Just joining the boys' club doesn't give all women success in the workplace

We need to rewrite the rulebook, not just obey the rules.

It was "not easy", said Bollywood starlet Sherlyn Chopra in a BBC interview about her latest career move last week, but "no one can take that achievement away from me. My sister is proud of my achievement," she continued, while her mother may have reservations but will just have to "accept me the way I am". From these fairly ambiguous words, Chopra’s "achievement" could have been any number of feats - but it just so happened to concern her recent nude appearance on the cover of Playboy, which officially made her the first Indian woman ever to do so. Naturally, some vocal members of the blogosphere were loath to agree that such a move could be seen as genuine attainment. Others, however, were supportive of Chopra’s actions, arguing that her choices were personal and could in many ways be seen as a natural progression from her most recent roles in Bollywood movies.

Coincidentally, reporting of Chopra’s appearance on the front of the world’s favourite soft porn magazine appeared on the same day that statistics were released suggesting that the number of female board directors has risen by a third over the past year. The Telegraph lauded this as proof of the success of voluntary targets in the workplace, and it’s a fair argument. Stringent recommendations from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stated that FTSE 100 companies should aim for at least 25 per cent female representation by 2015, after it was found that at the previous rate of snail’s-pace uptake, it would take at least 70 years to significantly address the gender gap. Many companies voluntarily signed up to a code of equality which involved reporting back on their progress and presumably having to save a whole lot of (bearded) face. The percentage of women board members rose significantly; the percentage of female board directors less so. But because even the official report itself relied heavily on percentages rather than actual numbers, when we all know that the numbers of gals in expensive skirt suits were intimidatingly teensy to start with, it’s difficult to say how much real achievement in terms of "bums on seats" has been made.

What, then, is it that unites Chopra’s defiantly naked body and the Hobbs-clad ladies controlling the financial world? From our side, it is simply that we’ve suddenly been given two very different perspectives on what constitutes success in the workplace. Both of these announcements have focused heavily on very different definitions of achievement - and it has led us to question: what sort of work should women be proud of nowadays?

It might seem natural to proclaim some beef - and a big meaty slab of it, too - with Hugh Hefner and his puff-tailed Playmates at first. But in fact, the issue of board directors often kicks up just as much sand as that of Playboy modelling in the modern environment. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Germaine Greer was the one who wanted to liberate women from housework rather than "putting them on the board of Hoover" - and increasingly, certain sects of modern feminists have stated that we should turn our backs on the glass ceiling altogether, rather than attempt to break into a patriarchal structure of cut-throat capitalism that we never took part in building in the first place. While BIS's efforts should not be underplayed, it should also be considered that introducing female co-workers to the boys’ club of high-powered industrial decision-making may not go far enough in addressing a lot of social and cultural ills holding women back. Expensive company car or no, these women are still entering a game where men made all the rules. Basically, they’re still just becoming part of The Man, man.

Meanwhile, Sherlyn Chopra has done a Magic Mike and gone where the money is. Who are we to blame her? She’s grown up as a steaming hot babe in an industry that demands almost physical perfection from its female participants; she’s inevitably had to cultivate her looks as well as her talent; and a star appearance on Playboy’s front cover surely garners even harder currency than an uncomfortably long hug with Hugh. Self-posted naked pictures via Twitter earlier in the year suggest that she may well take pleasure in the exhibitionist side of things, and Bollywood payment is notoriously unpredictable. Besides, the well-worn pro-stripping argument can be applied quite nicely here: to take advantage of male slavishness to their sex drives for ridiculous amounts of money is actually giving women the financial upper hand. A pessimistic view on the entirety of humanity, perhaps, but hey! Everyone’s cashing in somehow, so what’s the problem?

What differentiates Chopra from her counterparts in the UK boardroom may ultimately be very little. All have achieved in their careers by reinterpreting (but not rewriting) the rules put down by male-dominated structures, where an action that guarantees economic status equals success. Serious financial clout plus family - the "have it all" culture - is so difficult to cultivate because it was only originally only ever envisioned for males, and the social roles they were expected to take. And while we hold on to the idea that success and achievement is defined by muscling onto the path where these men first trod, we can only get so far. Perhaps that’s why Chopra’s announcement, and the sister announcement that women are appearing more and more on boards across the country, leaves an unusual (if not entirely bitter) taste in our mouths.

"Have it all" is, of course, alive and well in its absolute embodiment: newly-appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who happens to also be six months pregnant. Social media went predictably mad for the baby-carrying exec, which is undoubtedly one of the most encouraging appointments made in the capitalist sphere this generation. Eventually, however, the hoo-hah was questioned by some: expectant fathers would never have been scrutinised, complained commentators; the uproar was teetering on the edge of depressing, said others; and Mayer herself somewhat let the side down by proclaiming that she planned to take minimal maternity leave, during which she would work throughout.

In comparison to the FTSE companies, many of which apparently soldier on toward 50 per cent female representation, the USA’s Fortune 500 lag uselessly behind at a chief count of four per cent. Marissa Mayer, in light of this knowledge, has certainly done an unusual thing. Can we be proud of her accomplishment? Insofar as we can understand Sherlyn Chopra’s motives, yes we can. But have they, in their magical, maternity leave-shunning, perfectly-proportioned and cellulite-free ways, done much for the feminist cause in Careerland? Perhaps not. For a real movement that we can take pride in, it may be necessary to rewrite the rule book entirely, so that women who aren’t superhumanly unaffected by childbirth or blessed with Venus-like bodies can also enjoy credible success in the workplace. A difficult undertaking indeed, but surely a valiant one. Any volunteers?

 

Sherlyn Chopra, the first Indian woman to pose nude on the cover of Playboy. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?