Belfast Telegraph

From bedroom to boardroom, men are still in charge

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

In a Sunday newspaper magazine, 10 pages promised to 'unleash' our inner goddesses with corsets, suspenders, lacy stockings and other skimpies. A female journo raved: "Lingerie shopping is almost as satisfying as buying shoes. And that's as good as it gets."

Really? As good as it gets? The journey for gender equality in the UK started with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and arrives in an underwear emporium at the end of 2011.

I know it is the season of good cheer and I only pick on this article as typical of countless others which nudge women into thinking of themselves as sex objects and pleasers and divert us from naked, brutal realities.

Last week, an academic study found that a wide sample of men could not differentiate remarks about women's sexuality made by convicted rapists from quotes in four, hugely popular, mid-shelf lads' magazines.

Meanwhile, savage male sexual fantasies roam the internet and sex is as fast and addictive as a delivered pizza.

We hear of brutal assaults on teenage girls by their boyfriends and domestic violence and murder figures remain unspeakably high.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples. However, though slow progress has been made since the 1980s, in terms of females in Parliament, top jobs, positions of influence and entry into occupations previously closed to them, appearances are deceptive.

Last week, a newspaper analysed the number of women on key TV programmes, writing in newspapers and in politics. Wollstonecraft would scream at the findings - from Radio 4's Today programme, through the newspapers to the commanding political voices, white men overwhelmingly dominate. And if you complain about the unfairness and stupidity of sexism or racism, you are turned into an effigy, scorned and burned.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of sisters defending the hideous status quo - women in drag who seem to have injected themselves with vast quantities of artificial testosterone. Like the headhunter Heather McGregor, man enough to be asked on to the Today programme, who ordered those who believe in unfairness to have a reality check, or move to Cuba.

For all the progressive laws passed and real changes in how many men treat women, base attitudes persist. Cameron and his buddies detest the equality and human-rights legislation, because it interferes with business.

I was a panelist on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff last week. Women who had lost their low-paid jobs phoned in, spoke with dignity about how difficult it was for lone mothers on state benefits to raise children and the intolerance of neighbours and even friends.

None of them blamed the Government. We know cuts in public services are disproportionately affecting such women.

There is much praise for Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in a new biopic. Enthusiasts say it shows the 'Iron Lady' overcoming deep Tory prejudices.

Even so, she didn't champion equality and her own example changed little for womanhood. Individual success has come to some, but men still rule from the bedroom to the boardroom. There will not be another woman PM for a long time.

Some younger women are, thank God, organising against the injustice and objectification, excelling in higher education and fighting for access and power.

Many, though, are sleeping around and nihilistic - existential responses to a world that still denies them, now with force and reactionary zeal.

It is really hard to be a woman and, trust me, a Stella McCartney floral-printed bustier with matching briefs won't make it all go away.

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