Monday, 31 March 2008

Meeting and greeting

Another state visit, another outbreak of official kissing. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, not known for public displays of affection, surprised us all with his determination to kiss both flawless cheeks of the President of France's new wife and former supermodel Carla Bruni last week. Whether or not Prime Minister Brown was entirely comfortable in doing so, it appears that kissing is becoming part of the day's work.

It all seemed to start back in 2004. President Bush congratulated Condoleeza Rice on her appointment as Secretary of State with a kiss on both cheeks. Two days later, he congratulated new education secretary Margaret Spelling with a kiss, but this time full on the lips. Consternation in the media and much debate about whether this famously domestic president was simply brushing up his international credentials - and just how far this enthusiasm was going.

The following year, at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Condoleeza Rice experienced the continental panache of French President Jacques Chirac when he opted to kiss her gloved hand rather than cheek. A few weeks later, Germany's Angela Merkel received the same treatment on her first visit to France as Chancellor. Prince Charles took the hand to the lips route with Mrs Sarkozy this week too.

However, it has been reported that Merkel is less enthusiastic about Mr Sarkozy's exuberant double cheek kisses. Political people watchers have certainly noted a variety of more cautious approaches to greeting Germany's first woman head of state. Tony Blair, a one cheek kiss. Vladimir Putin, hand shake and half embrace. Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, half embrace. Mr Harper, handshake and a pat on the shoulder. Japan's Shinzo Abe, handshake. And Mr Bush? A handshake.

The more measured approach would seem to be wise. This week businesswoman Christine Rich won £2million compensation for sexual harassment from PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia after claiming a decade of harassment and bullying. She told the court that her boss repeatedly greeted her with a kiss, despite being told not to do so.

So I will stick to my own well established rule on the business of kissing at work, which male colleagues seem to find useful and keeps a simple level playing field in meetings. Before 6.00pm it is handshake only.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Ozzie rules

Some houseowners in Sydney opened their eyes to a shock the other day. Their wonderful (and very valuable) views to the harbour and ocean were blocked by large shipping containers, placed there by local authority officers convinced that the trees that had previously stood on the sites had been deliberately killed.

Other houseowners faced large hoardings stating that trees had been poisoned. Unmoved by rsidents who claimed innocence, officials are applying the school principle of ‘no confession, collective punishment.’

Perhaps we could take a similar approach to developers who cut down preserved trees on prime sites and simply factor in the fine as part of enabling costs. Sinking a tall concrete pillar labelled ‘This was a tree’ might be a more effective deterrent.

Source: Daily Telegraph 24 March 2008

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Down, round and under

Television presenter Maggie Philbin is a great example of how some women find a way around the boulders that are put in their career path. Speaking at a conference in Church House, London* last month, she described how despite being deflected from a scientific career by her teachers, she found her own route.

Persuaded to study English and Drama at Manchester University, she found herself looking wistfully through the window at the medical students who congregated tantalisingly close across the campus. However, she completed her arts degree and began a career in children’s tv and radio programmes. This led to an opportunity to work on Tomorrow’s World, finding herself in her element and confounding those rash enough to take her at face value. “You’re not as stupid as you look,” was one comment. She has gone on to become a respected and successful specialist in medical matters.

The story brought back my own memories of being driven inexorably down the classics and literature route at school and fighting to take scientific subjects as well as Latin and History before finding the route into construction through journalism. Career advice seems slow to change.

* Raising the Profile of Women Scientists and Engineers within the Media: The Annual Conference of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET. www.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Reality tv?

After hearing Dame Eliza Manningham Buller speak at the Women in Property dinner and impressed by the fact that 44% of staff at MI5 is female, I investigated further and found some food for thought.

Employment in MI5 offers particularly good social security benefits. Women who have been in MI5 for at least a year are entitled to six months maternity leave on full pay. As well as a further six months - half on statutory maternity pay, half on additional unpaid maternity leave - women in MI5 can have another year on unpaid special leave, making two years in total. Fathers get two weeks paternity leave on full pay.

Yet whilst the number of applicants in general to MI5 has risen in the past two years, as well as the numbers employed, the number of women applicants has fallen from a half to one third and the number of women employed has fallen from more than 50% to 44%.

In an effort to stop this downward trend, a female oriented advertising campaign in gyms and sports clubs was run, as well as national media advertising and links from the BBC Spooks website to the recruitment department at MI5… which may explain the turnoff.

Despite a particularly grisly episode of the popular espionage series resulting in some 11,500 applications to join the service, some MI5 officials believe that Spooks may have contributed to the significant fall in the number of women applying to join the agency. Certainly Dame Eliza has publicly expressed concern about the violent and macho culture depicted in the the programme. "We want to attract more females but the Spooks programme may be having a bad effect because of the way some of the female characters have been killed off," an intelligence source has said.

After hearing all the reasons why we need more women role models in tv drama and the media at the annual conference of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, one can’t help thinking of the old proverb "Be careful what you wish."

Mind you, working in the construction and property sectors where women represent just 10% of the workforce, concern about a fall from 50% to 44% is a problem some of us wouldn’t mind having.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Flight of fancy

Heard the best joke of the year, at the UK Resource Centre for Women’s 4th Annual Conference, in Church House, Central London. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark recounted hearing a female pilot welcoming passengers on board her flight from Scotland the evening before. The next announcement came from the co-pilot - also a woman.

Kirsty asked the senior stewardess if she could go into the cockpit and meet them. "I’m sure they’d be delighted to speak to you," came the response, "but in this team, we don’t call it the cockpit."

The theme of the conference was Raising the Profile of Women Scientists and Engineers within the Media.

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