Category Archives: Feminism

The lure of the hairdresser and the politics of grey

I started dyeing my hair in 1980. I finished last week.

You always remember the first time. For me it was a trip to the hairdresser designed to make me feel grown up.  It ended with aubergine-coloured hair, definitely frowned on by school, which I tried and failed to convince my friends was deliberate. After that I stained my mother’s towels orange with foul-smelling henna for years before turning platinum blonde in about 1989 with a dye job done by a Swiss hairdresser friend of my flatmate’s, who burned my scalp with bleach.

I carried on dyeing my hair long after teen rebellion had ended, and well before the grey set in – copper, blonde, mahogany, russet streaks; strands of hair pulled painfully through the holes in a rubber cap with a crochet hook before the merciful discovery of wrapping hair in twists of foil. The hairdresser’s chair was one place I felt that I could play around with my appearance in a way which didn’t involve the miseries of clothes shopping (I am not a standard shop-size: shorter than average, broader of back, larger of chest. Things are slightly better now, but trips to buy clothes always seemed to end in accepting the things I could fit into rather than anything I might actually want to wear and a consolation trip to a bookshop to cheer myself up. At least your hair always fits).

During the child-care years, the hairdresser represented a couple of hours’ peace and quiet, a link back to my pre-motherhood life where I could read a magazine without interruption and someone else made the coffee. More recently it’s become a chore. As the grey advances it feels like a necessity not a pleasure; maintaining the pretence that I’m not getting older, out of a fear that older means past it.

It’s a jolly expensive pretence though. I have my hair cut every couple of months. At London salon prices, a cut and colour six times a year runs into many hundreds of pounds, which frankly at the moment I can’t afford, and which has become one more damn thing to worry about.

marge-with-gray-hairAnd it’s not just the cost I care about. I’ve been quite strident about the evils of ageism, so what does it say about me that I can’t bear to display a public sign that I’m not 35 any more? The cut is important, I think, to show that it’s a considered choice not just a grand abandonment of caring. The cut I have now isn’t right, so I’ll be heading back to the hairdressers soon to get it shorter, sharper, chic-er. But I won’t be asking them about the colour. By the end of the summer I’ll be grey.  I can put the money I save towards some new clothes (or maybe some books…)

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Talking Heads or Tea Dances? Shaking a leg when you’re over-50

over 55s

The local paper is covering this year’s annual over-55s tea dance with a flourish. When I saw the front page I went into a bit of a decline.

I’m over 50 – admittedly not yet 55, perhaps a great change will come over me in the next few years. At the moment, however, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to behave at a tea dance, even if I had time to go to one in the middle of the afternoon. Here’s the description of last year’s event:

…  a merry and magical afternoon of old-time dancing…. live music by The Sunshine Kings, one of London’s top jazz and swing bands along with seasonal refreshments and mince pies. Dance leader, Tony Lane, will be demonstrating stylish steps on the dance floor including Waltz, Ballroom, and Latin.

Sounds like something my parents might have enjoyed. It doesn’t appeal to me. Like everybody else of my age, I started getting into pop music in the 1970s. I hit the dance-floor as disco was wheezing its last, to be replaced by punk and 2-Tone. The first proper gig I ever went to was Roxy Music (Birmingham Odeon, 1980, lashings of eye-liner). I wouldn’t recognise a waltz if it tripped me up on the way to the bar.

Bear with me, this is not (just) the rant of a women feeling she’s been labelled old before her time. So:

  1. If 50 is the new 40, and 60 is the new 50, what do you call the cohort of people who – I suspect – this event is really aimed at? Has “pensioners” become such a loaded term that we can’t use it any more?  Elders? Senior citizens? The intergenerational foundation says it’s OK to use OAP but that feels somehow rude. Does the fact that I don’t know the acceptable word imply that it is now demeaning to use any phrase which suggests age?
  2. If “over-55s” has become the generic phrase for describing people who are, well, old, what does that mean for people who are actually in their 50s and fighting to be seen as productive, creative, engaged members of the community and maintaining a hold in the workplace? (Do I mean me? I certainly do) Does the charming lady in the picture really represent the brand of the over-50s?

I know I’ve been going on about this a lot recently, and I don’t mean to whine – but pretty much everywhere I turn there are reminders that age and ageing is becoming one of the bigger hurdles in professional life. From today’s Telegraph, for example:

Never mind the menopause, why women in the workplace are finished at 50

which links through to another article from earlier in the year:

Congratulations women, your career officially ends at 45

Great.

 

Riding the diversity tsunami – why a diverse workforce make business sense.

It’s always nice to feel you’re on the side of the angels.

It felt pretty good to hear that we were at the beginnings of a “diversity tsunami” at yesterday’s launch of the CIPR‘s report into diversity in the PR industry. If this piece on the public’s response to the UK advertising landscape is to be believed it may even be true – after all, something’s got to change:

almost two-thirds of people in the UK feel the ad industry does not represent them, and almost two-fifths say advertising characters and messages fail to reflect British society as a whole…. one in six say they are prepared to avoid buying products from companies that fail to take diversity seriously.

It seems, that the public are ahead of the PR and marketing industries on this one.

The CIPR report is sobering reading, highlighting a slow rate of progress in closing the gender pay-gap, welcoming employees with disabilities and – my personal bugbear – focussing so much on the “young and dynamic” that it forgets the insight that experienced (and dynamic) older professionals offer.

Looking for a magic bullet

Many of the speakers yesterday repeated the mantra that “there is no magic bullet” for resolving the unconscious biases which dog recruitment – not just in PR but pretty much everywhere. But there were some great case studies showing how diversity helps business.  I liked the story of the owner of a small PR agency who grew her business by recruiting an ethnically diverse team – confessing with admirable honesty that it was mainly because of the financial support Creative Access offered her to do so. She soon found that her small business was out-competing larger agencies, winning international contracts because they had staff members who could – literally – speak their clients’ language.

My example – told here before – of the agency which couldn’t find a way to talk to an audience of over-50s fits that narrative exactly.  Putting it bluntly, if you don’t understand the UK’s ageing population and you don’t know how to talk to older people, you can’t sell them stuff (and like it or not, we’re the bit of the population that’s still got a disposable income…) Having a workforce that looks like the people it’s trying to communicate with – in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the representation of people with disabilities – isn’t just a nice thing to do, it makes sound commercial sense.

When the audience takes the lead

There was agreement yesterday that the greatest chance for achieving change will come from pressure on companies from their supply chains; which is why that one in six who might change their purchasing behaviour if companies don’t take diversity seriously are so important.

Only two flies in the ointment of the Marketing Week report.  The first is this:

a third of marketers polled in separate research by Marketing Week … believe that a lack of multiculturalism in advertising has no impact on what people buy

As an industry we need to catch up with our customers.

The second is the welcome it gives to the John Lewis ad as an example of older people in advertising.  Readers will know how I feel about this Christmas campaign.  I much prefer the Aldi’s spoof where, instead of a set of binoculars, the man on the moon receives a companion, delivered by balloon to brighten his Christmas.  (The gender politics of describing her as a “special buy” might be slightly problematic, I suppose, but I choose to believe that she willingly strapped herself to the chair – and I wish them both a happy Christmas)

Advertising, age and the #maninthemoon

Man on the moonYou may as well try to hold back the tide as ignore the cultural message-making that surrounds the Man In The Moon John Lewis ad.  It’s still all over twitter like a cheap suit, the marketeers have plastered LinkedIn with comments pro- and anti- and newspapers with space to fill are commissioning pieces about what it says about loneliness.  So I’m sacrificing the high ground, and joining in.  Here are just some of the things I hate about the advert – as though it matters – with inspiration from the ghost of semiotician Roland Barthes, born 100 years ago this very week:

  1. The stereotypical portrayal of older people. The old man is lonely, sad and needs rescuing by a child. Undoubtedly many older people are extremely lonely, but many are not.  We could do with some positive images in adverts as well as the helpless and isolated.  Why couldn’t he have been befriended by the child’s granny?  She could be a happy, smiley woman who’s central to her own extended family. She could help the child make sense of the old man’s plight – and suggest how to help.
  2. It’s a non-solution solution to loneliness.  The present sent to the old man allows him to look in through the window of the child’s house. He’s clearly not invited to join the family for tea. This probably makes the givers (us) feel a whole lot better than the receiver who is, after all, still left out in the cold. Maybe a very long slide from the John Lewis toy department could have been extended to his lonely eerie by smiley Granny and they could have slid back to the Christmas party together in a daring whoosh of jollity, fun, and a flash of support stockings. But would bringing him into the house have raised too many awkward issues about how far we are actually prepared to go to alleviate loneliness at Christmas?
  3. Marketing trumps social conscience. I strongly suspect that, however well Age UK will do out of the ad, John Lewis will do a whole lot better. Age UK doesn’t get a name check anywhere on the advert. It will benefit from a ‘text £5’ fundraising campaign and from 25% of the sales of a mug with the campaign logo on it. There’s a range of other stuff available which is linked to the campaign, but it looks like Age UK only get a cut of the profits on the mug and a card. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with John Lewis wanting to make money at Christmas.  I just feel a bit queasy about the holier than thou tone it takes while it’s doing it.
  4. Worthiness trumps fun.  There’s not a hint of wit or laughter or real warmth in the whole 2 minutes.  Nothing to make me crack a smile never mind make me feel well disposed to the notion of Christmas shopping. Next year, John Lewis, your challenge is not to alleviate suffering or bring world peace, it’s to make me smile. Go on. I dare you.
  5. As previously stated. It’s an advert. For a shop. Designed to make us buy stuff at Christmas.  I hate it for dragging me into its self-satisfied orbit.  It needs to get over itself.

If you want to make a donation directly to Age UK, by the way, you can do it here.

Sexism in TV – an idea whose time has come?

I first posted this almost a year ago, in the wake of a conference I attended about the intersection of ageism and sexism.  The Women’s Equality Party has hit its stride since then, and with the notion of quotas raising its head again, it feels like an idea whose time may have come. So here’s what I thought last year:

*************

Dateline: November 2014

Olenka Frenkiel’s piece in today’s Guardian about sexism and ageism at the BBC reminded me of something I really need to do when I’m Queen.

At the everyday ageism conference I was in a session about the invisibility of women over the age of 50 on TV.  “Think of some solutions”, encouraged the Chair of the session.  “The crazier the better – what’s the thing we could do that would make a difference if only we dared?”

“So what”, I thought  – slightly flippantly – “if, every time a presenter or lead reporter of a news or factual programme at the BBC retired/resigned/moved on, they had to be replaced with someone of the opposite gender? I’m not planning to sack anyone.  Just neatening up the balance by a process of evolution.

Think how different the world would look.  We could have a female economics editor, business editor, political editor, arts editor, and social affairs editor telling us what gives on the 10 O’clock News.  We could have a female chair of Question Time, a female presenter of This Week, a female-fronted equivalent of the Marr Show on a Sunday morning.  There would be female presenters on Mastermind, University Challenge, Match of the Day, Top Gear and Gardener’s World.   The General Election  coverage of 2020 would be fronted by a woman.  We’d have to concede ground on Watchdog and Antiques Roadshow.  And Great British Bake Off would eventually have three male presenters and a lone woman, but I feel it would be a price worth paying.

It will, of course, never happen.  But something needs to.  I came up with this list off the top of my head, first thing in the morning and against the clock – I’ve got a train to catch.  I bet there are lots more I could have added.  And the question I’m left with, is why does it feel so utterly normal that all of those jobs are done by men?   What if?  Why not?

*************

Since then, of course, some things have changed. The BBC now does have a female political editor and Sandi Toksvig has single-handedly demonstrated the practicality of the scheme by handing over to a man on The News Quiz, and taking over from a man on QI.  Robert Peston‘s replacement as BBC economics editor has yet to be named.  If it turns out to be a woman, I think I’m onto a winner…

Experience never gets old – a lesson from Hollywood?

20150929060100!The_Intern_PosterI have been spending far more time than is healthy thinking about the tag- line to the new De Niro film, The Intern. “Experience never gets old”.

What on earth does it mean?

The Experience thing I get. In the film De Niro is a 70-year old returning to work as an intern – no doubt with hilarious consequences. (I haven’t seen the film, I have no idea.) He has lots of experience. You could replace the E-word with Wisdom maybe, or Maturity – although the idea that Maturity never gets old sounds even weirder.

It’s the old bit I don’t get. What does it mean? Experience is never out of date – demonstrably wrong: my experience of using fax machines in the 1990s is pretty old hat these days. Experience never goes stale – ditto.  Experience never ages – still meaningless.  I have a feeling that the subtext here is: it’s OK to be old and still go to work – look old people have things to offer too! I have changed my mind three times in the last ten minutes trying to decide whether – if that is the message – it’s a patronising or a positive one. But it only works if  the very notion of being old is undesirable – as if what they were really trying to say was Experience never has a senior moment and forgets where it put the scissors but they knew that just didn’t sound right.

“It’s only the poster for a Hollywood film” I hear you cry. “Lighten up.”

But a) in Hollywood terms I’m as old as the hills and extremely sensitive to implied ageism; and b) I’m a copywriter.  Words matter. Also, because I’m a copywriter, I know that every syllable of every word on that poster has been carefully thought about and focus-grouped by a crack team of writers, publicists and designers – none of this stuff happens by accident, or because that was just the best they could come up with before the print deadline.

So, Experience never gets old means something to someone.  But what?

15 or 50 – we’re all in this together

I read The Invisible Woman almost in a single sitting, and enjoyed it a lot.  It’s a cheery addition to the growing list of books attempting to re-define what it means to be middle-aged and it’s full of feelings I recognise and problems I can see looming over my own horizon.   So it seems a bit mean to be writing about it with a criticism, but…

Part of the introduction is a light-hearted list of things which get on the author’s nerves.  Among the mentions for the harsh lighting in department store changing rooms, and adverts for thermal knickers and floral sofa covers, is this:

Young people in groups – because I now find them vaguely threatening and know that while I am still able to run I will not be able to run fast enough.  Groups of young people must be passed silently, avoiding all eye contact.

I know it’s just meant to be a jokey list, but it struck me as an odd addition to a book which is, after all, a heartfelt plea for people to see past the label of “middle age” and recognise us as individuals with a contribution still to make.  It stuck out particularly because the very next item in her list of pet hates is this:

Shop assistants. or anyone else who makes assumptions without enquiry –  just because my face says I’m middle aged doesn’t mean I want you to pigeon-hole my wardrobe/menu choices/show requirements/understanding of modern technology etc etc

I know lots of young people, who’d make a similar comment about the way we over-50s pigeon-hole them. ( I still recommend you read the book, though!)