Monthly Archives: August 2015

Positively discriminatory?

Here’s an oxymoron for you: positive discrimination.


You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a one-hit-wonder 90s band, or some overlooked Roman Emperor: Positivis Discriminatus (or something. Latin was, like, twenty years ago, people, give me a break).

But then, the Romans probably wouldn’t have set much store against positive discrimination, given their fetish for letting the lions have the gladiators that didn’t run fast enough.

So, definition of P.D. (careful if pronouncing the initials in French):

Look! There we are, ladies. An officially disadvantaged group, and as such requiring special opportunities to presumably make us less, or even – *holds breath* – entirely un-disadvantaged.

All those in favour?

Hmm.  I’m not seeing a universal show of hands.

There are two questions that have me hesitating about putting my hand up, too:

  1. Are women still “disadvantaged” in terms of employment, private sector representation or public office?
  2. If we think that they are, is “the provision of special opportunities” helpful or not to overcome these disadvantages?

Let’s ponder the first exam question. We have time, after all (no lions snapping at our heels).

Put the loaded word “disadvantaged” to one side for a minute and consider the simple fact that women are half of the world’s population, yet still only earn 77% of men’s income (gender pay gap); represent only 1 in 5 parliamentarians globally (the notable exception being Rwanda, with 64% of MPs female); and head only 26 of the top Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

Even in Iceland, top of the Global Gender Gap Index (which rates women’s health, education, political and economic empowerment) there is still not absolute equality:

That's why Mum's gone to Iceland?

So that’s why Mum’s gone to Iceland

And that’s for the countries which are doing well (the UK ranks 26th btw. 26th! Land of hope and glory?).

In the meantime, given current trends everywhere else, we won’t attain global gender equality until 2095 (so only another 80 thrilling years of this blog before there is nothing left for me to write about).

So it would seem the answer to the first question is a resounding: yes, or rather, oui, if you are French politologue Thomas Guénolé:

Not only necessary, says M. Guénolé, but urgent.  Hmm.

Let us turn, seamlessly, to question number two: what are these “special opportunities” for we underchiennes?

Alas, not a lifelong supply of free sherbet dibdabs, as you might have been hoping.

Rather, special opportunities aim to increase gender parity through one of two approaches: hard (legislation, e.g. quotas, with sanctions for non-compliance, like fines) or soft (“positive action”).

The first is self-explanatory.

The second is more nuanced.  It involves wheedling, naming and shaming, creating societal credos for employers or political parties who walk the talk.

Which approach works better, if at all?

Good question: and (surprise!) awful to answer.

The easiest difference to spot is the one that quotas bring about. Consider for example local elections in France: laws passed in 2000 and 2007 (financially penalising parties who do not put forward equal numbers of female and male candidates) have had clear results.

And Rwanda’s gold star on gender parliamentary parity, mentioned earlier, is another success to be chalked up to quotas: an obligation for 30% of all electoral candidates to be female.

But “soft” measures can work, too. Take for example the UK’s voluntary 2011/2014 Codes of Conduct which encourage (but do not oblige) recruitment of female candidates to boards. This campaign has doubled the number of women on FTSE 100 boards from 12.5% in 2011 to 23.5% in 2015.

Whatever the approach, results like those are not just good for the women in the roles; they are good for young women needing role models. Ambition is driven in part by our assumptions of what we can or can’t do, so seeing other women going forth and multiplying in sectors or positions traditionally dominated by men can only be a good thing.

Or, as IMF head Christine Lagarde put it,

“La marche d’escalier est tellement haute, qu’il faut faire quelque chose”


Alright, then. Sounds straightforward enough: slap on a bit of positive discrimination, achieve gender parity.


I guess that depends on your definition of job done.  Take your child to accident and emergency because they’ve tripped over a rake and banged their head, and the doctors will treat the injury.  But if we don’t want to see the same injury again, or other kids coming in with the same problem, we surely need to deal with the underlying issue: put the rake away.

(I know: analogies just don’t get any better than that).

The point (in case you understandably missed it) is this one: positive discrimination, especially the “hard” version, treats the symptoms, and not the causes, of gender inequality.

And thus can actually be harmful, for several (non-garden-tool-related) reasons:

  • For each individual woman owing her election/scholarship/job etc under a system of positive discrimination, who will always be suspected of being there on selection, rather than on merit. As Hayley Downing, Associate Director of Investigo, commented:  ‘While I am passionate about gender equality in the work place it is important to note that women do not want to be a statistic. I was previously offered a role with a company where the Managing Director said “we really want you to join our business as we don’t have any female Directors at the moment”. While it was flattering to receive an offer from a global organisation, I want to be hired for my skills and ability, not my gender.’  Well, I get that – don’t you? Who does want to be a statistic to serve the greater cause?;
  • For women overall, with the paradox that once positive discrimination legislation is passed, it is assumed there is no more discrimination to fix; passons à autre chose;
  • For the cause overall, if the woman benefitting from the measure is actually mediocre, and far from the best candidate;
  • For tackling the causes of the cause (as per the genius rake analogy). If we lack parity, there are reasons for it: what do we need to change? Parental leave? Gender stereotypes? School fees? Employers’ attitudes?

And yet.

Yes, thèse, anti-thèse: I still can’t help thinking that things will not improve spontaneously, all by themselves. And that until they do, a temporary bias is necessary, and (longer-term) beneficial.

So: all those in favour of positive discrimination?

I think my hand is tentatively up.

Is yours?


Mouthing off

I am trying hard to ban the use of putain in our house.


Non-Francophones, this delightful swearword is the French equivalent of shit or fuck, but is literally translated as whore.

Now, I am not a puritan.  I don’t have any objection to merde or any other English equivalent: au contraire, I have very fond memories of college years where two of my closest male friends took me in hand and taught me about the art of swearing without blushing.

But I can’t bear putain as an expletive and I am going to start a (ok, potentially very lonely) crusade to get rid of it.

#plustain – who’s with me?

Now, French people will heartily disagree with me.  Putain-this and putain-that, it’s everyday language for women and men alike, young or old, whatever your social background – check out Step Four of this excellent YouTube tutorial:

So when they use it, no, French people are not referring to whores: it is the equivalent of an exclamation mark.

Ben alors: who cares?

Well, frankly, my dear, I do (give a damn).  Here goes.

‘Whore’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:

Capture d’écran 2015-08-19 à 13.35.40

(Interestingly, Merriam-Webster also include men who ‘engage in sexual acts for money’ under their definition, but I for one have never heard whore being used to talk about a man.  Have you?)

How do we say “whore” for a man?


Do you think French people say putain because gigolo just isn’t quite as satisfying?

(Yes, in part.)  But also because there is no real male equivalent.  Even though of course male prostitutes exist and in some settings might even be the majority, in general sex workers are still overwhelmingly female (70-80% according to this article on US prostitution).

So whore = female-specific insult.

And society generally doesn’t disapprove of a man who sleeps with lots of women (la preuve: if ‘whore’ is the judgmental term for a woman selling sex, where is the equally damning name for the ‘clients’ buying it?).

So whore also = pejorative and sexist female-specific insult.

In a nutshell, therein lies my aversion to putain. 

The Telegraph countered this recently, saying it doesn’t matter that there is no male equivalent: men suffer their own abusive terms that women do not, such as being heckled for being weak or submissive.

But I don’t really understand their point.  Surely that in itself is confirmation of the dreary predictability of gender-role insults? And even if some of us might feel sorry for the guy who gets called pussy-whipped by his friends, is it because it’s never nice to be a situation when your partner is walking all over you, or rather a sense of pity that his masculinity is compromised by such un-virile behaviour?

(Oh and, yes, there is a male equivalent to whore: it’s stud.)

I have tried to make my point with the husband by saying that every time he (inadvertently) adjoins whores and miseries-slash-excitements of life, he must be prepared to explain the word to his daughter.

Jeez, you’re thinking, enough already! What a nag! Thank god I’m not married to her!

Hélas, my poor (henpecked?) husband is married to me, so he’ll just have to put up with thinking about what comes out of his mouth.  Le pauvre !

Well, no, actually.  Intelligence surely is about understanding the connotation and consequence of the words you use. Isn’t that why we all crouch down in front of our three-year-olds when they’ve innocently just issued a clanger, to hurriedly explain that some words are only for Big People?

Using words you don’t understand – or worse, don’t realise are intrinsically offensive – means those words become common currency (as putain has), and inadvertently reinforce ugly perceptions or inequality. You can argue that putain is nothing but a crutch-word, as this other blog does, but unfortunately it’s still used in its literal form, with entirely different meaning: tap it into your search engine, and you’ll get something more than a load of surprised or angry looking faces.

Thinking about what comes out your mouth is important too because swearing is still (seen as) acceptable for men but less so for women (is that why there are more female gender-specific swearwords than male ones?).  Believe or not, there is not a huge amount of free-access literature on gender and profanity, but for example An Investigation into Differences between Men and Women’s Speech found men responsible for 80% of swear words.

That’s not to say that the issue is about women doing more effing and blinding: there are many indignant articles pointing out how swearing is not big or clever for anyone, and how feminists should not make the mistake of copying bad male behaviour in the quest for gender equality. In this way Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo!, was criticised as much as she was praised for her potty-mouth.

I don’t know what I think about that. People who have a sort of voluntary Tourrettes for expletives are usually teenagers, tedious or very angry about the world, so I agree that swearing isn’t an automatic way of being cool – far from it.

Instead (and irrevelent to whether or not you think more or less swearing is the way forward) what is more interesting à mes yeux is why it’s apparently more acceptable for men to swear more, a point Bartz made herself (before being fired):

Source: the Guardian

Source: the Guardian

I tend to agree.

Enfin bref. All of that said, I do get the obsession.  In terms of pure delights of getting your mouth around it, and of a satisfactory way to paraphrase a strong emotion, there still isn’t much that beats a good putain de bordel de merde when the train driver regretfully informs you that you will be stuck midway between stations for the next hour given, say, leaves on the line.

But just remember what it means, is what I’m saying.  I’m pretty sure people would look twice at you if you rendered it into respectable English: Frédéric, dear fellow, this seems to be a rather lacklustre pleasure house we have come to.  Let us retreat back to the street. 

Alright. I’m done lecturing.  To finish, here’s a peace offering, straight from Matrix Reloaded:

I’ll leave you Anglophones to google the translation for that one.

In the meantime, I’m continuing with my #plustain campaign.

And I don’t give a gigolo what anyone thinks.

What am I, your slave?

Had you asked me in college about human trafficking, I probably would have told you about the film, cornerstone of my Cardiff years (and still one of the best soundtracks ever).



I had no clue, then, that human trafficking meant modern day slavery. I had no idea that so many people were being traded like bags of rice inside their own countries, or across borders, to the highest bidder.

What about you? How many people do you think are affected by human trafficking?

Go on, have a guess.

The answer is: an estimated 20-30 million people worldwide.

Well, really, what did you expect? Human beings make great live fodder for labour, the commercial sex industry, organ ‘donations’, or domestic servitude.

And they’re not too pricey, either, as French weekly Le Point pointed out this week: a nine-year-old girl in the Islamic State will set you back only 150€.

Source: l'Express

Credits: l’Express


Now, Ze F Word is a blog about gender equality. You may be wondering: why a post on human trafficking?

Well, of the 600-800,000 people trafficked every year, approximately 70% are women and girls, also the victims of the primary purpose of trafficking – sexual slavery (forced marriage, forced prostitution, sex tourism in back-street “massage” parlours).

Here’s how you’re ‘broken in’:




I cannot think what that does to you short or long term.  Can you?

Even without imagining the horrific emotional trauma, victims face terrible physical consequences such as pregnancy (and risky abortions), sexually transmitted diseases, violence, or ensuing drug or alcohol addiction (often the girls are forced to take drugs).

It makes me want to weep.

And then rage.

I mean, come on. This is 2015. Almost 200 years after the abolishment of slavery: a period of history we view today with incredulity and shame.

How are there more people in modern slavery now than there were during the slave trade?

How is that possible, with layer after layer of international laws and conventions established since then, to protect people from ever being traded in that way again?

There are three parts to the answer:

  1. because it’s lucrative
  2. because the victims are often expendable, therefore invisible
  3. because there’s a lack of will or capability to track and prosecute.

Let’s take the first one.

Traffickers or “recruiters” (of whom an estimated 30% are women…) are commercial agents like any other – they just trade in human beings rather than wheat.

And why not, eh? You can get rich. After all, human trafficking is worth an estimated 32billion$ (roughly half of Luxembourg’s annual GDP) and is the second most profitable illegal income after organised drug crime.

Secondly, victims are often victims because they are vulnerable. All victims of forced human trafficking, male or female, suffer from little or zero value placed on their lives as human beings. This is particularly true for women or girls in countries where they are second-class citizens. You are trafficked because you are worth more to someone else than to your own family or partner, and they are poor/desperate/greedy; because you are not protected sufficiently within your country or community; because the people who are supposed to protect you – police, judges, local politicians – are the ones who orchestrate or turn a blind eye to your trafficking (because they are the first to benefit, either from freebies or a slice of the profit).

Thirdly, tracking trafficking is tricky (how’s that for alliteration!). The international definition is that of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which requires proof of three distinct elements of trafficking – the act (recruitment, transport, etc); the means (force, deception, abduction, fraud, abuse of power) and the purpose (forced labour, sex slavery etc).

The Protocol has been ratified by 167 countries since 2003.


Oh, but, hold on:

Source: UNODC

Source: UNODC

This is because the terms used in the Protocol, as the 2014 UNODC report on trafficking admits, ‘are not necessarily precise from a legal point of view and may be defined differently by different jurisdictions’.

Which means that what stands in one country doesn’t in the next – super helpful to tackle a crime where two thirds of the cases are cross-border.

So, in summary: profitable trade, victims no-one cares about, laws difficult to implement, traffickers when caught not always prosecuted.

Feeling depressed yet?

This is complicated by the fact that reporting is still at national level. There are hotlines in the USUK, and other countries, but what do you do if you’re a citizen elsewhere, and suspect a case? Especially if you think the local law enforcement either doesn’t care, already knows or is actually protecting the traffickers?

Surely an international hotline/watchdog would be a good start: even it is difficult to prosecute, a good bit of bad publicity on social media might make governments take it more seriously, especially if tourists begin voting with their feet.

This is indeed what the NGO ECPAT-USA has been advocating with their Code (focusing on child prostitution in hotels) and #DoesYourHotelKnow Twitter campaign.

Well, do they?

International mobilisation is important because, contrary to assumptions (mine included, before writing this) human trafficking is not just a poor person’s conundrum.

Between 2010-2012, victims with 152 different citizenships were identified in 124 countries across the world (and remember these are just the cases that float to the surface). In the United States alone over at least 100,000 people are trafficked every year: like Jennifer, from Columbus, tattooed by her ‘owners‘ as “Property of Salem” above her pubis.

Ditto in nice respectable Europe.  Elena, a fifteen-year-old girl from Romania, was walking home from school one day when she was kidnapped and held as a sex slave for six months: she told the organisation who freed her “had I known what was coming, I would have preferred to be killed”.

So no, not just a poor country issue: relevant to all of us.

What, then, if I were the one sitting in the back of a car, having been sold by my father/boyfriend/male relatives for some paltry sum, to spend my life ‘servicing’ others?

What if it were my daughter in the back of that car, and I was running down the dusty road after her, wild with fear and unable to do anything, call on anyone, to stop it?

I suppose under that anguish I would be hoping that someone, somewhere, gave a damn, and was doing something about it on my behalf.

Well, good news: there are many organisations (national and international) working to challenge human trafficking.  For example:

(Even Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher got stuck in before they split, creating the Thorn foundation in 2009).

So: you could support one of these organisations, or find one working in your local area; or what about trying some of these other simple ways to get involved?

Most importantly, you can also make a difference simply by keeping your eyes open – especially when travelling.  Victims of human trafficking are often lack ID papers/autonomy, or show signs of physical or mental abuse.  Report it, if you can.

Because I think we all agree that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.

Or so said Abraham Lincoln – in 1864.  Plus ça change …