What the writer’s life used to look like. Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images
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My mum is the best worst colleague I’ve ever had

There’s nothing more tit-achingly generation Y than sharing an office space that’s actually a living room with your mum.

“So, we’ve been talking, and we think you’re creating a hostile work environment.”

My mum looks up from her laptop and over her glasses.

“What?” she says, “Who’s we?”

She doesn’t sound particularly interested.

“Hank and me,” I say.

“You and the cat have been discussing me?” she says, still typing.

“Yeah. We’ve kind of decided that you’re the office bitch.”

She stopped listening somewhere around “kind of”.

“Shh!” she says, thrusting an open palm in my direction, from the sofa across the room.

“See, this is what I mean, Mum. In most offices people don’t just work solidly throughout the day. They stop to talk about, I don’t know… Theresa May, the diminishing quality of supermarket fruit. Something. Anything. Come on, let’s have a conversation. I think I might have a urinary tract infection. You love all that. So le - ”

“SHH, later,” she says, now frantically waving one hand while she continues to type with the other.

“I can’t live like this,” I say, “I need to have a conversation. I have all these opinions that are just going to waste. Plus, since when do you pass up an opportunity to discuss my health? I’m handing it to you, Mum. I’m serving you my feminine issues on a plate. Tell me to drink cranberry juice or something. I need an exchange of ideas. I’m talking to the fucking cat – objectively the least articulate, interesting and medically savvy person in this house. I’m dying here. This environment is killing me.”

“Eleanor – will you please…”

Uh-oh, she can’t even.

“I’m trying to write a book,” she says, “if you need a break from whatever you’re pretending to be doing, why don’t you go and make me a cup of tea?”

My mum is the best worst colleague I’ve ever had. And I think she feels the same about me. Working from home is one thing; working from your parents’ home is quite another. Sure, I could just barricade myself in my room – sparing both me and my mum the hassle of, well, each other – but lately I’ve decided that I prefer to be around other people when I’m working. There’s just something motivating about the sound of someone else typing. My mum lounges on the sofa, tapping books into existence. I sit on the other sofa, feeding off that sound to write about whatever it is I write about.

It’s only just occurred to me that, outside the context of family run businesses, parent as co-worker is an entirely new phenomenon. There’s nothing more tit-achingly generation Y than sharing an office space that’s actually a living room with your mum. It would be tragic if it weren’t quite nice from time to time (sometimes she lets me speak to her).

Now she’s having lunch. A salad. She’s always had these salads, my mum. These passive aggressive, “well, I don’t know about you, but I’m being healthy” salads. They’re full of raw vegetables, which makes them especially loud. There’s this crunching sound that’s so specific to her and her salads that I couldn’t even begin to imitate it. It’s sort of, “Brrrrunch, brrrrrunch, brrrrunch.” It’s steady and percussive. My lunch rarely consists of anything so rich in timbre. I think I’m supposed to feel bad about this.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she says, interrupting a lengthy period soundtracked by nothing but typing, munching and tea sipping, “Knaidel…”

She looks at me. I’m “Knaidel” (matzo ball) now, not Eleanor. She wants something. She’s doing her pathetic, whiny, “little me” voice. There are only two things she ever needs when she does the voice: tea or tech support.  

“Knaidel,” she says in the voice, “I’ve done a bad thing.”

“Talk like a woman,” I say. This is a joke we have, when she does the voice.

She coughs and deepens her voice.

“Can you help me with something?”

“Oh how the tables have turned,” I say.

“Please, please, pleeeease,” she says, back to doing the voice, “I’ve accidentally deleted a paragraph. We can talk about your urethra if you help me get it back.”

“The moment has passed,” I say.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA