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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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.