The Grey Ceiling

London, United Kingdom. Written in part by Francesca Lewis who I met at the LSE. We lived in South Hampstead for a time with our large collections of IR books, four macbook laptops, and lots of shoes. We both quite like Nobu, charity shops, and men that can pull off embellished sweaters.

Much has been written recently on the malaise (if not quite death) of feminism. In 2006 Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs bemoaned the desire of women to become sex objects in a perverse re-reading of female power. Germaine Greer went on Celebrity Big Brother, and, in the popularity stakes, Girls Gone Wild would have won any contest. Last month, Natasha Walter’s new book Living Dolls arrived, restating the argument that feminism has decayed and that a new generation of women have chosen to ignore the years of struggle for women’s rights and the shattering of the glass ceiling. My generation has, apparently, blithely thrown it all away for the right to emulate a character from Sex and the City, and drive men wild with just the right tight dress.

Walter is a spokesperson (ahem) for that very group of women who feel betrayed by skimpily attired neophytes; who rage against the encroachment of raunch culture and the neglect of the fight for women’s advancement. While their reading of the situation may be narrow, there’s no doubt that something is stirring within that original women’s movement. It seems, amazingly, that many of those who first broke through the glass ceiling have hit another, impenetrable, barrier: the grey ceiling.

This is not just a feminist issue. People have been losing their jobs for no good reason other than their age for a long time in Britain. In Germany, lawyers and politicians continue to work until they choose to retire – gerontocracy rules. Yet, in this country, many corporations have compulsory retirement ages. This allows the young to be promoted, but it also robs companies of experienced and knowledgeable employees. And when it comes to high profile roles where image (gasp!) might play a factor, the first to go are always the women. First Moira Stewart and Arlene Phillips, and now Miriam O’Reilly – a presenter of Countryfile, a programme I admit I didn’t even know existed. All of these women work or worked for the BBC, a corporation committed to representing all of British life and culture… except when that life is female and over forty.

O’Reilly’s case is particularly interesting because she is the first to take the BBC to a London Employment Tribunal, alleging that she has been on the receiving end of discrimination and victimisation on the grounds of age and sex. O’Reilly has worked for the BBC for 25 years, including stints on Women’s Hour and File on 4, and is the recipient of several broadcasting awards: the British Environment Media Award for Best Environmental Story; the Foreign Press Award and the Royal Television Society Award for Best Documentary. When Countryfile was moved to a new primetime slot, O’Reilly and the other three female presenters (all over forty) were told to pack their bags. The male presenters were kept on.

It all comes down to image. Our television screens are full of greyly distinguished men, with Huw Edwards and Jeremy Paxman leading the pack of silver foxes. According to O’Reilly, the ideal BBC woman is “a size eight, unlined and with a taut neck. You cannot have a saggy chin and wrinkles under your eyes, like normal women.” Her last years at the Corporation were full of snide remarks about wrinkles being more visible in high-definition, and that she was a ‘rare breed’ still allowed to broadcast.

After the sacking of Arlene Phillips from the judging panel of Strictly Come Dancing, stories began to appear alleging that a culture of ageism was endemic at the BBC. O’Reilly was suspected of starting the stories, and her participation in almost all other BBC projects was quickly curtailed, with no explanation. A senior male executive telephoned to admit that, for the first time, he felt ashamed of the BBC.

There is definitely something wrong with the way we perceive older women. O’Reilly wrote a stirring defence of her choice to take the BBC on in the ‘FeMail’ section of the Daily Mail. Her story was interspersed with links to other stories in the same section: “Botox in a bottle: The £125 moisturiser that promises to freeze time… by mimicking the paralysing effects of snake venom”; “Time to look pale and interesting… whatever your age”; and last but not least, “Can a haircut make YOU look younger?”

When I’m asked if I am a feminist, I hesitate. It is as if admitting to that tendency presupposes a kind of militancy, which I think is outdated. Feminism should not be about getting ahead of men – it should be about equality. Miriam O’Reilly’s case demonstrates that such equality is still outside our grasp. So girls, it might be time to put down the five-inch heels – and support the women who fought for the opportunities that we now take for granted. Otherwise we risk a lot, and gain only a little.