority of the women on the list belonged mainly to the business sector – with Elisabeth Murdoch and Moya Greene (CEO of the Royal Mail) ranking in the top 20 – or were involved in the political running of UK, while some of the few cultural representatives (including Adele and Clare Balding) appeared somewhat arbitrary and tokenistic. The stereotype of what constituted power remained as close-minded and limited as ever. The panel had stuck with a distinctively conservative view of power, where the focus was primarily in the business, political and economic arenas.

Perhaps this is not surprising considering we are entering the age of the triple, and probably octuplet, recession. Power is now more than ever a commodity only purchased with money. The list reflects a broader sentiment that places emphasis on the traditionally powerful sectors of politics, science and the economy, laying culture to wayside as something extraneous and unimportant. But does this really mean that power truly lies in the hands of an elite few?

The panel judging the list decided that influence and power should be treated as entirely separate concepts, and therefore judged the 4000 names they has been given in terms of control in Britain. While such power is clearly important is misses a key point: power is just influence in a particular system. Does a CEO or a Royal really have more power than Caitlin Moran, whose book on feminism has introduced a falsely tarnished concept to a new generation of teenagers? This outdated concept of power does not in any way reflect Britain as it really is today.

The most powerful women are not only those in the grand palaces of state, but those whose influence we choose to follow and celebrate. Jessica Ennis did not make the list despite becoming a role model to many around the country and Kate Middleton was excluded while Alexandra Shulman (the editor of British Vogue) ranked in the top half, despite essentially having the same influence. By choosing to consider influence and power as separate entities the panel had excluded one of the most powerful sectors of all: culture.

Fundamentally the problem the list presents is not merely its content, but the fact it exists at all. Eve Pollard noted that the list seemed to suggest that women have “gone backwards” in terms of equality with men in gaining the top jobs. Her comments could be applied to the wider context, and the existence of a separate power list for women once again suggests that too few women would make a general list, thus necessitating the existence of a special list for women on their own. This list may provide a conservative view of women and power, but more worrying is the broader trend it reveals in which women are still lagging behind their male counterparts regardless of how the list is compiled.

Image: WikiCommons



Comment: So…Why Can’t You Just Borrow Money From Your Parents


5 November 2013, Varsity Online Comment Section

“Can’t you just borrow the money from your parents?” was the refrain one Gonville and Caius undergraduate was allegedly met with when trying to explain to a college official why they couldn’t pay their bill.

It is not surprising that any Caius student should struggle to pay their college bill this term. The college have recently come under scrutiny by announcing that the price of student accommodation at Caius would increase by 9.5 per cent, while food prices would also rise by 6 per cent. The announcement has been met with suitable consternation by the student body and alumni alike, who are worried that an “increase of this magnitude is unnecessary and potentially very harmful to the wellbeing of the student body.”

The college official’s words were clearly ill-advised, particularly for a university which has long been (unsuccessfully) trying to shed the image of catering only for the upper echelons of society. The comment makes it clear that Cambridge is still very much a university which views its students as the children of those with deep pockets. There is almost some sense in this argument: why would anyone be willing to pay £9000 fees on top of the cost of living? I certainly wasn’t, and had the advantage of being a Welsh student in the year they decided to subject a generation of students to crippling debt with little chance of payoff, otherwise I wouldn’t have applied. It is comments like these which will prevent many others applying.

It seems that Gonville and Caius have followed this line of thinking. Perhaps they do not expect a diverse range of students in their intake, and cannot comprehend what those whose parents can do little or nothing to ease the burden of extortion are doing there. The state is seemingly no longer responsible for the welfare of their students, and as a consequence, only those who already have the resources can be expected to gain an education. This attitude, although untenably cruel, is merely a reflection of the broader attitude of a society in which the majority of people, and particularly young people, are being increasingly marginalised by the current government.

This generation of millenials have borne the brunt of austerity cuts. The average student debt is now the size of a small mortgage, and this is but the tip of the iceberg of stress, worry and financial hardship to come. Many students, after completing their degrees, will fall into an endless series of often exploitative, unpaid internships, part-time work and further training before they can even hope to enter the sector of their choice. The majority of these placements are in London, and the Help to Buy scheme indicates that the most profitable and beneficial place to live in the nation is probably unaffordable to most young people. Additionally, with the economy in its current rut, who knows if there will be any employment anyway?

As a consequence, these millennials will have to return to their childhood bedrooms for an unspecified number of years, watching the wallpaper peel and aspiring to independence, yet unable to establish themselves outside their parents’ arm span. Adolescence is being artificially extended, and individuals – who considered themselves to be adults – are forced back into the rules and conduct they did not expect to return to. It cannot be said that the super-rich are any less reliant on their parents to give them money for a deposit, get them work and enable them to launch their own lives, but independence has never before been as much the preserve of an elite as it is today.

Gonville and Caius may be willing to accept the individualist attitude of the current climate, but they will ultimately be the ones who suffer. It is the diversity of the college which generates the discussion, debates and counter-culture it must maintain to keep its intellectual and creative flair. The students applying to Cambridge this year will not to be doing so solely for the academic education it offers. It is the social scene that is just as important in giving the education we need. This atmosphere can only exist as long as students have the resources to attend societies and engage with other students, and these resources are often financial. Therefore, Gonville and Caius may well be robbing itself of the very resources it requires to appeal to students in the first place.

The future for this generation of graduates is bleak, but it will considerably worsen if universities become even more the preserve of the rich and lose the diversity which ultimately makes them attractive and useful. Without opportunities that universities offer their students, the millennials being forced into a depressing spiral of debt will lack the skills they require to challenge their life pattern. An institution which can only attract the elite will ultimately lose its raison d’etre and the very elite it desired.

Image: WikiCommons

Comment: Why Nigella’s Flaws Make Her More Popular Than Ever

30 December 2013, Varsity Online Comment Section

And so ended the trial of the Grillo sisters in an unassuming court in Isleworth, in which the two sisters were found not guilty of defrauding their ex-boss, ad man Charles Saatchi. But no one was interested in the story of how a millionaire had a few extra pounds taken from his oversized wallet. Instead, it was the Nigella trial which filled the column inches. When the domestic goddess was accused of being off her head on cocaine – “Higella”, as Saatchi had it – it looked as if her credibility might never recover. Instead, #teamnigella became the only side anyone could reasonably be on, and it is the flawed ex-wife who appears to be best prepared to emerge from this sordid affair.

This was a case that didn’t exactly have winners, but certainly had several losers. Saatchi became the villain of the piece, with the photographs of his hand around Nigella’s throat still firmly etched on our retinas, and who afterwards crept away from the trial back to a seat outside his favourite restaurant. The Grillo sisters were shown as field mice caught in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. Yet the image that resonated from the trial was that of Nigella: vulnerable, her head held high with an expression of determination, walking into court to face her accusers. In many ways, the proceedings exposed the popular image of Nigella that many had forgotten, and it is no wonder many chose to side with her.

Nigella once picked up on the fears of many women – that they were failing to be good enough mothers and wives – and taught them in a causal, open and informal way how to feel empowered as domestic goddesses. As such, she managed to gather legions of fans who created Nigella shelves in their kitchens, straining under the weight of the new books she released every few months.

The domestic goddess title stuck, but its meaning was altered with a move from scuzzy Shepherd’s Bush to austere Eaton Square, as the comfort-eating Nigella that many related to become became the curvaceous figure of male fantasy, an image to which most women could not aspire or empathise with. After all, it is not difficult to be a domestic goddess when you are married to a millionaire. In many ways, Nigella’s trial may have been a comfort to those followers who had begun to feel an estrangement from a former presence in their lives.

When Nigella owned up to allegations of cocaine and cannabis in court, the result must have been disappointing for those in the media who were hoping for a good story of schadenfreude: that of the deluded, upper class, glamorous woman who feels entitled to take drugs in her palatial home, knowing she is untouchable because of her privilege. The problem was that Nigella’s drug use did not possess an air of aristocratic glitz and showbiz London about it. Instead, she admitted to taking cocaine for some warped form of comfort in a home which often brought more stress than pleasure. This was done six times in her marriage to the dying John Diamond, and once during her marriage to the domestic tyrant Saatchi. Instead, she had to be shown by the media for what she had always been: a flawed individual who sought comfort in situations of domestic disillusionment and tragedy.

Nigella Lawson’s future is somewhat unclear: she has a new show coming out, but also faces a police investigation into her drug use. Nonetheless, Nigella appears to have weathered the fiercest storm of public opinion, and survived it by re-revealing herself as the domestic goddess of old, somebody others can empathise with – including our own PM, who should have known better. Time will tell her fate, but I suspect most people rather like having the old Nigella back.

Image: WikiCommons

Comment: Debate – This House Would Send its Children to Private School


23 January 2014, Varsity Online Comment Section

This was written ahead of a debate at the Cambridge Union


Britain is one of the few countries in Europe where you can send your child to private school without impunity – at least according to Anthony Sheldon (head of Wellington College), who proposed earlier this week that households who earn upwards of £80,000 should have to pay a “contribution” towards their education if they attend a top state school. This statement occurred at the same time as Becca Atkinson in the University of Bristol’s Tab – read by around 40,000 people – argued that private schools are “obviously” superior to state schools. The moral implication of these statements is plain: if parents can afford it they ought to send their child to private school in order to give the poorest children a chance.

What both these individuals accept unconditionally is that the division between private and state schools is permanent, and cannot be remedied. In doing so they compound the problem; as long as parents choose to send their children to private over state there will always have to be an attainment gap which private schools will have to win to justify their existence. This doesn’t mean that private schools are better as such: they merely have the number of staff and monetary resources to encourage those would normally not achieve get the marks and contacts they need to succeed, a luxury many oversized and underfunded state schools do not.

It would seem that a simple increase in spending on education would resolve this disparity in access and results. The difficulty is that those who are best placed to pay for this increase are usually those who enrol their children in private education and are uninterested in and unwilling to pay for an education system they have no stake in. This results in the gross divide in Britain between the private and state school which continues throughout life into university, employment, and the highest offices of state. The private sector of schooling does not create a meaningful standard against which state schools can be compared and is damaging to the state of education as a whole.

Sheldon’s comments aim barbs at the wrong group. We should not castigate the wealthy that send their children to state schools. Equality can only be achieved in education, and British society as a whole, if everyone has a vested interest in the state of education. This cannot be achieved while private schools continue to gorge themselves on the resources and individuals which would have a wider and greater impact if they could be assigned to state education.

Our current educational system starts the cycle of inequality which begins the cycle of inequality that determines the life spans of the majority of people and, as a result, education is never just a matter of transferring knowledge but determining the form of our society. As long as our education system continues to be divided between the have-and-have-nots of private and state education our society will be too.

Image: WikiCommons

Comment: Eggs Freezing Just Puts More Pressure on Women


18 October 2015, Varsity Comment Section

When it comes to fertility there is one certain enemy: time. As women age, the quality of their eggs deteriorates and the quantity decreases as eggs are released every menstrual cycle. Eggs are also vulnerable to attacks on the body, which is why health practitioners have been offering egg freezing to women undergoing chemotherapy for many years. But it is only recently with the development of new quick freezing methods that women have been voluntarily opting for egg freezing in a major way.
Although figures about egg freezing are hard to come by, some sources suggest that demand for the procedure has increased by 400% in private clinics in the UK, and the age of women enquiring about the procedure appears to be falling. The procedure is now also being endorsed by Silicon Valley companies, with both Facebook and Apple announcing last year that they would pay for any employees wishing to freeze their eggs in a move to ‘empower women’.

It is easy to see the appeal of the procedure. Egg freezing is pitched as the ultimate ‘insurance policy’ for women. Women are getting married and having children later than previous generations, but our bodies haven’t changed. At first glance, egg freezing would seem to offer women the ultimate freedom from the constraint this change in lifestyle may create; Women can have their eggs frozen, halting the biological clock in its tracks, get their education and careers on track, and wait for the right time and person to come along before having a baby. It sounds so simple – too good to be true. So, obviously, it is.

For an ‘insurance policy’ for women there is currently very little data about what the chances of actually having a baby are. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology website shows that up to December 2012 around 18,000 eggs have been stored in the UK, but only around 20 live births have been reported. Similarly, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported in 2013 that the chance of getting pregnant from a single thawed egg ranged from four to 12.5 per cent and was consistent with standard IVF rates.

This makes the assurance of actually having a child seem dubious. The idea that egg freezing pauses the biological clock is a myth, and that could be one reason for the lack of success. The freezing process preserves the IVF success rate at the age at which you freeze your eggs, meaning eggs frozen in your twenties are more likely to be fertilised than those frozen in your thirties and forties. Yet how many women in their twenties are likely to want to pay about £3,000 for an invasive 6-week long procedure, and around £300 a year for the storage of frozen eggs which they may never need? Fertility is also not just a matter of eggs. It could still be difficult for a woman in her late thirties or her forties to become, and remain, pregnant using an egg frozen in her twenties or thirties, because older mothers have a higher rate of pregnancy complications.

These figures hardly make it surprising that both the British Fertility Society and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists solely endorse the procedure for medical reasons, and not as a lifestyle choice. But these technologies are not just dubious for their promises to women of having a baby; they are doubly dubious for their claims that egg freezing provides women with a ‘choice’ over when they can start a family.

The expansion of egg freezing as a lifestyle choice to some extent removes the decision about whether women want to have children altogether. With its rhetoric of insurance and freedom, egg freezing is made to seem like the sensible option for all women: You may not want children now, but at least if you freeze your eggs you will always have the option. But the decision about when to conceive should be solely the domain of the woman, and it is disturbing that with companies now backing egg freezing – with the expressed intention of letting women delay having babies – there is now an explicit notion that delayed motherhood is the best motherhood. Apple and Facebook may preach the rhetoric of freedom and individual choice, but in reality the process of egg freezing presents women with a whole new social pressure, which is not to have babies – yet.

Image: WikiCommons