Friday, January 16, 2009

Ball-breaker, or just a woman with a job?

Baroness Shriti Vadera (photo: Graeme Robertson)

Baroness Vadera makes an unwise comment - and suddenly she's 'Shrieky Shriti the ball-breaker'. And we all know why, says the Guardian's Zoe Williams

We don't know much about Baroness Vadera, who this week found herself lambasted by critics after daring to suggest there were "green shoots" appearing in the economy: but what we do know is this. She is single, 5ft 2in, a former investment banker and 45 years old. Mostly personal stuff - and do we think that is related to the fact that she's a woman and her critics are men? Well, yes we do: men, after all, do not usually knock women so small that you might kick them by accident when you get out of the bath.

The relatively obscure adviser to Gordon Brown- she does not like the limelight and bystanders have lost no time at all in pointing out how uncertain she is in it - has made a relatively mild, if ill-advised, remark. The Tories, finding it just controversial enough to launch one of their keening, "Oh the insensitivity! Oh my sore heart!" displays, have thrashed on about it. And the (male) journalists have all piled in on top.

Had she been a man, perhaps a precis of her career would have been given, but her disgrace would have been turned towards Brown. But she is not a man! So, problem number one. What is a woman doing in this job in the first place? Aha, well, she is not exactly a woman. According to some fella in the Spectator, she is an "assassin ... ass-kicker ... axe-wielder"; the Mail quotes anonymous colleagues, calling her "Shriti the Shriek"; Nick Robinson on the Today programme absolutely disgraces himself, here: "Civil servants call her Shreiky Shriti. Others choose to leave." I mean, seriously - can you imagine that ever being said about a man, that he was such a big meanie, he had such a shouty voice, that people under him had to leave their jobs?

It's piffle. You could find people in any institution, under any boss, who left because they weren't getting on, and in order for that to pass muster as a useful thing for a journalist to disseminate, it would have to be unusual and documented, a matter of public record. There would have to be complaints on a personnel file, people willing to put their names to it. To be said about a man, this would have to be news: with a woman, apparently, it's news enough that she has a job in the first place and doesn't act in what Robinson considers to be a very womanly fashion. If we can stick with Nick for a second, he also offers that Vadera is a "deal-maker and ball-breaker". Deal-maker often crops up in hatchet jobs against women - it's been used about Nicola Horlick and Marjorie Scardino (first female CEO of a FTSE 100 company); journalist Norman Lebrecht called Avril McCrory, former BBC head of music, the "mother of all deal-makers". It means "enters a negotiation with an aim, seeks execution of the same by means of discussion". You would never say it of a man; it would be taken as read that that's how he operated, since what else is he supposed to do, a jester dance? Arrive in rags with suppurating sores all over his face, begging for scraps? "Ball-breaker" technically means "gives people a hard time", but again, it is never used about a man - even a gay man. Imagine "Peter Mandelson, ball-breaker!", for example. It would be considered homophobic, or, at the least, disrespectful, about a gay man. No such compunction about a woman; if she doesn't like the sound of bollocks what, I ask you, is she doing in the locker room - sorry, workplace - in the first place?

The point is, as a curious public, we are always keen to know why people at the centre of things are hated. During the tortuous American primaries, commentators were always muttering about how people really viscerally despised Hillary Clinton. Excellent. Bring it on. I bet some of this is good stuff, ooh, I wonder if any of it ends in a dodgy stain. And when it comes out, what is it?

She's a "bitch"; she's "ambitious"; she has a "stubborn, grinding energy"; she couldn't show weakness, she was steely ... there was nothing there, in other words. There was just a person with a job.

Madonna? Person with a job, also on a diet. Nicola Horlick? Person with a job, also with some children. Cherie Blair? Person with a job, maybe somewhat grabby. You think of the women who are basically denatured by the commentary, who are made to sound extraordinary, defeminised to the point of being alien, ridiculed for their barking, their brashness, their lack of composure, derided for their bullying, despised for their ambition, and it's all a puff of smoke.

There's nothing behind it; just a woman, with a job. Test these statements against a man. It would not take long. Gordon Brown is ambitious. He is a deal-maker.

He breaks balls. He is a bitch (or, if you prefer, a bastard). He is five foot, ten and three quarter inches. They call him Shouty Gordo. It's pretty simple to root this stuff out, no? Simple, and nevertheless important.

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