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  • Rose of Tralee wins fewer hearts in Ireland’s living rooms

    August 22, 2012 @ 7:48 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Was this year’s Rose of Tralee the least watched in the history of its televising? According to RTÉ, it was “a big hit with viewers”, but the TAM Ireland ratings reveal that 16 years after Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan parodied the contest in Father Ted, the show’s popularity is on the wane. The final night of the contest, in which the winner is “crowned”, attracted the lowest television audience for at least eight years.

    An average of 688,500 viewers tuned into the final on Tuesday, with the show garnering the eyeballs of 45 per cent of the total number of people watching television at the time. This is still a grand old audience for a midweek summer night. But to put it in context, it’s only around 100,000 more than the typical viewership of an episode of weight loss lifestyle show Operation Transformation, which, unlike the Kerry hat-and-sash fest, is capable of being genuinely motivational without a surfeit of cringe.

    More pertinently, this year’s Rose of Tralee television audience compares unfavourably with the show’s undoubted ratings success, even in recent years. Average ratings reached 916,000 in 2010 (a 54 per cent share) and 829,000 in 2011 (a 53 per cent share). Looking at the figures reported in RTÉ’s annual reports from 2005 onwards, only 2008 was anywhere near as low, with 696,000 viewers and a 47 per cent share – this was the only other time during the period that the audience share dipped below 50 per cent. The show still managed to scrape into Ireland’s top 10 most watched programmes that year, however, coming joint eighth. It may not make the cut this time around.

    Perhaps 2012, like 2008, is just a blip – the result of warm weather, or the fact Celtic was playing in a Champions League qualifier over on TV3. Maybe 2013 will see ratings inexorably improve, as new executive producers are shipped in to “reinvent” the not-a-beauty-pageant personality pageant. Roses could be ordered to relay anecdotes from a Graham Norton-style red chair, while escorts could be required to pass a Ryan Gosling lookalike test before they’re allowed claim the honour of looking sheepish for Ireland. Maybe a televised game of Prince Harry-style strip billiards would help.

    But with any luck, the show will just slowly become more and more irrelevant, to the point that even “ironic” watching will eventually taper off. In the meantime, I’m going to take pleasure in the fact that more people (1.1 million, or 747,000 across the full coverage) watched Katie Taylor punch her way to an Olympic gold medal on a Thursday afternoon. This is 2012, and there are plenty of ways for lovely girls to compete with each other. Loveliness really shouldn’t be one of them.

  • Is Sheryl Sandberg as good for feminism as she is for Facebook?

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:25 am | by Laura Slattery

    I can’t say I often spend my days off watching stock market tickers on TV, but that’s essentially what I found myself doing yesterday afternoon as CNBC provided some characteristically frenzied coverage of the Facebook IPO, from the Menlo Park gathering of newly minted employees to that awkward moment when its shares had to be propped up by its bankers.

    But fun as it was to watch “hoodie billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg ring the Nasdaq’s opening bell; intriguing as it was to hear the analysis of various CNBC pundits on the “first day crazies” and “amateur hour” that delayed trading; my interest in all-things-Facebook is rapidly boiling down to one question: how important is Sheryl Kara Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, to feminism?

    Sandberg is more accurately described as a female business role model than a feminist per se. The first qualification is not in doubt. She is the fifth most powerful woman in the world, according to the business magazine Forbes. CNN describes her as Zuckerberg’s “right-hand woman” and “the number two”, and though she does not currently have a seat on the board of Facebook, she may well do soon enough – in any case, she moonlights as an independent director of the Walt Disney Company.

    While she may not be granted the “genius” tag reserved for company founders, she’s commonly referred to as “the grown-up” at the company; the one who looks after, what’s that, oh yes, the figuring out how to make money bit. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, believes that if Zuckerberg hadn’t hired Sandberg from Google in 2008, the company’s flotation would never have happened. Kirkpatrick also thinks Sandberg, an ex-Treasury employee, could be US president one day. “She’s got it. She’s got the whole package,” he told CNN.

    Whether President Sandberg ever does take up residency in the Oval Office, I think it’s fair to assume that everything she says publicly is uttered with political aspirations in mind. And in this context, it is a relief that Sandberg, like would-be president Hillary Clinton, tends to be vocal on gender issues.

    What she actually says doesn’t exactly read like a feminist manifesto 100 per cent of the time. She’s dismissive of the need for affirmative action, for example – not that that’s a crime – and has attributed women’s lack of progress to limits that they place on themselves, rather than the barriers posed by corporate sexism. She’s risen so high she can’t see any evidence of a glass ceiling beneath her. Indeed, both The Atlantic and have teased through the minuses of Sandberg’s gender philosophy – the key article they both draw on is this brilliant long-read New Yorker profile from July last year.

    But Sandberg isn’t the first and won’t be the last to argue that power is something that’s meant to be taken, not something you sit around waiting for someone to give to you. And you don’t have to be rich enough to employ a nanny, as Sandberg and her husband do, to be able to take basic advice such as “make sure your partner [at home] is a real partner”.

    Speaking of home, Sandberg recently claimed she leaves work at 5.30 pm every day to go to hers and have dinner with her children, an admission that won a generally positive response. She shouldn’t, of course, feel in any way obliged to counter the snipes of the anti working mother brigade by highlighting traditionally feminine domestic duties. But on balance it’s terribly healthy that a senior female Silicon Valley executive doesn’t feel the need to keep family life hidden away as a great unmentionable. Sandberg is a mother as well as an elite businesswoman – her subtext was clearly that she goes home at a reasonable hour because she’s super-efficient at her job.

    Unsurprisingly, she is now much in demand as a speaker on the US college commencement address circuit. Here’s a quote from a speech she gave to graduating students of the college Barnard last year: “A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”

    Feminism is a broad church, with plenty of room for semantic debate. But to my ears that ranks as one of the most feminist statements you’re likely to get out of a millionaire (soon-to-be-billionaire) businesswoman. Though Sandberg’s actions, beliefs and life experiences are inevitably going to be as much if not more influenced by her immense wealth than the fact that she possesses female anatomy, I’m still glad Zuckerberg chose a woman to be his number two.

    It’s not hard to like Sheryl a hell of a lot more than Facebook itself.

  • Corporate dress codes are back in fashion – but so is rebelling against them

    July 12, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Are we back in the 1950s? Stories about female employees expected to conform to arduous standards of self-presentation are rattling around the news schedules like misplaced hairpins, betraying the perfect image – of the companies, that is, not the women themselves. Earlier this month, we heard the story of Melanie Stark, who worked in the HMV outlet in Harrods until it was made clear to her by the department store that her unmade face did not satisfy the store’s requirement for full make-up.

    This week, we have the case of Sandra Rawline, suing for discrimination after she was fired from a Texan firm allegedly for refusing to dye her grey hair to comply with its “upscale image”. The firm, Capital Title, flatly denies the claim. But if the allegation is true, then Capital Title’s concept of corporate presentation is not only discriminatory but also behind the curve. This is a month, after all, when Christine Lagarde has ascended to the position of head of the International Monetary Fund sporting a silvery crop that no right-seeing person could describe as anything other than a visual enhancement of her status.

    IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

    Corporate dress codes extend to men, too, of course, but – as with the much-mocked and now scrapped 44-page dress code of Swiss bank UBS – their instructions to women often seem to involve specifications that are either creepier (UBS told its female employees what colour underwear was acceptable), more time-consuming (The Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes calculated Harrods’ make-up instructions to female staff is a 45-minute job) or simply more expensive to follow (though admittedly UBS did tell male employees to get a professional in to iron their shirts).

    Reading feminist objections to Harrods, UBS et al is an exercise in déjà vu. It’s been over two decades since third wave feminists declared women could wear high heels, mascara and underwear-as-outerwear and still confidently call themselves good feminists – because it was campaigning for equal pay, fracturing the glass ceiling and securing the option to sidestep pension-free domestic slavery that counted, not how much you chose to embrace or rebel against the beauty industry.

    Assailed by years of what Ariel Levy dubbed raunch culture, postfeminists like Natasha Walter later revised their earlier positions and said, yes, there was something to fight against here too – women weren’t controlling their image, their image was controlling them. For if employers are going to treat female staff like they’re 1950s housewives who just happen to be on secondment to the workplace, then the old arguments of rebellion are going to have to be dragged out for a revival, too. Women like Stark, Rawline and the “slutwalk” protesters all, in different ways, want the same thing: the right to choose how they appear now, without having to give testimony later.

  • Barbie’s pink dream house fades to grey

    March 7, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | by Laura Slattery

    The six-storey Barbie flagship store in Shanghai has shut down. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

    It was blessed with a restaurant, a spa and more Schiaparelli pink than a candyfloss museum, but now Mattel’s flagship Barbie concept store in China has shut down after less than two years. Based in central Shanghai, the retail haven for all-things-Barbie was part of toymaker Mattel’s grand push into Asia – and as such was at all too safe a distance from the pester power of the multi-careered doll’s Western fanbase.

    Mattel told the Bloomberg news wire this morning that it was planning a new “brand strategy” in China for Barbra Millicent Roberts, who at 52 years of age* is still not showing much sign of middle-age spread (although her waist is wider now than it was as late as the 1990s). The Shanghai sales were a bit lean, however, obliging Mattel to lower its targets for the 37,700 square foot store three times since its opening in March 2009.

    Despite the fact that her plastic limbs and blonde locks are, unsurprisingly, put together in China (and Indonesia), brand awareness of Barbie in the world’s fastest-growing economy hasn’t been sufficient to keep the dream house open for business. Luckily for Mattel, some $3 billion worth of Barbie-branded products are sold worldwide every year.

    Parents unnerved by all the princess pink that mushrooms out of the girls’ aisles in stringently gender-segregated toystores shouldn’t worry too much, however. Academic research published by the marketing expert Dr Agnes Nairn in 2005 suggests that as girls grow older, they reject Barbie – by, er, torturing her. Maiming, shaving, decapitating, microwaving… Barbie barbarism is just a rite of passage for the maturing Barbie-owner. Indeed, it’s probably only a matter of time before Mattel cashes in with its own Doll Destroyer Kit.

    * Technically, Barbie is 51. But it’s her birthday on Wednesday.

  • Manifesto promises that allow fathers share maternity leave are good for all women

    February 18, 2011 @ 3:33 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Speaking as a non-parent, if someone was to ask me what my favourite manifesto promise is – one that I think that I would personally benefit from were it to be introduced this side of 2020 – I’d instinctively plump for Fine Gael and Labour’s pledge to allow paid maternity leave to be shared between mothers and fathers. I may never have kids, yet as a woman I still have a vested interest in the idea that fathers would be able to get paid (or partially paid) time off during the first year of their baby’s life, while their partners take their breasts back to the office.

    Specifically, Fine Gael says: “We will review maternity leave to permit parents to share leave entitlements, recognising the changing needs of modern families.” The party’s potential coalition partner sounds slightly more cautious: “Labour favours moving to a paternity leave model, where parents can share paid leave when a new baby is born, as resources allow. [my italics]”

    It’s a remarkably simple concept that already exists in the divinely woman-friendly Sweden and will be introduced in the UK from April. Under the new UK system, if a mother returns to work without taking a full year’s maternity leave, the father will be able to take leave for the remaining time, up to a maximum of six months. It’s a measure that was pushed through in the dying days of the Labour government by its deputy leader Harriet Harman, who is that lesser spotted creature in politics these days: a feminist.

    To the horror of the business lobby, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – who himself took time off after the birth of his first child so his wife Miriam could return to work – says he wants to bring in further flexibility from 2015. He describes the current rules as “Edwardian” , saying the “paltry” UK rules granting two weeks’ paternity leave on statutory pay “patronise women and marginalise men”.

    Imagine how it feels then to be living in sub-Edwardian Ireland, where paternity leave, either paid or unpaid, isn’t recognised in employment law – at all. Bibs and beakers and buggies are for women only as far as our legislators are concerned. Too bad if you belong to a family where the female partner is the higher earner or the sole earner, or where it’s the father who wants to submerge himself in Monday-to-Friday baby bonding.

    The new government would ideally start by introducing a period of paid paternity leave, to be taken after the baby’s birth. The next step is the introduction of flexible maternity leave transfers, which in my view is no longer a question of encouraging the greater involvement of Irish fathers in their children’s lives – it’s actually about facilitating a desire that’s already there. To paraphrase the Fine Gael manifesto, it would mean catching up with the needs of parents. It’s not compulsory; it’s just about what suits, what fits.

    Why would maternity leave transfers benefit all women, not just mothers? Employers like the rules on leave to be as gender-rigid as possible, so they can “plan ahead”, which is a phrase that’s cropped up in the UK debates on the issue. This “planning” essentially means cost-based discrimination against women in the workplace – and by cost-based discrimination, I mean the practice whereby companies limit the number of women they appoint and promote primarily to minimise the risk that they might all decide to breed their own Von Trapp singing troupes.

    Even if you work for an employer that doesn’t stipulate “Y-chromosome necessary” on the application form, the current rules perpetuate a state-sanctioned culture of motherhood that means legions of your female colleagues – whether they want to or not – will not only disappear from view during their maternity leave, but follow a well-trodden path that starts with job-sharing and ends with the disillusionment of under-promotion. The disillusioned ones may not necessarily be the mothers – after all, they’ll have their children to pour their creative and administrative energies into – but the full-time women stuck in a work atmosphere of intensifying machismo.

    The sooner Ireland follows the UK and allows the transfer of leave entitlements, the better. Affordable childcare options are probably going to be another decade’s work.

  • Pictures of trainees shame newspapers more than PwC

    November 11, 2010 @ 10:10 am | by Laura Slattery

    The text goes something like this: “We’re OUTRAGED by this SEXIST behaviour.” The subtext? “Oh yeah and here, why not take a gander at the lovely ladies. Our favourite in the newsroom is the blonde. We’re so sorry they’re just company headshots, but people might notice if we reprint images from Ryanair’s annual charity bikini calendar every day.”

    “Rated like prize cattle,” announces today’s Irish Daily Mail headline above the staff photographs of the female PricewaterhouseCoopers trainees whose attractiveness was rated – complete with a slang reference to female anatomy – by a group of male employees at PwC’s Dublin office. The bovine imagery is the Daily Mail‘s own.

    Presumably, the women college graduates were not so long ago delighted to have secured a place at one of the Big Four accountancy firms and excited to be gaining three years’ worth of professional experience. Of course, even without this shivering display of workplace chauvinism, as women they would have already been up against the statistics. The accountancy profession is no bastion of equality: while women now represent 50 per cent of the student intake, according to a study by Prof Patricia Barker, just 16 per cent of people who make it to partner level in the Big Four boardrooms of the English-speaking world are women.

    However, the male PwC employee who originally circulated the offensive email is not, it is understood, a senior partner in the company or anything like it.  What makes him and the other men involved so pathetic was their belief that compiling a “shortlist for the top 10” in an email and confidently forwarding it around was anything other than spectacularly dumb. There will be an inquiry into what the US gossip site Gawker labelled the “frat boy behaviour”, and the PwC partner in charge of HR, Carmel O’Connor, says the company is “taking the matter extremely seriously”.

    The same attitude has not been replicated by the media (led yesterday by the Evening Herald) that reprinted the women’s photographs, thereby inviting readers to play the very same “hot or not” game that they claim brings PwC into disrepute.

    Last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne saw Browne question Irish Independent columnist David McWilliams about whether he was “embarrassed to be associated with a newspaper that does this”. McWilliams at first noted that the pictures were “all over the Internet already” before conceding that if he was editor, he wouldn’t have printed them, as he agreed with Browne’s view that publishing the photographs was “compounding” the insult the young women had received. That they had not asked for the spotlight is not a difficult concept to grasp.  

    Thanks to PwC’s colossal size, the story has now gone international. Gawker, which has more readers than all Irish newspapers and online media put together, is the kind of website that publishes stories that make even bitter political opponents of the US Tea Party’s Christine O’Donnell feel sorry for her. Repeated publication of the email would be negative for the company, Gawker observed: “Once it hits the British tabloids, it’ll certainly be a PR nightmare for PwC.”

    I don’t imagine the women involved are having much fun at the moment either. Again, just think what it must have felt like, starting out in a new job, buoyed by their fresh academic achievement, proud to pose for their company ID mugshots and eager to prove how capable they are. It must have been beyond their imagination to think that their faces would be collated en masse to be judged, compared and criticised not only by their male colleagues, but millions.

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