The Power of the Purse

Money. Power. Women.

It’s late at night here in Seoul. It has been a long day at work, which so far has been exciting. As I get established on the first rung of the job ladder, I’m learning new things everyday with hopes and dreams for where my future will take me.

Last week, I got my first paycheck. The feeling of euphoria when checking my bank account and seeing compensation for my hard work has been worthwhile. The money I have earned gives me power not to rely on my parents. It gives me the power to go on a shopping spree at Uniqlo or think about signing up for a Korean language course. It gives me the power to indulge in nice gelatos. And all subsequent paychecks that I earn will give me the chance to use the power of the purse to get what I want.

However, there are constant news items that make me suspect that there are limits to its influence. I might have earnt it, but I have come to understand that my power, at least economically speaking, is severely curtailed on the basis that I am a woman.

As I write this, I cannot help but think about two things that have dropped recently with regards to women’s relationship with ‘the power of the purse’: first, the McKinsey and Lean In “Women in the workplace”  2016 report, and second, how much the advice of Venture Capitalist John Greathouse to women has backfired.

‘Leaning In’ is not enough

The “Women in the Workplace” report revealed what many women (especially women of color) have known for a long time: women in the workplace ask for feedback or for raises just as men do, but are consistently ignored, their concerns and interests brushed aside like annoying flies. We ask women to ‘Lean In’ but the reality is that the glass ceiling is fierce, and cracking it requires more than simply “asking for more.” It requires others to genuinely change their mindset and give women the chance to do well.

Time and time again it has been established that diversity is good for business. Why would anyone stop the advancement of half of the population in the workplace on the basis of implicit and explicit bias when it’s been proven to be bad for business?

Does this mean that ten years down the line I will have to contend with a potential employer who is not interested in paying me the same as  my male colleagues for the same job? Does it mean that if I were to have children, I would be considered as no longer fully dedicated to work and thus dispensable?

We’ve all heard the horror stories of women being forced to accept a lower level position when they return to work after maternity leave, or of women in Italy signing resignation letters in advance when getting a new job to make the exit from their existent job immediately effective if they decide to start a family.

Will these issues still persist ten, fifteen or thirty years from now?

VC John Greathouse Shows that Success is Male

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Mr Greathouse decided to give some grand advice to women about how to best make it in the tech world: use your initials online. His advice made me pause for a moment. It made me think. Women are oftentimes – if not always – given the same advice about self-advancement: be more like a man.

I will admit that I am not entirely sure what is meant by this. Is this a request for women to be more like the stereotypical male?  

Nevertheless, what I find really confusing is the narrow definition of success that is propounded here. The yardstick of this success is male, middle class and white.

Mr Greathouse suggested that women in tech should refer to themselves only by their initials in order to hide their gender online. He basically asked women to ignore and suppress who they are to fit in, to assimilate to what is considered the norm, instead of breaking the barrier to make the “norm” more inclusive.

The guy has since apologised (and I am sincerely hoping that it was sincere). But he is not the only one to give such advice. Saddeningly, that advice has been repeated time and time again. It is reinforced every time we ask women to stop being themselves if they want to be successful. It is reinforced every time we coach women to act like guys in order to get that investment, or that job. It is reinforced every time we ask women to let some things slide at work, to stay silent when they are given office housework or are not included in meetings. It is reinforced through the micro-aggressions and through the comments and advice given to women everyday.

It is reinforced when we tell women that the only way to make it is to play by the rules and affect change when you’re at the top. It is evident in the way women know that they get paid less for doing the same job men  do and there is nothing that can be done.

That “it” is a sign of resignation. That “it” is the “I’m sorry love that things are so bad but there is nothing we can do to change them. Deal with it.”

And when I think about all this, I am always reminded about something someone said to me at my first ever internship. It had been organized by my school and lasted only a week. I was told I came across as “matter of fact”. I was advised that I needed to be careful because people thought I expressed a “this is not up for discussion” tone, and it could  ‘rub them the wrong way’.

I’m sure this advice was trying to be helpful and had my best interest at heart. But it didn’t stop me from sitting in my bed thinking about that conversation over and over and asking myself what it meant, and what was wrong, with being too “matter of fact”.

Now I’m older, and possibly wiser, and l I wonder whether the same thing would have been said to a man. Whether his tone would have been perceived too unaccommodating, or just accepted as confidence.

We ask women continuously to change who they are. That is a product of power used upon women. It is power that should redirected towards changing the way business is run to make women part of the norm, instead of actively encouraging and forcing them to be something they will never be – in their eyes, or those of others: men.



Do Not Pity Me: Beginning Life as a Refugee

At best, the current media coverage of the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands of people forced to become refugees in response shows us only victims. At worst, we are presented with Nigel Farage evidencing the ‘threat’ to the ‘decent’ British citizen with billboard posters of queues of refugees awaiting basic humanitarian support. At best, fleeting celebrity facebook posts encourage us to see passive figures, whose story is not their own but one focussed on the opinions, policies and decisions of the governments and citizenries unwilling to receive them. Each is a dangerous narrative. Among much else, such a narrow visions miss the resolute strength of these individuals. What begins in words –  newspapers, television broadcasts, video reports – becomes reflected in reality, and people presented as non-autonomous, passive, unwilling and burdensome are left to struggle against an identity constructed and forced upon them.

This strength does not show itself in huge and miraculous acts. It is not a strength we find easy to recognise because it is not championed, emblazoned on news articles, awarded applause nor congratulations. It is a strength just in survival, and a resolve to continue.  Sitting across from me, in a small café on a warm summer evening in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dima Ismail is a paradigm example of this strength. She speaks in stilted but commanding English, full of imperatives. What she has had to do, what she must, in order to make a place for herself in this new and alien world that is struggling to make sense of the Syrian war.

Celebrities flock to dilapidated refugee camps and take photos beside the weakest and most wretched. “They’re just like us,” they chant, “They need our help”. Such flash-pan humanitarianism comes from a good place, but it is misguided. There are unspoken words that appeal to our sense of pity for those weaker than ourselves, that paint a picture of people unable to help themselves, in need of our salvation. These individuals do not need our pity – how rich of us to offer it in the first place, when we are complicit in a system that has been integral in perpetuating the instability and turmoil in their homeland. What we need to offer is solidarity, to recognise the strengths, skills and determination of individuals eager to rebuild their lives, and fundamentally, to provide access to the tools to do so.

In this struggle for integration, refugees are not like us. They face a system of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality that seems intent on keeping such opportunities from them. This is a system against which Dima Ismail has consistently found herself at odds with. How to rebuild your life, when not only your home, possessions and past are destroyed, but the skills and passions you have nurtured in yourself are rendered meaningless?

Born in Syria, by the age of 21 Dima had graduated from law school and was training in the most important central law offices in Damascus. The work was intense and demanding, even more so for a young woman in a traditionally male dominated career. She recalls reading everything she could in order to survive, and succeed.  Court decisions, judicial precedents – each one  devoured, each one  catalogued, until she had built herself a private office, with two trainees of her own.

We are told by the media that our military and governmental involvement in the Middle East is premised on bringing justice to the downtrodden who are denied representation in their own countries.  But Dima’s experiences offer a more nuanced picture of autonomous and passionate individuals fighting for justice on their own terms. Within the independence of her own practice, she committed herself to supporting everyone who came to her with a case – clients who were weak, lacking education, money or opportunity –  all were defended where possible. She worked in rural communities educating against the tradition of child marriages of young girls.  This was more than just a job, this was a life built around talent, passion and determination. Yes, the media is right to say that the system was, and remains, corrupt, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people fighting against it.

Of course, every refugee has experienced the helplessness of being forced to flee their homes. When war came to Damascus, it was violent, indiscriminate, and tireless. Dima speaks of trying to remain in the city, continuing her work, as long as she could. Her husband left first with her son, but she refused to follow. But when tanks began to stalk the high streets and facing the corrupt regime was a better alternative than facing the extreme misogyny and violence of the ISIS rebels, there was no longer any option but to leave.  But let’s not mistake this as a free choice, taken lightly just because the asylum benefits in Europe looked enticing when the future prospects seemed unhopeful in Syria. “It was a kind of suicide”, Dima describes leaving her homeland.

At first, she reunited with her family in Egypt, where she attempted to retrain in Egyptian law. But before she could take the exam, the instability in Syria was already overspilling and they were forced to flee again, this time to Bulgaria. But Sofia was no European paradise. On the one hand, Dima admits to having been lucky – though she had left all she owned beyond the far shore of the Mediterranean, she and her husband retained enough finances and education to move quickly through the Bulgarian asylum system in which some less fortunate are left cramped in dilapidated schools, with no privacy, for months on end waiting to receive their official refugee status. But this was a small boon. It soon became clear that Dima would struggle to practice law in Bulgaria. First, there was the language barrier. Then, the fact that the Bulgarian state refused to recognise any of Dima’s previous qualifications or experience. Far from letting her retrain in Bulgarian law, they demanded she begin law school from scratch, shouldering all the connected fees and costs. It soon became clear that Dima had left more than just a job and a home behind in Syria.

I left my life there and I left my heart”.

And yet, despite all of these trials, Dima has not been overcome. She has not let herself be defined as the helpless victim. From nothing she has begun to rebuild her life again. First, she started studying Bulgarian whilst working as a volunteer in asylum accommodation centres in the city, teaching English to other asylum seekers retained there. As she turned 37, she enrolled in University reading Languages and Administration, graduating 20 years after she first began studying, in that other time and other life, in Syria. 2016 has seen her begin her first job with a UK company.

She writes to me with a strength and a willpower that refuses to be constrained; I remember her presence, her intellect, her passion and openness when we met in that café in Sofia. The beauty I saw there was her strength – not the stuff of a Hollywood movie, a celebrity anecdote or a tired news piece, but a deep, complex, indomitable strength to survive and to begin again, in spite of everything.

I am starting to live again with a broken heart and the hope that one day we will return”.

The refugees we see on the news, in charity appeals and on celebrity instagrams – we need to be careful before we accept the simple narratives we are fed by mainstream media. Dima’s story is one of hundreds of thousands. We need to stop hearing only one half of the history, stop casting ourselves as saviours of the helpless and begin bringing to these formidable individuals the tools and opportunities to allow them to survive and succeed. They have travelled across a continent because they are determined to survive. Not because they are merely passive victims in a game of foreign policy gone wrong. Long term, structured integration support is what is needed. Access to language training, the recognition of transferable skills and the opportunity to develop previous qualifications or retrain. Dima Ismail does not need your pity.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – A Reflection

When this film came around in Sundance’s 2015 showcase, it quickly gained a reputation as one of the best feminist movies ever made. A studio as successful as Sony Pictures was quick to snap it up and, in an interview with Variety Sony’s co-president Tom Bernard commented that ‘it should have been made a long time ago’,  marking ‘the year of woman’ in film. Bernard, along with many other critics, was not wrong. The premise is simple enough: in a post-hippy 1976 San Francisco, heroine Minnie (Bel Powley) embarks upon an affair with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) 35 year old man child boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). In the process, she learns about sex, love and herself in a way that rarely graces the big screen. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic semi-autobiography and bravely tackled by first time filmmaker and screenwriter Marielle Heller, a film about female sexuality was nothing new. What was new, however, was the unapologetic attitude of the protagonist, showing audiences that women, just like men, can enjoy sex too. And not just enjoy it, but do so with a zealous enthusiasm that could rival any Christian Grey type. I look back on one of the most important films for women, about women and by women in recent memory; Diary of a Teenage Girl. 

The diary itself, recorded on a cassette tape recorder, is created by Minnie with the intention of documenting her new sexual relationship with Monroe. Couched in a bohemian environment of drugs, sex and T-Rex, it is unsurprising (as it is shocking) that the languid Monroe willingly ‘submits’ to Minnie’s sexual propositioning. The films first sex scene ends with Minnie marking an X on Monroe’s thigh with her own blood. She also asks him to take a polaroid so she can forever remember such a definitive moment, eager to capture her first taste of post-coital euphoria. We then see an ongoing power-play between the two, manipulative on both sides. Monroe is obviously exploitative, but this feeling is often bolstered by Minnie’s strong sexual impulses and her powerful, almost ruthless knowledge of exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it. Heller’s moral neutrality on the nature of the relationship proved to be one of the most controversial elements of Diary, dividing critics and evoking broader questions about the purpose of film itself- should movies instruct reality? By appeasing disgusting acts, such as underage sex, should filmmakers be held accountable for promoting them? The answer is that these are the wrong questions to be asking. To focus on the issue of cinema and morality in this film is to completely miss the point; Monroe functions as a test ground on which Minnie can explore and manifest her sexual desires. Her developing enthusiasm for sex is enhanced by her experiences with him, no matter how disturbing they appear to the modern viewer. In this way, the film is more than just a story of a disturbing brand of first love, a genre trope that has been exhausted by female perspective cinema and in 2016, quite frankly, is redundant. If you’re looking for a tale of forbidden, tormented teenage love, Diary will not suffice. Heller refuses to orbit the film around a victim/predator relationship, where the audience is wrapped up in figuring out who is exploiting who. That isn’t to say that Monroe’s actions escape condemnation; every audience member knows this and Heller is not patronising enough to emphasise it; her mind is on other things. And, thankfully, so is Minnie’s.

Minnie’s tapes, critically, serve to reveal much more than the affair. Monroe, and all the other characters for that matter, are always on the backseat as Minnie’s voice is too loud and vibrant for anyone to overtake her. It is through the diary that we learn just how much Minnie likes to fuck and likes to be fucked. We gain explicit insight into her passion for sex, her longings and desires, complete in their uncut version. We also learn about Minnie’s ambitions to be the next Aline Kominsky (Susannah Schulman), an underground artist who creates the witty, cynical comics that Minnie adores. Minnie might love sex, but she understands that life also has a lot more to offer her. As well as an oral narrative, illustrations ranging from the psychedelic to the grotesque prove to be a character in their own right. Art is everywhere, popping up in a cafe, mid conversation and, of course, during a sexual act. Essentially, the cartoons visually represent not only Minnie’s burgeoning sexuality, but also her complex, tangled and thoroughly relatable emotions. They also suggest that Minnie’s attitude toward sex is as real as it is embroiled in delusion, imagination and creativity. Through both the diary and the drawings, we learn that Minnie is an inherently creative person who uses sex as a stimuli for art, and vice versa. This character is not just obsessed with her sexuality, but how it should be remembered, narrated, brought to life through artistic expression and coloured in. And sometimes, as is often the case in real life, Minnie struggles to stay inside the lines.

So just how feminist is Diary? For a start, it passes the Bechdel Test and scores a relatively high B grade on The Representation Project, designed to rate the diversity of experience in film. Despite this, whilst it may have passed the Bechdel Test, it does not do so consistently throughout. Much of the dialogue between women is focused on man. Minnie and best friend Kimmy spend a lot of time talking about Monroe, or their mutual admiration of giving a blow jobs. Minnie’s mother Charlotte is also no textbook feminist, as she encourages her daughter to wear skirts ‘that show her waist’, otherwise she’d struggle getting a boyfriend. But as is the case for much of the film itself, there is much more going on than meets the eye. The nature of the conversations about men have their own unique stamp of individuality on them. They are ego-centric, with woman most frequently discussing what men can do for them and how men are affecting them on a personal level. In other words, women do not speak about men in a purely emotional or romantic sense, reflecting a unwavering female independence that is ultimately the spirit of the piece. Bildungsroman films from the male perspective regarding sexuality tend to put the ‘come’ in ‘coming-of-age’. A string of nineties and noughties films saw young boys jacking off at the thought of tits – women reduced to nothing more than blonde hair and body parts. This hi-fiving male hubris certainly gets a run for its money with the strong females in Diary. And when the conversations between female characters are not doing this, they tend to instead highlight a culture of misogyny towards female sexuality that, sadly, is still with us today.

Diary of a Teenage Girl proves that women making films about women is the best way to create real, honest and utterly relatable portraits of the female experience. Many of the themes in Diary are profoundly relatable to young women. What a predictable shame then, that the BFFC decided to give this picture an 18 rating. All young women, regardless of age, deserve to take look into Minnie’s mind and see parts of themselves amidst the colour (hopefully females everywhere have since had the chance to grab the DVD). Like Minnie’s views on sex, Diary of a Teenage Girl gave me an incredible feeling of warmth and made me want to do the whole thing all over again, almost immediately after the first time around.

Class of Spectra 2016: Tash Miah

What does graduation mean to you?

Achieving my lifelong dream of studying at Oxford, and overcoming all the hurdles that doing a degree here entails.

What is the trajectory you see for yourself?

Onwards and upwards, hopefully!

What impact has university had on you?

It has galvanised my views and strengthened me in my convictions that I can achieve whatever I put my mind to.

Which are your most potent memories of university?

Doing all-nighters to finish essays and months of misery doing my dissertation and extended essay! But these are balanced out by the many beautiful moments I’ve had bonding with others, making new friends, and appreciating the beauty of Oxford as a city.

What gives you impetus?

Faith, friends and family are my bedrock of support and reflect the morals and values I live by on a daily basis.