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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.