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May's Spineless Mediocrity: A Sign Of Progress For Women

31/01/2017 12:39

Of late, the Western world has seen some positive developments in the move toward gender equality particularly in the context of appointments to positions of significant power and political influence. It is not just that increasingly more women are occupying such positions. It is that women reflecting a greater variety of life circumstances are now being permitted to reach summits previously only accessible via that one elevator leading beyond the glass ceiling which could only be activated by holders of the privileged white male swipe-card.

In Australia, from which I have just returned, the national television and radio broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), recently appointed Chinese-Australian, Michelle Guthrie, as its first woman Managing Director in its 84-year history. She has vowed to increase the diversity of the still very white and male-looking ABC. Prior to this, Australia had a woman Prime Minister in Julia Gillard, who is not only a woman, but an unmarried and childless one who courageously said in Parliament: "The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation. Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

In January this year, the state of New South Wales saw the appointment of its second woman Premier, the first for the conservative, inaptly named, Liberal Party. Gladys Berejiklian is not only a woman, not only a woman of minority ethnicity, but a woman of minority ethnicity who is unmarried, childless and not even in a romantic relationship. When questions were put to her about this at her first press conference as Premier, Ms. Berejiklian asked that she be judged on her results. Quite right.

And of course, Britain is in the midst of its biggest identity crisis in a significant time, under the leadership of only its second woman Prime Minister.

It has been said that the state of true gender equality is one where there are as many incompetent women in positions of power as there have been incompetent men in the same positions. If that be right, Prime Minister May's leadership must foreshadow the advent of significantly greater gender equality, for the one thing at which she excels is being mediocre in the sense of lacking any real courage or integrity.

Never was this clearer than last week, when she was the first of all world leaders to pay a visit to Donald Trump which concluded with her holding hands with Trump and allowing him to refer to her patronisingly as "Theresa" at their joint press conference, while she continued to refer to him by various permutations of his title "Mr. President." This was the very same week when Trump's shockingly discriminatory executive order banning people, including refugees, from certain Muslim countries (though, notably, not Saudi Arabia), even those holding dual nationality, from entering the US, took effect.

Not once during her visit did Prime Minister May publicly denounce or raise any concern in relation to Donald's sexist comments about women, including his sexualisation of a 10-year old girl who he boasted he would be dating in 10 years. Before her visit, Prime Minister May told the press that her being a female PM and the first to visit Trump would be the "biggest statement" she could make about the role of women in the world. Really? To the rest of us, it just looked like the playing out of the old stereotype of a woman rushing to capitulate to the will of a powerful man.

Prime Minister May refused on three occasions to comment on Donald's executive order, and only after coming under intense criticism from her own party did she issue the weakest possible statement indicating that she did not agree with the order and that she would make representations on behalf of any British citizens affected by the ban. This was all after stating that the US' immigration policy is a matter for the US. In contrast, Prime Minister May used her visit with Turkish President Erdogan the same week to emphasise the importance of Turkey upholding international human rights norms before celebrating the sale to Turkey of British-manufactured arms, which it will no doubt deploy, at least in some measure, to violate the human rights of its Kurdish minority. By parity of Prime Minister May's reasoning, surely the question of whether Turkey upholds human rights norms must also be "a matter for Turkey"?

Apparently Prime Minister May draws a distinction between "immigration policy" and "human rights" as though the former is incapable of affecting the latter. Or perhaps she simply feels that it is appropriate to lecture some governments about human rights, while ignoring the human rights violations of others. It is that colonial-style mentality - patronise the non-native-English-speakers who are in need of "civilising" while cosying up to the powerful. Prime Minister May's conduct has been intellectually dishonest, hypocritical and worst of all, lily-livered.

As true gender equality is still far from achieved, it is undeniable that many women expect a certain courage from their women leaders which we, perhaps unfairly, do not always expect or anticipate will be forthcoming from male leaders, particularly in relation to matters affecting the status of women. What is troubling about Prime Minister May's recent behaviour is that she has not only shown a complete absence of such courage, but has outdone her male contemporaries in her humiliating brown-nosing to the current US administration. To withhold criticism of such behaviour because she is a woman would be to patronise her. As NSW Premier Berejiklian suggested, people, including women, should be judged by the results of their decisions.

A great many women who have acceded to positions of significant power in recent times have displayed enormous courage in the face of extreme pressure and criticism. They have often summoned this courage from the reserves they have had to acquire in order to reach such heights in the first place when their male colleagues had a much easier time of the journey to the top. While equality of mediocrity might be reasonable during the transition to complete gender equality, it cannot be the ultimate goal. The point must be that in a civilised world both gender inequality and mediocrity are phased out. There will be no space for mediocre men because the competent and courageous women who were prevented from holding positions of power will now come to fill them, leaving room for their male colleagues who are equally competent and courageous to fill the remaining positions. At such a concerning time in history there is no place for lily-livered leaders of either sex.

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