Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"Sisterhood" a myth

Catfights over handbags and tears in the toilets. When this producer launched a women-only TV company she thought she'd kissed goodbye to conflict...

Over in one corner sat Alice, a strong-minded 27-year-old who always said what she thought, regardless of how much it might hurt someone else. In the other corner was Sarah, a thirtysomething high-flier who would stand up for herself momentarily - then burst into tears and run for the ladies. Their simmering fight lasted hours, egged on by spectators taking sides and fuelling the anger. Sometimes other girls would join in, either heckling aggressively or huddling defensively in the toilets. It might sound like a scene from a tawdry reality show such as Big Brother, but the truth is a little more prosaic: it was just a normal morning in my office.

The venomous women were supposedly the talented employees I had headhunted to achieve my utopian dream - a female- only company with happy, harmonious workers benefiting from an absence of men. It was an idealistic vision swiftly shattered by the nightmare reality: constant bitchiness, surging hormones, unchecked emotion, attention-seeking and fashion rivalry so fierce it tore my staff apart.

When I read the other day that Sienna Miller had said there was no such thing as 'the Sisterhood', I knew what she meant. I can understand why people want to believe that women look out for each other - because with men in power at work and in politics, it makes sense for us to stick together. In fact, there was a time when I believed in the Sisterhood - but that was before women at war led to my emotional and financial ruin.

Five years ago, I was working as a TV executive producer making shows for top channels such as MTV, and based in Los Angeles. It sounds like a dream job and it could have been - if I'd been male. Working in TV is notoriously difficult for women. There is a powerful old boys' network, robust glass ceiling and the majority of bosses are misogynistic males.

Gradually, what had started out as a daydream - wouldn't it be great if there were no men where I worked? - turned into an exciting concept. I decided to create the first all-female production company where smart, intelligent, career-orientated women could work harmoniously, free from the bravado of the opposite sex.

In hindsight, I should have learned the lessons of my past - at my mixed secondary school I was bullied by a gang of nasty, name-calling girls, so I knew only too well how nasty groups of women could become. And working in TV, I'd met lots of super-competitive 'door-slammers' who'd do anything to get to the top. But I told myself that, with the right women, work could be wonderful.

So, in April 2005, I left my job, remortgaged my house - freeing up close to £100,000 - and began paying myself just £700 a month to set up this utopian business. Having worked extremely hard for 12 years, I had lots of experience and a good reputation. What could go wrong? I hired a team of seven staff and set up an office in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey. While the women I interviewed claimed to be enthused by the idea, they still insisted on high salaries. Fair enough, I thought at the time - they are professionals, and I knew most of them were talented and conscientious because I'd worked with them before.

But within a week, two cliques had developed: those who had worked together before and those who were producing 'new ideas'. Most days would bring a pointed moment when some people were invited out for lunch or a coffee break - and some weren't. Nothing explicit was ever said; the cutting rejection was obvious enough. Even when we all went to the pub after work, strict divisions remained, made clear according to who sat where around the table and who would be civil - or not - to whom.

Fashion was a great divider, though in this battlefield everyone was on their own. Hideously stereotypical and shallow as it sounds, clothes were a huge source of catty comments, from sly remarks about people looking over-dressed to the merits of their fake tan application. I always felt sorry for anyone who naively showed off a new purchase in the office, because everyone would coo appreciatively to their face - then harshly criticise them as soon as they were out of earshot. This happened without exception.

My deputy, Sarah, the general manager, first showed how much style mattered when she advertised for an office assistant and refused to hire the best-qualified girl because she could not distinguish Missoni from Marc Jacobs. This girl would have been making tea and running errands. But I didn't challenge the decision not to hire her because I had a policy of picking my battles carefully. The office was like a Milan catwalk, but with the competitiveness of a Miss World contest - and the low cunning of a mud-wrestling bout.

A fashion spat ended one friendship when Sarah and our young development researcher received the same surprise Christmas gift - a Chloe Paddington bag worth £900. When they clocked the matching bags in the office, it was like pistols at dawn. They forced a few compliments, but relations never recovered, to the expense of my company....

I was often out trying to win contracts, but back at the office, work was an afterthought. It came second to conversations about shopping, boyfriends and diets - oh, and spiteful comments from my two development researchers, who were sharpening their acrylic nails against another staff member, Natasha.

Six months after the company's inception, tensions spilled over when one of the researchers took Natasha's laptop and refused to return it. That day I was forced to cancel my meetings and return to the office to patch up relations.....

The worst type I encountered, however, was the 'passive aggressive-She doesn't seem mean, but is the worst of the pack, ruthlessly bringing you down in such a sweet and unassuming manner that you don't realise what she's done until long after the event. She conceals her bitchy words in flowery phrases - one of my staff told another sweetly: 'I don't mean to be a bitch, but I just can't bear to be in the same room and breathe the same air as you right now.'...

Another woman had a voracious sexual appetite and, in a female-only environment, saw nothing wrong with screeching across the open-plan room details of her marathon sex sessions. I received frequent complaints about her crude language. I can still remember the name of all of my staff's partners and their affairs because it interfered with our work so often....

The effect a lack of testosterone was having in our office was even more apparent when I temporarily hired two male directors to work on a series (camera operators are usually men because of the heavy equipment). The team suddenly became quieter, more hard-working and less bitchy - partly because they were too busy flirting. Two girls openly went after one director, even though he had a live-in girlfriend - his partner didn't stand a chance against their relentless flirting, and was dumped when one of them won his affections.

When we had meetings with men, staff turned ferocious, each out to prove that they were the sexiest in the room. With a male commissioner at Channel 4, one employee said 'Watch this!', then stuck her hand down her bra and tweaked her nipples. The man and I were speechless.

In this climate, I didn't dare employ any men because of the distraction and - even worse! - catfights they created. I hate how much that sounds like stereotyping, but I'm afraid it's what I found to be true. And while I stand by my initial reason for excluding male employees - because they have an easy ride in TV - if I were to do it again, I'd definitely employ men. In fact, I'd probably employ only men.....

Though I will not absolve myself of all guilt, I believe the business was ruined by the destructive jealousy and in-fighting of an allfemale staff. Their selfishness and insecurities led to my company's demise. When I needed the socalled 'Sisterhood', believe me, it just wasn't there.


Archbishop of York calls for St George's Day to be 'unifying' public holiday

The campaign to make St George's Day a national holiday gained further momentum yesterday. The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu said that it was time to reclaim our patron saint as an 'all-embracing' symbol of British unity. Many in the Church of England have backed away from celebrating St George for fear of provoking a backlash from other religious and cultural groups in Britain.

But Ugandan-born Dr Sentamu, Britain's first black archbishop, has been happy to lend his outspoken support for the campaign. Both England's patron saint and the national flag of St George have been associated with racists and the Far Right in the past. But the Archbishop - who is second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England hierarchy - is perhaps uniquely placed to rebut critics who feel such a celebration would be seen as divisive by ethnic minorities and non-Christians.

He said that failure to support an English cultural identity could create a 'twisted vision' which could be exploited by firebrand politicians and Islamic extremists. The Archbishop's comments come as Boris Johnson has pushed for a greater celebration of England's patron saint on his feast day, April 23. The London Mayor said that St George has been neglected for 'far too long'.

The revival of interest in St George has been boosted in recent years by devolution in Scotland and Wales, and through widespread use of England's national flag, the Cross of St George, by fans of the national football team.

At a literary festival on Saturday, Dr Sentamu asked: 'Has the time come to make the feast of St George, the patron saint of England, a public holiday?' He added: 'Whether it be the terror of Salafi-jihadism (the radical Islamic doctrine behind Al Qaeda) or the insidious institutional racism of the British National Party, there are those who stand ready to fill the vacuum with a sanitised identity and twisted vision if the silent majority are reticent in holding back from forging a new identity.'

The Archbishop was at pains to stress that his speech was not a critique of multiculturalism, but rather a call for different communities and religious groups to embrace their shared values. He said: 'Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England's fabric - rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. 'The truth is that an all-embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.'

Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury, also supported the calls for St George's Day to be celebrated. He said: 'It's high time that St George's Day be given the importance it warrants. 'It provides a unique opportunity to celebrate collective Englishness, to take pride in our heritage and to highlight the values which define modern England - values such as honesty, fairness, tolerance, enterprise and equality.'

He added: 'I want to fly the flag and take pride in being English, and I know for a fact that there are thousands of people in our area who feel the same way. 'St George's Day offers a unique opportunity for people from all backgrounds and beliefs to come together and celebrate the things that make England great.'

A review of citizenship in the UK commissioned by the Government from Lord Goldsmith recently recommended a national day 'focused on ideas about shared citizenship'. Although the Government has acknowledged that St George's Day is a popular suggestion, there is a competing alternative - a new 'British Day' after Remembrance Sunday to celebrate the contribution of our Armed Forces.


Growing up with hippie parents

Like the teenage daughter in Absolutely Fabulous, many born in the Seventies cringed through childhood as their free-spirited parents lived the hippy dream. Among them was Chloe Fox, who rebelled by becoming a model wife and mother. She talks to others who found absolute freedom less than fabulous and wonders whether a life of ‘mortgages and moderation’ is the inevitable outcome

By Chloe Fox

When I look back at my childhood, it is with the remembered imprint of banisters on each of my cheeks. Along with my brother, Sam (we were later joined by a sister, Louisa), I spent many a night watching a wonderful world whirl downstairs at our Georgian townhouse in Clapham, South London.

My mother, Celestia, a former fashion editor of Queen magazine turned casting director, met and fell in love with my father, Robert, five years her junior, when she was 26. He, after a disastrous stint following in the acting footsteps of his brothers Edward and James, was a fledgling theatre producer, working for impresario Michael White.

Theirs was a world of endless parties, and we took for granted the roll call of stars that flooded the house and came, champagne-breathed, to kiss us goodnight over the years: David Bowie, Al Pacino, Rupert Everett, Bob Geldof, Paula Yates, Nicky Haslam, Jerry Hall… It is the gut instinct of every child to consider their own childhood the norm, and apart from a vague inkling that not everyone’s father had long hair and did the school run with a Marlboro in one hand and Bruce Springsteen screaming on the stereo, that’s exactly what the three of us did.

As I grew older, however, the excesses of others started to make me feel awkward in my skin; old beyond my years. When my school friends bunked off to smoke, I went to the library and read a book. When they sneaked to the pub, I took to my bed. In my lessons, anything less than an “A” grade felt like a fail. I began to find my own parents slightly mortifying; one Sunday lunchtime a joint was passed around, and I left the table and locked myself, sobbing, in my bedroom.

Fashion petrified me. On the eve of my first dance, at the Hammersmith Palais, my mother tried to coax me into her skin-tight black Alaïa minidress. I decided that a shapeless purple silk shift from Jigsaw was a much better idea. At parties, I wanted the ground to swallow me. I only felt safe watching it all unfold. I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 16, and only then because he was too drunk to say no.

And so it has gone on. When I was 27, I married the boy next door, whom I had loved from afar for a long time. In the five years since, we have had two children: Jago, 3, and Christabel, 8 months. We have a mortgage, a mountain of laundry and only dance in the kitchen or at weddings. We have no famous friends, no cupboards full of sequins and I’m sure, although they are far too loving to say it, both my parents marvel that it’s enough.

But we are not alone. If it is the fate of every generation to rebel against the one that preceded it, then we, the children of the children of the Sixties, are an inevitably strait-laced bunch. One of the best-observed comedy characters of recent years is Saffy in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. As her mother, Eddy, drunkenly falls down the stairs in heels too high and skirts too short, teenage Saffy rolls her eyes and goes back to her homework. But more than 16 years have passed since Absolutely Fabulous began. Just what would Saffy be like now? What sort of a mother did she become? How much is the parent you become affected by the parents you had?

Free and uneasy

“My childhood was very open and creative and free, but always a bit all over the place,” says Poppy de Villeneuve, the daughter of Sixties photographer Justin de Villeneuve, famously linked with Twiggy, and former model Jan de Villeneuve.

As a child growing up in East Sussex, Poppy, along with her older sister, the illustrator Daisy (who spent her first year of life living with her parents in a tent pitched inside a Camden Town warehouse), had a vague sense of her own otherness. “I knew the other kids at the comprehensive we went to didn’t have a mother who wore floaty Biba dresses and have people like Peter Blake and Kenny Everett coming to stay at the weekend, but at the same time it was all I knew.”

It wasn’t until her teens that Poppy, now a photographer, began to struggle with her own identity. “I’ve always been the straight one at a party,” she says. “While my contemporaries were all rebelling and taking drugs, I was on the sidelines – a slightly older version of the child I was – who slept on a pile of coats under the table in a restaurant.” To this day, she says she feels like the odd one out and is a self-confessed workaholic, with elements of the control freak about her. “When I have children, I’ll give them more structure. It’s crucial for little people, I think.”

At the age of 30, photographic and events producer Gawain Rainey, now 37, became the first person in his family to buy a house. Already well established in his career and with his girlfriend, model Jasmine Guinness, expecting their first child (the couple now have two sons, Elwood and Otis), he decided it was time to start “being a grown-up”. This was not something his own parents had really done. His mother, Jane, is the daughter of David Ormsby-Gore, the 5th Baron Harlech, who was British Ambassador in Washington from 1961 to 1965. His father, Michael Rainey, ran a hip Chelsea clothing boutique. Wealthy and staggeringly glamorous, they ensured that their four children – Saffron, Rose, Gawain and Ramona – had a childhood in the Welsh countryside characterised by its freedom.


"Safety" regulations freeze out small scale and startup producers

The simple fact of the matter is that most food safety regulations, in classic Baptists-and-Bootleggers fashion, are written by the big producers and have the primary effect of imposing minimum overhead costs on small producers.

The primary offenders in the food contamination scares of recent years have been large-scale agribusiness operations and large-scale food processors, whether in California or in China. The spinach e. coli deaths associated with “organic farming,” for example, actually occurred at a nominally organic factory farming operation producing for Earthbound Farms, where crops were contaminated by fecal runoff from the grain-fed cattle at yet another factory farming operation nearby.

But if the USDA ever takes large-scale regulatory action to address the problem, you can be sure it will be a costly and paperwork-intensive inspection regime that the factory farms actually causing the problem can easily absorb, but that will destroy small, community-based market gardeners who weren’t killing anybody in the first place.

That’s exactly what happened with the above-mentioned CPSIA, in a different industry. In response to scares of phthalate and lead contamination in toys and clothing imported from China, some consumers started buying handmade toys and clothing produced locally in people’s homes, in order to have a better sense of where the stuff they purchased actually came from. People attempted to take back control of their lives from distant and unaccountable corporations, by turning instead to relocalized economies outside the corporate supply chains.

But what did Congress do to address the lead and phthalate scares? It imposed a costly testing regime whose primary effect could well be to drive the small-scale local producers of handmade toys out of business. The giant transnational corporations that farm toy and apparel manufacturing out to sweatshops in China, of course, can easily absorb the cost of mandated testing and paperwork.

As described by Eric Husman, of GrimReader blog, the small apparel industry works like this: First, you develop a couple dozen or so different designs. Then you see which ones sell, and produce them on a just-in-time basis as orders come in. This a business model that can be followed even by someone operating out of their own home with a few sewing machines. Because there’s almost no initial capital outlay or overhead, there’s also no pressure to achieve some minimum level of business to amortize the overhead cost. Consequently, there’s no risk involved in taking it up as a moonlight operation to supplement wage income and then gradually replace wage labor with self-employment a few hours at a time.

The CPSIA, by mandating test costing hundreds or thousands of dollars for every separate product line, essentially criminalized this model of production. It added enormous levels of overhead, which could only be paid for by large-batch production to spread the cost over a large number of units. In other words, if you can’t afford the initial startup capital to do it full time and on a large scale, you can’t do it at all.

That’s the central function of almost all safety regulation: to impose mandatory minimum levels of overhead on small producers.

Consider all the forms of production that are amenable to small-scale production in the home, using only the spare capacity of ordinary household capital equipment that most of us own anyway, if only government-imposed entry barriers were removed. Roderick Long, in a November article at Cato Unbound, mentioned microbakeries using ordinary kitchen ovens, unlicensed cab services with only a car and a cell phone, cooperative daycare arrangements in which parents in a neighborhood paid someone to care for children out of their home, home-based beauticians with only a chair and sink and a basic set of cutting and styling tools, etc.

Because of mandated overhead, most of society’s economic functions are carried out through the model of organization Paul Goodman described in People or Personnel: high-overhead, with bureaucratically defined procedural rules, job descriptions, prestige salaries, rents on artificial property rights, management featherbedding, and all the rest of it. The cost of paperwork and bureaucratic rulemaking, in many cases, is the inevitable result of the fact that people lacking any intrinsic motivation or control over their own work can’t be trusted to use their own judgment.

Our society is run by an interlocking directorate of enormous bureaucratic organiations: corporations, government agencies, universities and charitable foundations.

As a result, most forms of production are characterized, in Goodman’s words, by “the need for amounts of capital out of all proportion to the nature of the enterprise.” “Everywhere one turns, … there seems to be a markup of 300 and 400 per cent, to do anything or make anything.”

Their overhead costs are compounded, in addition to the initially mandated capital outlays themselves, by their bureaucratic style: the layers of bureaucratic overhead and administrative costs associated with such organizations. Compare the total charge for a service call by a plumber, most of which goes to office rent and clerical staff, profit and interest on debt, utilities, etc., to the portion that actually goes to the plumber. A skilled tradesman’s wage is typically about 40% of the cost of a service call. When we do business with each other indirectly through bureaucratic organizations, we pay a 150% markup over what we’d have paid to one another directly (for example, a plumber working through a LETS system, simply taking calls on his phone and buying materials at the local hardware store).

The effect of criminalizing such low-overhead production, Paul Goodman said, is to erect barriers to transforming one’s labor directly into subsistence, and to render comfortable poverty impossible. We often hear that the per capita GDP in Italy or Ireland is a fraction that of the U.S., and yet the actual quality of life doesn’t seem to be anywhere near that small a fraction of our own. The reason is that much of our increased GDP results, not from a proportionate increase in the value of the goods and services we consume, but from the increased ratio of overhead cost to the value of what we consume.

Suppose we decided we could meet our need for bread by baking it in our own ovens, or producing some other good in the household to exchange with a neighbor’s bread, with a fraction of the hours of wage labor required to buy it. Suppose we decided that we could meet a major part of our needs through such informal and household production, and non-monetized exchange through a neighborhood or community barter network. The portion of GDP resulting from that wage labor and the purchase of those store goods would simply disappear. But our quality of life would be improved.

Of course it would cause a lot of hand-wringing among econometrists. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, an English political economist dismissed as “of no importance” a village which met most of its needs internally rather than by participating in the money economy. “What, sir,” thundered Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Are seven hundred Christian souls of no importance?”

In the case of large scale mass production, the modest unit cost savings from economies of large-scale production are easily offset by all the mountains of overhead, open and hidden, required by the push-distribution system. Sloanist manufacturing, as described by William Waddell and Norman Bodek in The Rebirth of American Industry, requires enormous buffer stocks of goods in process, and enormous inventories finished goods produced without regard to orders, in order to keep the machines running at capacity and spread out unit costs over the larget possible output. To keep the wheels turning also requires expensive mass-marketing, brand-name markup of generic commodities that previously sold for 75% less, enormous consumer debt, and planned obsolescence .

Ralph Borsodi described the effort to market the output industry was capable of producing at full capacity as the equivalent of making water run uphill. His book The Distribution Age was a study of this paradox: modest decreases in unit production cost, more than offset by an explosion in the cost of distribution and high-pressure marketing.

Compare the mountains of crystallized labor and resources embodied in those inventories, and in the landfills full of discarded goods that could have been repaired for a tiny fraction of the cost of replacement, to the alleged cost savings from running the “more efficient” specialized machinery 24/7.

We live in an age of cost-plus markup and mandated minimum overhead, buying stuff from public and corporate bureaucracies for several times what they would cost to produce either in local manufacturing organized on a lean basis or in the informal and household economy. The system adds Rube Goldberg steps between effort and consumption, much like adding all sorts of baffles and eddies and reservoirs, and twists and turns, to a plumbing system. On average we force in forty hours worth of effort into one end of the system, and get a trickle of consumption goods out the other end that could probably be produced in sixteen hours if production were organized rationally without the added overhead cost and subsidized waste.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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