Friday, August 21, 2009

Vibrant 'Real Women' launch

Updated at the bottom

The attractive Real Women web site and the magazine-style policy proposal document are in grave danger of making Liberal Democrat policy making popular.

In general, I have a major concern about the document in that it is full of proposals but has very, very little in the way of evidence and preamble to explain why those proposals are needed. Most Liberal Democrat policy documents do set out ample evidence as background to their proposals. In this document, there are a few snappy bullet points and a couple of women's stories. But apart from that, the document takes the need for its proposals as read. I find that very concerning. Why? Because I enjoy criticising Women Liberal Democrats? Well no, actually. I think this whole policy initiative is excellent and exciting. I want it to succeed and I am afraid that, to succeed, it has to convince the cynics of the need for its proposals. And, yes, most of those cynics will be men I am afraid.

But apart from that, the light nature of this document (and I am thinking primarily about the paucity of back-up evidence and rationale, rather than its style) seems to be saying “We’ll only get the attention of women if we produce a sort of Hello-style magazine instead of the normal weighty policy document.” It’s not for me to say, but isn’t that rather patronising to women?

Taking each area in turn, the pay equality section contains some excellent proposals and certainly hits home with its statistic about the UK being behind Sri Lanka and Syria in terms of pay equality. I notice that the pre-trailed "no name" proposal for job applications is included. In one sense this is a good, clear policy that will take away any suspicion of equality in some people's minds. In practical terms I think it is quite bizarre. Just imagine a job application form, if you will. It starts with name, address, age, marital status etc etc. First of all, I am not sure that someone could not guess the sex of the applicant from the details on the form. Hobbies for example. OK, there are, quite rightly, many excellent women with a passion for Rugby, Body building and Formula 1 car racing (Hello Caron, in the latter case). There are also many excellent men who like Lacrosse, flower arranging and Take That. But some form of surmise, perhaps even the wrong one, could be made. A single sex school in the education section, might be a give away. It just seems very strange to have someone's address and their age and marital status, but not their name. Apart from anything else, it would be relatively straight forward to find out the sex of the applicant. Look them up in the phone book, electoral register etc and then make an educated guess from their job history.

And, all this focus on the application sifting doesn't take away any absence of gender evidence from the most crucial part of all job selection processes - the interview. I would also like to see evidence of the proportion of women making it to the interview stage. Many companies now make sure that interview lists are gender balanced. Where is the evidence that women are under-represented in interview lists? To what extent is it a problem?

Despite the attractive magazine nature of the document, there is a need for explanation of many of the measures. For example, what the heck are "hypothetical comparators" in equal pay claims? I think I can guess, but it would be helpful to read more explanation.

There are some very good proposals in the document, including a lot of existing LibDem policies. The question: "How will you pay for it?" is bound to come up for several of the proposals - for example: increasing the number of midwives and health visitors and providing free childcare for 20 hours a week from 18 months to school starting age. The latter is one heck of a commitment. I'd like to see costings and some explanation as to how it would be paid for.

'Paid parental leave for up to 19 months'? That sounds very expensive indeed. So expensive, indeed, that it is likely to be laughed out of court. I am sorry but I have to ask, is this a serious proposal? "Paid parental leave" is that fully paid or similar to the Statutory Maternity Pay at the moment?

I thoroughly support the proposals for more flexible working.

The body image section is where my blood pressure starts rising. How's this for a rag bag of non-sequiturs?:

Media images of women are often unrealistic and unattainable with little room for a range of body sizes and shapes- the problem of representation is worst of all for older women and disabled women. A Grazia survey of 5000 women found that a third worry about the way their body looks “every waking minute”, and just one in 50 is happy with her body. This pressure has a negative effect on women’s wellbeing, and research increasingly shows that it creates body image issues and can contribute to eating disorders. Perhaps most worryingly of all, there has been a 25 per cent increase in the number of girls under nine who are being treated for eating disorders.

That paragraph actually doesn't relate any of its assertions to evidence. The quoted survey says that women worry about their body shape. But that survey doesn't say that this is caused by "media images".

So, there has been an increase in eating disorder treatment. But "media images" have been around for over a hundred years. Can that increase be linked to some form of increase in the prevalence of harmful "media images" ? Or is it possible that there are other factors at play? To those questions, this document gives the answer of "??????????????????????????????????" What also isn’t mentioned is the frightening rise in obesity. So, if “media images” are impacting people’s behaviours, surely it could be argued that, put simply, pictures of thin people are causing people to become obese? That’s how ridiculous the attempted connection is, in the absence of any evidence.

Is Liberal Democrat policy now to be dictated by surveys in Grazia? Being flippant, if a Grazia survey says a third of women worry about their body every minute, then surveys in GQ and the like have said that men think about sex every ten seconds. So it would seem that men have all the fun don’t they?

In 1917, the physically perfect woman was about 5ft 4in tall and weighed nearly 10 stone.

On what evidence is this based? (I couldn't find anything on the Social Issues Research Centre (creditted at the bottom of the paragraph) web site about it). And what is this nonsense about "physically perfect"? Isn't the document itself guilty of imposing the very idea of "physical perfection"?

Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules.

I really do think this is very impractical in terms of its implementation. You can achieve a great deal with superb lighting, make-up and a bit of Vaseline on the lens. Would these be banned? And would simple contrast and brightness changes to photographs be banned? And surely a ban related to advertising only, would leave intact the main culprits - the front page and editorial photographic spreads.

Otherwise there are some good proposals in this section, such as advertising the success rates of cosmetic surgery operations, increasing education in body image, health and well-being and giving reduced sports club membership to the young.

The document has some excellent proposals concerning violence against women such as more Rape Crisis Centres and Sexual Assault Referral Centres. The paper quite rightly highlights the problem whereby women entering refuges are often forced to give up their work.

All in all, this is one of the most vibrant policy launches in years, but it needs more back-up.

Update: After receiving welcome feedback on another forum, I have been doing some research on Eating Disorders and would recommend these web sites: Disordered Eating, Beat, University of Maryland Medical Center, Eating Disorder Expert, BBC News article, and NHS clinical knowledge summaries. The Beat site is linked from the Real Women site, and has some very poignant survivor stories.

I would like to emphasise that I accept and recognise that there is a link between media images and eating disorders. I haven't said otherwise. What I am saying is that the Real Women document presents no evidence to connect media images and eating disorders (other than mentioning an only indirectly relevant finding from a Grazia poll) - which is very strange given that the document does present links to evidence for other proposals which it makes. All I am after is a mention of a relatively scientific study or survey. I am also saying that the prevention of enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16 year olds will be ineffective in that it will be easily circumvented through non-digital means and leave intact the main culprits - editorial photographs including glossy front page photos. My main concern here is that the Liberal Democrat party may well get slated for what may be seen as a "knee-jerk tokenistic nanny state ban" proposal which diverts attention from, and reduces the credibility of, real solutions (many of which are presented elsewhere in this document) and may do the party, the 'Real Women' initiative and, most importantly, those with eating disorders no good whatsoever.

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