You call that a celebration?

It’s a tribute to the resilience and good humour of women that there aren’t millions of us in jail for slaughter or in clinics for insanity by the time we’re 50, given the tosh, nonsense, unfairness, brutality and bloody-mindedness we have to swallow, bear and witness as we try to pretend equality is almost here. And that’s just in the western world.

Quiz: when a woman is sitting next to a man in economy on an airline, who automatically takes the arm-rest?

If women stopped being so sugary and “celebratory” about the whole thing – that is, when they’re not earnestly demanding quotas and affirmative action and setting up solemn women’s networks that achieve almost nothing as far as parity goes (although they work very well for certain women) – we’d be a lot further along.

For all the advances of the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day, for all the anger that many men can feel over custody battles, feminisation of the school-room and work-place, or for being pushed out of the workforce altogether, being born a female is still the equivalent of being given a huge smack in the mouth.

Sorry, it’s just the way it is: we earn less, we work harder, we have to take on more tasks, and we end up poorer. Much poorer. (And that’s just in the western world.)

Here’s the thing that women have so much difficulty accepting though: the guys like it the way it is.

Men will willingly help us up to a point. As I once wrote in a column, young women are bright, hard-working, eager to please. They provide an invaluable resource and are nice to have around, rather like the Queen’s corgis, or a stable of Melbourne Cup fillies.

But around about the time a woman hits 40, and has become more confident, more knowing, more of a force to be reckoned with, she’ll find she’s on her own.

What’s more, she really is on her own because while men take to networking and giving each other a leg-up like King Kong scampering up the Empire State Building, women still, on the whole, have difficulty helping other women.

I mean, really helping other women. Not just by giving smarmy quotes to the press and signing off on cheesy HR memorandums, but by handing each other proper opportunities and real breaks without being terrified that that means we might miss out ourselves.

The men like the men’s club. Good on them. It works.

We have to start really, really liking the women’s club.

We can campaign all we like for gender pay equity and affordable child-care, equal representation on boards and equal advancement opportunities. But until we accept that not enough men are really, truly and deeply as bothered about all this as we are, nothing is going to change.

Forget whining, pouting, blaming and stamping our feet while desperately trying to inveigle ourselves in through the backdoor of the men’s club… It’s not working.

It might be a lot easier though if we made the women’s club more Nancy Wake, less Goody Two-Shoes.

I can’t forget what British author Mary S. Lovell told me once. She has specialised in biographies of women who could be called adventuresses: aviatrix and racing horse trainer Beryl Markham, aristocratic Lady Jane Digby who travelled to Syria and ran off with a Bedouin sheikh; World War II spy Amy Thorpe; Bess of Hardwick, the most powerful woman in 16th century England after Elizabeth 1; and even the Mitford sisters.

These were women who fought to have horizons that were unlimited. They defined their world instead of letting it define them. Surprisingly often, they were the daughters of eccentrics; they had irregular educations.

Said Lowell in a cut-glass accent: “They didn’t have their imagination beaten out of them. They were able to grow in their own direction.” She noted how girls – so dutiful, so determined to be good, so reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s school heroines – are now loaded down with homework and channeled into being modern executives.

We’re trained to be docile; and when we seethe, we take it out on each other.

Oh for a women’s magazine editor to look at all the saccharin, anodyne, product-pushing, dumbed-down propaganda that is considered the right fare for teenage girls and young women and say, you call that a feast for growing women? THIS is a feast for growing women!”

It would begin with a strong cocktail of vim poured over the rocks of reality check and topped with the bright red cherry of “you might as well go for broke”.

The curious case of the male ear

A couple of weeks ago an editor approached me to write a piece for an anthology. The trouble is it turned out that the catchy title of the anthology – together with its subject – were the basis of a book I had pitched to some publishers a few years ago. And yes, one of the publishers was the man who had commissioned this editor.

She was mortified. I was mortified for him. Clearly it was a case of sludgy memory. Can happen to anyone.

Except after a bit of back and forth, his position became clear. He emailed me: “As I’ve told you, I have no memory (or record) of you having pitched a version of this idea to me several years ago, even though I believe you when you say that you did. But even if I had remembered it, there would have been no legal or ethical impediment to me working on our version of it three or four years later.”


I emailed back: “I am surprised you now say you don’t remember my pitch on What Was I Thinking – held in your office July 10, 2007 – given I have email correspondence referring to this book idea and title, your enthusiasm for it and the reason for my withdrawal at that time. Here below is one line from your own email, September 17, 2007: ‘Sorry you’ve dropped the idea for What Was I Thinking?, although I understand. I loved the title, apart from anything else.’”

Every creator knows the laws on copyright and ownership are murky but they’re not that murky.  Especially not when you’re also sitting on a 6000 word proposal with an IP line on it; emails from other enthusiastic publishers about the proposal and you’ve had a commercial meeting with the publisher concerned where presumably the usual rules of commercial-in-confidence apply.

I’ve now gobbled up six domain names as a result and coming soon to a computer screen near you will be my creation. I’m sure things will work out reasonably.

But that’s not the real problem.

The question is: if a woman speaks and a man says he doesn’t hear her, has she actually spoken?

If a woman is sitting at a conference table and suggests an idea which is either dismissed, ignored or which goes unheard, and then a jackdaw male proposes the same idea and everyone goes: gee, great thinking, mate! … has the woman ever uttered a word?

Well, of course she has but it is bloody hard for women to get what they need, deserve and want, if men are tuning them out. Which they do. All the time.

A recent survey, reported at Salon.com, showed that women will happily read books written by men or women, but men overwhelmingly choose to only read books written by men. And a further American survey cited showed that women authors – if you leave out cooking, self-help – account for only about 30 percent of what currently appears on publishing lists. Women may buy and read many more books than men but men’s preferences for male authors – and women’s willingness to read books by either sex – sends a clear commercial message to publishers.

Do these kinds of men need their ears boxed? Or do they need their ears cleaned?

Or should mothers and fathers bring up sons who are taught from cradle that no matter what the genitals or timbre of voice, men and women rate equal attention, equal respect?

Creep-ing to the top

My neighbour, John Wilson – vigneron, ex-racing-car champ, copy and TV writer – has sent me two links which have been circulating like crazy amongst those who are convinced the world is off its head but keep being told instead, nah, stop being such a grump.

The first piece, by American speechwriter Clark Whelton, is a timeline of when people stopped being able to craft sentences, and started putting together a jumble of sounds – “like”, “whatever”, “you know”, “uuummm” – accompanied by sound effects and gestures to try and convey what they meant.

Whelton called it: “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness”. Read it here.

He pins down the years when lucidity was overtaken by waffling, gibbering vagueness: 1986 to 1988.

That’s when he noticed that college-age applicants for internships went from being articulate to candidates who seemed to be “evading the chore of beginning new thoughts”.

His piece, he told me, received hundreds and hundreds of comments when it appeared in the latest edition of the quarterly City Journal. He’s now writing a reply.

“One of the most peculiar things about Vagueness is its rapid mutation from fringe slang to mainstream usage,” he emailed. “Most peculiar of all are the defenders of Vagueness, who patronise the victims of  verbal chaos by claiming it’s really a brave new world of communication.  They pretend that impoverished vocabularies and inarticulate sentence fragments are progress. One thing is clear, however: a reduced ability to speak is a reduced ability to think.”

Why proponents of Vagueness would be so confident about something so dopily air-headed is explained in the second link John Wilson forwarded with a note, saying: “My best friend and I were discussing how it was that such incompetent people rise to the top of business and politics”.

It turns out there’s a scientific name for it – the Dunning-Kruger effect – courtesy of the two Cornell University academics who first developed their argument in 1999.

Pity not enough people paid attention back then; we might have saved ourselves a few wars, financial collapses and general mayhem. For the term describes people who are so incompetent they can’t recognise their own failings and feel superior instead. Meanwhile, competent people – naturally, given they understand the scope of what they’re doing – tend towards self-doubt.

The former are driving out the latter like mynahs invading a native bird sanctuary.

It’s so perfect it sounds like a hoax but the ABC’s Robyn Williams did a segment on it, and not on April 1.

There are three patterns:

* the incompetent overestimate their own level of skill;

* they don’t recognise skill and talent in others;

* and they don’t “recognise the extremity of their inadequacy”.

That alone tells you – once you take in what’s happening right now in Canberra, Sydney and in almost every industry you choose to name, from transport to media to universities – that Dunning and Kruger are spot-on.

Please circulate.

Pretty young women and very important men

And finally while we’re on the subject of women ….