E Jane Dickson: The curse of this new maternalism

Underachievement at work isn't about being programmed by our feminine psyche. It's about being a baby
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the summer of 1980, I was leafing through the International Student Directory looking for a vacation job when I came upon an ad that answered all my requirements. A theatre club in Hamburg had openings for "Enterprising Young Women with Personality and Theatrical Experience. (Conversational German an advantage)".

The job might have been made for me! Enclosing a photo of myself in a first-year production of Dr Faustus, I sent off my application and was delighted to receive a prompt offer of employment. I could telephone my acceptance and start that very weekend. The motherly sounding woman I spoke to was perfectly up front about my duties. I would be required to wriggle in a giant champagne glass, while a specially trained dolphin nibbled my bra off. The club would supply the bikini and one hot meal per day. Stretching my conversational German to the limit, I made sure I hadn't misheard (Bustenhalter? Delphin?), stammered my excuses, and resigned myself to two months' waitressing in Pitlochry.

Maybe this is why I am underwhelmed with sympathy for the Glasgow lap dancers, who according to a £7,000 report commissioned by the City Council, find their job "humiliating". What exactly, one wonders, did they think they were signing up for? The report, compiled by Julie Bindel of London Metropolitan University's Child and Woman Abuse Unit, went on to describe the distress of women who are "undermined" by the requirement to "dress like a slut".

While I can appreciate the discomfort of the quoted mother-of-three who is bundled into a school uniform during working hours, it seems to me that it's a mighty sheltered kind of lap dancer who turns up for her first day of work in a business suit. Bindel's report also revealed that in three of the clubs, a strict "no touching" rule was blatantly flouted. Well, rules are rules, but I'd have thought that if you spend all day waving your bottom in the face of drunk men, the odd attempted grope might be considered an occupational hazard.

To be fair, not all the Glasgow lap dancers are complaining. Many have responded with some vigour to Bindel's report, claiming a high degree of job satisfaction and insisting that they are demeaned not by their jobs, but by Bindel's assumption that they are at best, the dupes of a murky, male-ordered system and at worst, victims of abuse. Sheetal Davis, a dancer at the Diamond Dolls club in Glasgow's West End, spoke for many of her colleagues when she said: "She [Bindel] thinks that to do this kind of job we are losing our self-respect, and that's not true. Nobody forces us to be here. We do it because we want to do it and like to do it."

The report was commissioned to support Glasgow City Council's attempt to reclassify lap dancing clubs as part of the sex industry. (They are currently on a legal par with karaoke clubs). Such a reclassification seems to me entirely reasonable. I know and like Julie Bindel. Her campaigning for the legal rights of women in a criminal justice system largely designed by and for men is an inspiration. And I don't like the idea of lap dancing clubs any more than she does: while I would stop short of insisting that no woman ever goes into the sex industry by choice, I'm pretty sure that no little girl, asked what she wants to do when she grows up, dreams of twanging her thong at losers for a living .

So yes, it's a crummy business, but it's a long way from being the original dirty job that someone's got to do. There are jobs , possibly less well paid (although I am utterly convinced by Bindel's findings that the much-reported £300 a night lap dancers are thin on the ground) where you don't have to fake orgasm with inanimate objects, but I think we must do Ms Davis and her colleagues the courtesy of believing them when they say they earn their money and they take their choice. To insist otherwise reminds me of Lilian Baylis, founder of the English National Opera and formidable cam- paigner for social reform, who used to drag prostitutes in off the streets, treat them to a free show and box their ears if they chattered throughout the performance. "Poor dears," she would explain. "They don't know how to enjoy themselves."

For it is precisely this kind of Edwardian high-handedness that continues to shape our view of women in the work place. In the bad old days before feminism it was called paternalism. Now, however, it's women who are appointing themselves guardians of their frailer sisters' mores. Next March sees the publication of Women Loving Women, the much-hyped new book by Shere Hite. It was Hite, who in her 1976 classic The Hite Report on Female Sexuality famously helped women to find their clitoris (with both hands, as it were, in the dark...) and now she has turned her encouraging smile to women at work. Hite, the fairy godmother of feminism who posed for Playboy, had high hopes for the sisterhood back in the Seventies, but just look where Equal Opportunities have got us - women bitching at each other across the board table, making nasty comments behind each other's back, and yes, you've guessed it, undermining each others' attempts to break through the glass ceiling.

It's the kind of gossipy, "who's being nasty to who" schtick that is the daily obsession of eight-year-old girls, so it's unsurprising, I suppose, that Hite traces this gender tendency back to childhood. "Most people," she explained, back in 2000, "have experienced the opposite sex as mother or father - very few grow up thinking they may have long-term friendships with the opposite sex, but for the first time men and women are trying to be equal while working in executive positions, in long-term relationships which aren't sexual." Susie Orbach, another proto-feminist psychotherapist, rallied to Hite's cause: "Women feel betrayed when other women are competitive because competition is not something women are brought up to do."

It amazes and depresses me that, two generations into feminism (and don't give me that "ooh, I'm not a feminist" argument rehearsed by today's teenagers. If you expect equal opportunities, you're a feminist. End of story.) we are still looking for ways to explain, or worse, excuse, female underachievement. Whoever said that long-term friendships were the key to executive success? So what if our male boss, or indeed our male subordinate, doesn't hug us at the water cooler? It doesn't prevent him, and it certainly shouldn't prevent us, from doing our job effectively. And if we're elementally wounded by the idea of another woman leapfrogging us on the corporate ladder, isn't it just time we got over it? This isn't about being programmed by our feminine psyche. It's about being a baby. And odd as it may seem, babies don't get to play with the big boys.

The tragedy is that while the new maternalism rages, there are real battles still waiting to be won. For every high-profile female banker who wins £1m in court because someone joked about her breasts at the Christmas party, there are a hundred women systematically paid less than their male counterparts. Promoting a work culture where everyone is tiptoeing around wondering "are the women all right?" (in the hushed tones normally reserved for "that time of the month") does neither sex any favours. Sisters are doing it for themselves. So could the self-appointed aunties please back off.