Catherine Mayer: Harassment is not a 'women's issue'
Interview: Women's Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer on 'Equalia' and being labelled as Tony Blair's 'other woman'
Catherine Mayer at the Festival of Politics - credit Scottish Parliament
Two weeks after the death of scientist David Kelly, during the row over the UK Government’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair was under intense pressure from the international press.
His monthly Downing Street press conference was full and the mood was sombre. Blair looked flustered as an international journalist, the president of the Foreign Press Association, was passed the microphone.
“Do you want me now?” she asked. And in an unexpected moment of flirtation, the Prime Minister replied: “Catherine, I want you anytime. Come on.”
The tabloids had a field day. “Frisky Blair love-bombs press with the launch of his secret stud missile,” wrote one, while another warned Cherie Blair to “watch out”.
But while the episode may not feature in many discussions of Blair’s legacy, it has remained with Catherine Mayer.
“It was an extraordinary thing,” she remembers. “The tabloids actually offered me that thing where you go and put on a sparkly dress and be photographed as ‘Blair’s other woman’ and stuff. It was just insane.
“It was a reflex on his part, but it was an interesting reflex, to deflect attention from David Kelly.”
And while the American-born author describes the incident more like humiliation than trauma, she recognises it as part of a career punctuated with incidents where her gender has been used against her.
Mayer entered journalism at The Economist after taking a cash-in-hand job logging orders for the publication’s desk diary. Her writing skills were noticed and she moved to marketing before getting a journalism gig.
“I accidentally penetrated The Economist when I shouldn’t have had any chance whatsoever of being there. I was a proper American back then, not Oxbridge, and had no idea what I was letting myself in for.”
Episodes of sexual harassment followed, as revealed in Mayer’s book, Attack of the 50 Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World.
And her career in journalism was bookended by such experiences, as this summer saw her file a lawsuit against Time magazine, where she had been Europe editor then senior editor, on the grounds of gender and age discrimination.
Mayer may have formally entered politics as the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, but her experience in the corridors of power is clearly broad and chequered.
“I remember in 2013, sitting on David Cameron’s plane just after he’d announced the [Scottish independence] referendum, and he was going over to see Obama, and this plane full of lobby journalists was sitting there bitching about him having too many old Etonians around him.
“I looked around me and there were 23 journalists on that flight and only three of us were women. There were more old Etonians in the back of the plane than there were in the front,” she remembers.
“So part of why journalism gets things wrong and part of why politics is in crisis is the same thing. It’s this bubble, drawing on a narrow pool and this misogyny and sexism that doesn’t even get seen or understood. And racism and lack of diversity and all of those things.
“It’s so much of a club that people don’t see it.”
Mayer tells Holyrood that the Scottish Parliament is the first place the party she founded “by accident” contested an election.
In 2015 she had attended a debate on women in politics at the Southbank Centre and suggested a women’s equality party was needed, which attracted unexpected enthusiasm. And while she did not have the idea because of her experience at Time magazine, she recognises the two are linked as she knew she would leave the publication.
“As a Time journalist, I knew I had to hide a lot of my political views, and as a senior woman at Time, I had struggled to get through the changes in terms of the coverage I thought we needed and the changes within the organisation.
“That was way before I myself became victim to sexism and ageism, it was understanding just how little impact I could actually make – understanding that it needed to be systemic change.
“So me standing up in that meeting, which was a spontaneous thing to do, it wasn’t planned, is just the product of years of understanding about where the barriers are.”
Those barriers form the central theme of Attack of the 50 Foot Women, in which she describes ‘Equalia’, a gender-balanced society which she compares with the progress – or lack of it – achieved by the nations of the world.
As we sit down in the parliament’s biggest committee room, Holyrood begins by asking Mayer how to pronounce the word.
Mayer laughs, recounting how the BBC presenter on Women’s Hour had corrected her on it.
“Of course I was on Women’s Hour, because the book has the word ‘woman’ in the title. Straight to Women’s Hour. I’m told the BBC pronunciation is ee-kway-lia. It sounds posher, doesn’t it?”
If the word Equalia sounds familiar, it’s because it appeared in an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson creates an imaginary utopia in a parody of the film Heavenly Creatures.
“I absolutely did not plagiarise The Simpsons, I can tell you that as an exclusive,” Mayer smiles.
But if Lisa Simpson described Equalia as a place “where everyone’s equal but we’re in charge”, how does Mayer’s vision compare?
“The reason it was necessary to invent it is because it doesn’t exist. There isn’t a single country in the world that is gender equal,” Mayer says.
In fact, the idea came from the experience of door-knocking in Scotland in 2016, she explains.
“They would say, ‘but what’s the endgame?’ or ‘what does it look like?’, and you can’t point to anywhere. Then they start getting worried – men more than women – and start talking about what sounds like enforced gender neutrality, which isn’t at all what our endgame is.”
Attack of the 50 Foot Women, then, reads more like a manifesto than a utopian vision, one which attempts to show a link between gender balance and global economics and the changing nature of jobs.
“I’m allergic to certain visions of what is sometimes called female empowerment,” says Mayer.
“The word ‘empowerment’ tends to bring me out in hives. I mean, I’ve been guilty of using it myself, but it too often is a kind of shorthand for a vision of the world in which the big corner offices with the deep pile carpet are filled with women in big shoulder pads, rather than a world in which everybody is able to reach their full potential.
“I do not want to just replicate the male-dominated social order that we have here, because that’s not serving anybody.”
And in politics such approaches are writ large. Theresa May, Mayer suggests, has been “ill-served by the men around her” in a situation where she has been set up to fail.
“When you see how bad women fare in the Westminster system, it’s very easy to sit in London and see [Scotland] as being on the way to Equalia because of the way women have risen in politics, but I think what happened to Kezia Dugdale should actually strike some warning notes.”
Mayer describes the “glass cliff syndrome”, a phenomenon where women or other institutional minorities in business are more likely to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn and when the likelihood of failure is higher.
“And they fail. Then people turn round and say, ‘God, they’re no good’, and a white man rushes in as the saviour. The counterpart is called the ‘saviour complex’.”
The political parties default to “old patriarchal systems”, according to Mayer, even the SNP, although it “has made itself look a lot more new-style in recent years”.
“None of them really have the focus and necessary radical approach to reimagine economics from a point of view that sees all the unseen contributions women make, that values social infrastructure in the same way it values physical infrastructure.
“Scotland has done exactly the same thing as other countries, trying to battle adverse economic conditions, with ‘oh, let’s invest in great big physical infrastructure projects’.”
The return on investment in social infrastructure including social care is higher than construction, Mayer suggests.
“It creates more jobs, and it also creates more opportunity.”
Iceland, which features heavily in Attack of the 50 Foot Women, took a “feminist economic viewpoint” after the financial crash and recovered quicker, she says.
Mayer points to recent disputes at councils over equal pay for cleaners and other public sector jobs to show how the gender pay gap remains a priority. Even traditionally female jobs like nursing pay men more, she says.
But how easy is it to change when culture is so gendered, even from clothing and behaviours towards young babies? Mayer agrees that it has “got worse” but argues policies can make a difference.
“People talk about Scandinavia, the Nordic countries as if it’s a function of the cultures. Absolute nonsense.”
Policies from the 2016 Women’s Equality Party manifesto appeared in other parties’ offerings in 2017, according to Mayer.
But one of those, universal free childcare, had already been a central part of the SNP’s case for independence in 2014, Holyrood points out.
When the WEP was launched in Scotland, the party leader, Sophie Walker, insisted the party would be “razor-like” in pursuit of its seven core aims of equal pay, parenting, representation, education, media coverage, healthcare and to end violence against women.
The suggestion was the party would not comment on other issues, like Scottish independence.
Mayer insists the party will, but everything will be couched round those central aims, leaving other parties to “shift from one thing to another”.
“They were all focused on gender equality for a minute and then Brexit came along and it’s much more important,” she says.
“They don’t actually see that Brexit is completely gendered. Women are going to be hit harder by Brexit; the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers is likely to erode rights. Henry VIII, that well-known defender of women.
“It’s not true we won’t speak about these things, and absolutely, there is an argument for a feminist foreign policy.”
On independence, she adds: “I think there are clearly arguments for how Scottish independence can be part of our remit in Scotland, and clearly shouldn’t be in the same way elsewhere, because there are arguments to be made as to whether it is good or bad for gender equality. But everything has to pass that test: is it good or bad for gender equality?”
Mayer says she can see how independence might seem like a way to get to Equalia faster, especially when Westminster is experiencing “the rise of the Jacob Rees-Mogg tendency”. But the uncertain future of the oil industry, which provided an economic bedrock for the case for independence, will also be a factor in the case for equality, she predicts.
Now even Saudi Arabia, which along with Afghanistan has the lowest female participation in its economy in the world, has published a document on the importance of women in the economy.
“They’re beginning to recognise that it doesn’t work for them. The idea they’re going to be able to transform positions is something else, without the whole regime crumbling. What that unleashes, who knows?”
Meanwhile in Scotland, the fight for equality continues, and Mayer praises the work of feminist organisation Engender in leading the fight when potential allies are divided into their constitutional tribes.
The row over ownership of the period poverty campaign, with SNP members upset at Labour’s Monica Lennon for campaigning for a member’s bill on what they claim is their idea, is one example.
“Part of what we’re doing is to say, here is a party that has this absolute core we all passionately believe in, and we have policies to create these things,” says Mayer.
“We believe it is possible for someone who is pro-independence and somebody who is anti-independence not only to sit in a room together but also to work in the same party for these aims and then go and vote differently.”
Mayer decries “old-style” politics which has disengaged voters as politicians are noticeably whipped to vote for things they don’t believe in, including recent votes at Westminster where the Conservatives have been whipped to abstain.
This old style of politics is also unquestionably male, as the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations has shown.
Mayer recognises a similar response to when her lawsuit against her former employer went public, when women in similar positions were emboldened to speak out about their own experiences.
When she drew attention to behaviour at Time, she says, it was she who “became the problem” rather than the instigator.
“We can’t fix these things unless we see them,” she says, explaining what underlines all her work.
“It could be a watershed moment, but the danger is it becomes a discussion between women.
“So much of this has been focused back on women, not just the obvious victim-blaming of what you could have done differently to stop this happening to you, but the idea that somehow that harassment is a women’s issue. It isn’t.
“It’s an expression of a very damaging form of masculinity that isn’t doing anybody any favours.
“Until a party called the Women’s Equality Party is understood to be a party that is equally talking to men, until a book with the word ‘women’ in the title is not shuffled onto Women’s Hour, until things like childcare are not discussed in the ‘lifestyle’ pages…
“These are people issues. They are for everybody. Men have to take part. On the issue of violence and harassment, where are the men leading the movement against the violence and harassment that is our daily experience?”
As Mayer herself said to Blair in 2005: “Well, that is quite something.”
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