Recently in The Comfort Zone Category

'Gold' coins 4919 (99x134).jpg Here in Liverpool we are about to start our 2008 Year as European Capital of Culture. But apparently the connection between this year-long Capital of Culture event and hard European cash has yet to dawn on some local businesses. This is serious. Who's failed to get the message over? And will things improve?

A walk this morning took us through Liverpool's Sefton Park to Lark Lane, where the Boho action is, to find some brunch.

The brunch was fine; but the bill which followed it left us at best bewildered.

Sterling only
The card machine - as usual these days, the 'continental' 'take it to the table' type - came up with a sensible sum, requested in either Sterling or Euros. As it happened, we had some Euros on us, so when we'd paid (in Sterling) we asked lightheartedly if we could have paid cash Euros. (The literal conversion rate was 1.645 if anyone wants to know....)

The waitress was aghast. Oh no, she assured us, clearly thinking we'd sought such reassurance, they wouldn't even think of taking Euros. The cafe never dealt with Euros, the cost would be sky-high, it was quite out of the question...

Bafflement and business
We were unsure how to respond, having originally intended to congratulate the establishment on its forward-planing and preparations for Euro-billing.

Did our waitress know, we asked, what 2008 had in store for Liverpool? She confirmed that she knew 2008 is the Capital of Culture year.

But it's Liverpool's 'European' Capital of Culture Year, we protested......

The management decides
'I don't know about that', came the reply. 'Anyway, none of Liverpool's restaurants are doing Euros. You'll have to take that up with the management.'

On the contrary, we suggested, perhaps the management needs to take the Euro opportunity up with itself....

The 'Liverpool experience' missing link - Europe
So there we have it. At least some of our local businesses, just three months before 2008 begins, still fail utterly to understand that next year is an international, a European, event.

These local 'enterprises' haven't even begun to consider whether a billing system with the potential to offer payment in Euros as well as Sterling might in fact be a business advantage or selling point.... especially in the Boho part of town.

No leadership with the big picture
Could this failure to get the overarching picture be because the city's leadership has permitted developments (perhaps even decided?) not to move out of the Liverpool comfort zone?

Are city leaders neglecting to emphasise that next year's celebrations are not 'only' an excuse for some (what look to be very promising) major arts events, and for neighbourhood street parties and general local merriment, important though all these are?

2008 opportunities squandered?
If the whole rationale for Liverpool's European Capital of Culture 2008 Year is put aside, if the business opportunities are not seized, all that enormous amount of (our) money already spent will have been squandered.

I really hope someone will be getting things into gear pretty pronto.

Girls & boys learning science (small) 90x140.jpg Recent figures confirm that girls are doing better at school (and university) than boys. Single-sex classes within co-ed schools are not however generally seen as a way to resolve this inequality. But how much do we know about the longer-term impact on men and women of single-sex or mixed gender teaching?

Increasing concern about the higher academic achievement of girls than of boys in the U.K. has again raised the issue of single-sex classes (or even schools) as the norm.

Reasons for this concern are interesting, given the historical lack of concern* when girls under-performed relative to boys (and given also that even highly women still earn much less than their male counterparts). Nonetheless, current concerns are both legitimate and pressing.
[* With honourable exceptions - e.g. the fourth letter by Edward Brotherton in this 1864 Manchester Guardian correspondence.]

There is an uncomfortable feeling, overall, that the underperformance of boys is likely to lead to a larger disaffected 'underclass', than when things were the other way around.
And we can add to that the obvious consequence of underperformance, in restricting the availability of talent to the economy, whether this be a male or female issue.

For these reasons, as well as for reasons of equality of opportunity as such, much debate has recently occurred on the subject of mixed-sex and single-sex classes and schools. The general (but not unanimous) opinion on the basis of available evidence, it seems, is that there is little impact either way.

Frankly, I have my doubts about whether this analysis is adequate.

The evidence over many decades is that women do significantly less well economically and professionally than men, if you look at mature outcomes. And this happens even for people with the same qualifications. In other words, any initial advantage diminishes as time goes on, almost regardless of family, parenthood (men become parents, too) and much else.

Early impacts
But there is one element of background which seems to make a difference, for women if not for men - and that is the 'space' in the secondary years which single-sex classes offer girls, to learn (some) things independently of boys.

It seems, especially in the more mathematically-related curriculum, that this helps girls; and it probably also helps in terms of self-determination and a conviction that it's OK as an independent person to go ahead and do things with one's life.

Certainly, this was a major indicator, in research undertaken quite early on by myself and others looking at how women scientists hold their own.

And perhaps the same applies to boys. If the girls aren't there to talk about all the soft stuff in class, maybe the boys would have to have the courage to talk about it themselves - which could be an important help when 'real life' catches up with them in later adolescence and adulthood.

Balancing different agendas
There is a suspicion that some schools prefer mixed teaching because they see the girls (more mature and less disruptive?) as a stabilising influence on the boys. But this is not an equitable way forward and two wrongs do not make a right.

I'd go for the so-called 'diamond' arrangement - segregated teaching for some core subject in the early years of secondary school - but not, if at all possible, for totally separate schools for girls and boys. There can surely be a middle way.

Even more critically, I'd make sure that analysis of research findings routinely extends beyond formal education to life outcomes, so we begin to understand more fully 'what happens' when individuals receive single-sex or co-ed teaching in their formative years.

MondayWomen{small].jpgMonday Women is a no-cost group, open to all, which meets and has an e-group. With affliliation of hundreds, it welcomes discussion and activities around topics of interest to women from all walks of life. After four years, the meetings are re-locating.

Please see also the Monday Women section of this website for up-to-date inormation on meetings etc.

Monday Women meetings for early 2007 are moving to the Heart and Soul Cafe-Restaurant in Liverpool.

Monday Women (Liverpool) is an open-access social and e-group for women to share views and news. 'Members' keep in touch in two ways: via open meetings-cum-social-events on the first Monday of the month (except Bank Holidays) and through the e-group. Women attending face-to-face events do not need to 'belong' to the e-group, nor do e-group members necessarily attend Monday Women events. (N.B. Children are welcome at the social events where this allows their mother / carer to attend the group.)

The Monday Women e-group has just one aim: to facilitate contact and networking between women from all walks of life, some of whom will be able to attend our events and others of whom may not be able to. The intention is quite simply to encourage the sharing of news, views and companionship.

A no-cost, informal and open-minded network
There is no formal membership for the Group and no Officers, or agenda. There are no costs, fees or admission charges for meetings or for 'joining' the e-group, which are both open to all on a no-obligation basis. This is simply a relaxed and informal meeting arrangement for women in Liverpool and Merseyside.

Monday Women see Hope Street plans [1.8.05).jpgTopics for discussion and exchange of information between individuals attending / joining in the e-group might be anything from the possible need for a playgroup, traffic crossing or bank in a particular area, to considering plans for regeneration and renewal of the city, to informing people about a special event, or enquiring who else might be interested in setting up a business or community group!

The group also occasionally shares 'outside events' such as the recent highly successful visit to the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth and two other adjacent sites of great civic and historical interest. There is in addition an annual Christmas celebratory event on the first Monday in December, organised, like every other occasion, by volunteer members of the group.

Relocating for 2007
The group was inaugurated on Monday 3 March 2003 in the Liverpool Everyman Bistro, where it has met every month since until the end of 2006. We are much indebted to Paddy Byrne, Geoff Hale and colleagues, the Bistro owners and staff, for their generous support over the past almost four years, as we now move on to new premises for early 2007 - the upstairs room of Chumki Banerjee's Heart and Soul Cafe-Restaurant , and then from 2 April to Dragon in Berry Street. 'Meetings' will be from 5.45 pm until about 7.30 pm (some people stay later), although people come and go within this time span, arriving and attending for as long as they wish.

Each person joining a Monday Women event at our 2007 venues will (as before) select and buy her own refreshments - if required - in the actual cafe and then take them into the 'meeting' with her. This enables everyone to choose items of food and / or drink which suit individual tastes and budgets.

PS Monday 5 February 2007:
Our meeting at Heart & Soul was a big success (thanks, Chumki!!), as the photo below shows....
Monday Women Heart & Soul 1st Mtg 07.2.5 130x339.jpg

Becoming a 'member' of Monday Women
All women are welcome to 'join' Monday Women (Liverpool). To become a 'member' all that is required is that women turn up for a meeting - a warm welcome is assured! - or that they join the e-group. To join the e-group women are invited to email Monday Women, or to contact Hilary Burrage direct via this website.

Or perhaps, if you're a woman reading this away from Liverpool, you'd like to set up a Monday Women group too? If so, do let us know about your plans. There's room for Monday Women everywhere....

Xmas presents (small).jpgChristmas is a time for giving. But what, and to whom? Many would like Christmas to be less commercial, whilst helping those not as fortunate as themselves. Doing this in a way which shows fondness for family, friends and colleagues but also benefits others can sometimes be a difficult balance to achieve.

The Christmas charity gift brochures these days often start to arrive with the August Bank Holiday. We therefore have plenty of time to ponder the dilemmas which then arise:

(a) Do I buy gifts from these brochures, actual items, to give directly to friends and family? or
(b) Do I buy 'gifts' which are actually donations towards items required by needy people elsewhere, often in the developing world - and give my own folk tokens which say that's what I've done, of my own volition, on their behalf? or
(c) Do I give gifts which I have chosen elsewhere and then think about the charitable giving at some other point?

Not comfortable options
Most of these options leave me, at least, feeling rather uncomfortable. Buying charity Christmas cards (or some direct gifts, if genuinely appropriate) is one thing; the recipents still receive the original item. Buying charitable items which are not intended for the 'recipient', but for someone who for us is without a name, living elsewhere, is another thing altogether. The big question is, is it alright to give to charity on another's behalf, without seeing if that's what they wanted?

And, indeed, is it even OK to ask them if it is actually what they'd like to do? Perhaps, they're doing it already? Or even, uneasy thought, perhaps they wouldn't choose to give to the charity we've chosen on their unwitting behalf?

Of course, the precise intention of the charities who mail us is to encourage 'giving' - and few would deny that such giving is needed.

I do not subscribe to the idea that there is no point; I'm quite sure much of the money raised does indeed go to very good causes.

Nonetheless, is it OK to 'give' in the name of someone else? Should we give only what we own ourselves? Is it right to divert gifts from people one knows personally, to people one does not know, whilst also proclaiming a good deed on their behalf?

Another way?
Many would agree that there is a real sense in which charitable giving does reflect the 'meaning' of Christmas. The question then is, how can we do it without seeming to give what is not exactly ours - in other words the gift we would 'give' to our nearest and dearest?

I'm beginning to think there may be a way. This 'solution' depends on the amount of cash available and the sort of personal contacts one has; it's not really appropriate, say, for hard-pressed families with children where money is scarce. But for the rest of us it might work.

Christmas consortia
How about an agreement that, special exceptions apart, we all give direct personal gifts costing no more than an agreed sum - but at the same time we get together to 'buy' that much-needed donkey, tree, kids' trip, hoe, emergency kit or whatever?

It would take someone to make the initial arrangements and act as 'treasurer', and maybe each year a different member of the group might undertake that task. But it's a project which would enable us all to choose something personal for those we know and love, whilst also sharing a goal in a positive group activity, be it as colleagues, family or friends. How much each person can give would be confidential between themselves and the 'treasurer' only, but all would have contributed.

Maybe 2006 is the year to set up the rota, even if there's no time now to try the idea out fully before the festivities begin? And here are some of the many links which will take you to see what's on offer:
Charity Christmas Gift brochures.jpg
Concern Worldwide
Oxfam Unwrapped
Wish List (Save the Children)

Has anyone tried this way? Does it work? Maybe you could let us know in the Comments box below?

In Praise Of Politics

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Election Night (tables, small) 05.4.26 057.jpg The benefits of modern democracy which we in the U.K. enjoy are diminished by the media when they invite us to confuse the real thing with synthetic 'political entertainment' concocted by those who then 'report' it. At a time when cyncism about politics is rife, people need to know about the realities of political involvement, so they can make informed judgements about whom they wish to support.

LouiseEllmanAdoptionMtg05.4.15c.jpg I’ve just returned from the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Personally, I was impressed. The Prime Minister and Chancellor each spoke with great authority and conviction about what politics means to and for them, and I think it would be fair to say their orations resonated clearly with what the large majority of those attending believe and were looking to be affirmed.

My belief is that the Labour Party, whatever its blips and foibles, stands for a way of life which is fair, progressive and ambitious for everyone’s future. Other major parties in the U.K. can make their own case, but there is no doubt that those who seriously subscribe to these alternative credos also believe that their politic represents a way of life which makes sense to some people. I am content to acknowledge this - and where necessary to ‘take them on’, as Tony Blair urged in his speech. No doubt willingness to contest the political territory would apply in reverse for other parties, too.

Political debate about the future
The Labour Party national conference is one of the largest and without a doubt one of the most inclusive conferences in Europe. Women and men, first-time attenders and cabinet ministers, delegates of all ages, ethnicities, faiths and walks of life, meet in the course of that event as equals to bring their richly diverse experience and expertise to the issues of the day.

And the same applies to the democratic political process in the U.K. on a wider scale.

Election2005CampaignMK&JN,Sudley1.jpg The critical point is this. Where citizens are prepared to give their time and other personal resources to engaging in debate about the future of our country (and that of the globe), they should be respected for having the courage and conviction to do so.

Of course there are caveats to this general position. When opposing parties permit the debate to become unpleasantly personal, or when they step outside the boundaries of decency (as for instance the British National Party does frequently) they diminish fundamentally the democratic process and thereby lose the right to respect and engagement in that process.

Synthetic ‘news’
So what do we make of the media coverage this week?

Frankly, it has not so far been consistently of the best. I have no problem about considered critiques, or even criticism, of the political offer – that’s what politics is about – but I have plenty of reservations about lead stories concerning what Cherie might or might not have muttered to herself, or about the future prospects of John Reid and Gordon Brown, following the synthetic televised gruelling of a supposedly ‘representative’ (and, for its purpose, woefully small) focus group.

This is the media making the news, not reporting it…. Not an unusual occurrence, but one which does not deserve the headline reporting these matters were given. There are serious issues at stake, and the wider public needs to know about them. Such trivial issues are entertaining, but they don’t take us very far in understanding what the underlying politics is all about.

Politics as commitment
Election2005CampaignOffice(chaps).jpg Perhaps this needs to be said loud and clear: Many people are involved in politics with no expectation of personal reward. Most professional politicians go the extra mile and more (if they don’t, they deserve the abrupt termination of their political careers which is likely to follow).

Politics on the ground comprises hours of envelope stuffing and telephone calls; it requires rainy Saturday mornings in surgeries in what are now called challenging contexts; it involves knocking on the doors of not-always-appreciative strangers; it requires digging into one’s own pocket far more than filling it. And, critically, it demands the courage and conviction to stand up and say what one believes, and to take the reputational consequences.

And, most of all, decent politics at every level is underpinned by hope for the future – the belief that people can be persuaded to one’s view of what could be.

Politics as entitlement
I disagree fundamentally with the politics of the right, but I agree that sometimes the questions posed by right-wing politicians are valuable pointers to important issues which require resolution. I also accept that, within the bounds of decency and respect for other decent people (a requirement of us all), those who promote such right-wing positions have an entitlement to do so.

Political debate from the beginning of time has been the fairest way to decide who has the best ideas about what should happen, and who should be given the power to make that come about.

News, Politics or Entertainment?
If the media want to tell stories about what Cherie might have said to herself, or about a synthetic, manufactured event around the future of Gordon and John, no-one should stop them, self-serving of media pundits and distracting from serious debate though these stories are. Indeed, perhaps we are all complicit in this, at least insofar as the media would say we read this stuff and don’t challenge it.

But let’s at least ask that spurious ‘political’ stories be reported under the heading of Entertainment, not News; and let’s try to ensure that proper political reporting is delivered in ways which mark it out as Politics properly defined.

Politics is a difficult and sometimes even dangerous game; it needs, and democracy itself needs, the best people and the best efforts we can muster – and this in turn requires a modicum of underlying respect for those who still choose to make the effort.

Hope not cynicism
Election Night (Lpool MPs) [smaller] 05.4.26 051.jpg If there were a better way to run modern societies than democratic politics, someone would have invented it by now. At a time when the victory of cynicism over respect for engagement in the political process has probably never been greater, we, the public, damage ourselves as well as the politicians if we don’t insist at some level that politics is fundamentally about hope for the future; and that political media-created 'entertainment' and democratic politics are different things.

Motives for dialogue between people of hugely different perspectives may be complex, but the need maintain communication is reiterated across at least modern history. Politicians as disparate as Winston Churchill, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton have all maintained this view at various times.

'To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war', in U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous line at an American White House luncheon in 1954, is consistently good advice.

Churchill, as is well acknowledged, was not averse to drama alongside dialogue - he actually won the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature for his 'mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values'. But he knew the talking was always at least as important as the posturing.

Consensus across the divides
It's interesting to see this position reflected half a century or more later in the position of two modern American politicians who stand both apart from Churchill and from each other.

First, we had right-wing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visitng the U.K.'s then-Foreign Secretary, the centre left-wing Jack Straw in North West England, and proclaiming herself comfortable with the protests which greeted her at some events. "Oh, it’s OK, people have a right to protest and a right to make their views known," she is reported to have said.

And then we learn that Senator Hillary Clinton has kind things to say about the 'charm and charisma' of President George Bush, the Republican who followed her Democrat husband into the White House. Senator Clinton said of the President that she had been "very grateful to him for his support for New York" after the attacks on September 11 2001. Though the two had had "many disagreements" he had been "very willing to talk".

Mixed motives, but still sensible?
We can all of course guess that things are not really as proclaimed, when politicians of different hues profess a keeness for dialogue between themselves. Condoleeza Rice very probably wanted to make things a little easier for her host, Jack Straw. Hillary Clinton was, it is thought, attending to the need to 'woo the right' in her bid to secure the next Presidential election.

But mixed motives don't necessarily make for bad action. Given a bottom line, almost every one of us would prefer that people keep talking, to the alternative. Better to keep the lines open, than to close them, wherever and whenever we can.

Baby (small).jpg Critics of Sure Start, the U.K. government's early years programme, have been vocal of late. Yes, there is evidence that benefit has not always as yet reached those small children and families who need it most. But this is work in progress, and it must be continued.

Children & parent 06.7.2-5 023.jpg Sure Start, the huge government-led programme for 0 - 4 year olds, has been subject to quite a lot of criticism of late. It's understandable that senior polticians, the Prime Minister himself amongst them, should want to see progress before the next general election. The problem however is that small children don't become achieving teenagers in the same time-span.

This was never going to be easy. Sure Start is at present specifically focused on the least advantaged families, where take-up, especially for those parents who find themselves most challenged, is variable. But it's essential that those with the governmental cheque book hold their nerve.

Evidence that it works
One thing which stands out in the Sure Start programme is its emphasis on activities such as reading aloud for parents (and that includes fathers) and children to share. There is a dedicated theme in all this about bedtime stories, and indeed about just simple conversation between little ones and their carers. This is a difficult activity to measure with any degree of accuracy, but we know from longitudinal studies that, over years rather than just months, it works.

Sure Start is not the first programme of this sort. There's plenty of evidence from previous programmes here and in the U.S.A. that early intervention is really beneficial for those who become involved. But we're still learning how to reach the least advantaged and those who feel most marginalised.

Adapt, perhaps; abandon? No
Dad & two lboys  06.5.28 001.jpg Workers in Sure Start have had to find the way forward for themselves. Inevitably in such a situation some have had more success than others - not least because some local contexts provide greater challenges or fewer already established resources than do areas elsewhere.

The move towards Children's Centres, whilst unsettling for many of the professionals concerned, is if handled sensitively probably the right way to go. It would be a tragedy if critics determinedly take a short-term view which makes it difficult for the Government to continue with this work.

Dismissing the idea behind the initiative would result in damage to the futures of many thousands of children who deserve the better start in life.

Calculator & toy (small) 80x90.jpg Choosing if and when to have a baby has never been an easy decision, especially if both partners want to continue in employment. But the debate has shifted quite a lot in the past few years, and perhaps now a deeper understanding is emerging of what 'work-life balance' is really about.

Actually, of course, some folk would say it's all-win for some, and never-win for others; but we do know, really, it's not like that.

The question does however have to be asked, how can you get it right, if you're a woman and a mum and a person who wants to make her way in the world?

History or Herstory?
Fact is, for the past fifty years it's been even more complicated than for the years before then. Whatever is thought by those with shorter memories, the time from the end of World War II (1945) until the end of the sixties, and well into the seventies, was dreadful for women wanting to maintain their families and their careers.

The landmark equality legislation of the 1970's certainly changed things for the better... but even I found myself in a situation, when 'the family' arrived, of having to resign my full-time post and then apply again for my job, as a part-timer. Maternity leave had never been taken by anyone at the college where I then taught, and anyway it was a mere four weeks or bust (which even after resigning was not much less than what I had, before I went back as a part-timer).

Strange then how, during WWII (I report here from the history books, not personal recollection), there was all sorts of support for 'working women', so it could be done when the will was there. But at that time of course, sadly, the men actually weren't 'there' as well....

Improved, but still problematic
So I don't go at all with the idea of some young women today that 'it's harder now than it was for our mums' - who, it is I gather supposed, just had to work for 'pin-money', or else stayed at home supported by a bread-winning spouse who could earn for the family; for most of us I suspect that only happened on The Archers.

Nor of course do I believe that 1939-1945, with all its horrors, was a time when women always thrived. But classic films such as Rosie the Riveter (about a group of female engineering production workers in New York in the '40s) demonstrate well the capability and willingness of women to take on 'men's jobs' when they have to.

And nearer to home, I discovered in my own research in the 1970s that women who had entered academic science during the 1940s had a better chance of professional progression than younger ones, who had to compete with the men.

Complex judgements and issues
No, the issues now more complex than they were either when the need for skilled workers required women to take the job on, or indeed when the campaigns for basic rights (oh heady days!) were still to be won.

It's rare for anyone today to announce their outright hostility to women - though there are many serious and shocking stories still to be told. The formal legal battles, if not the wage-related ones, have been quite largely secured. It's beginning at last to cost those who don't grasp equality a lot of money.

But that doesn't resolve everything. We read daily of 'reasons' why women 'should' only have their children in a very narrow age-slot; and why they 'must' keep close physical contact with their babies for a considerable time. On a personal level these are harder things to deal with, than is straightforward sexist write-off. Psychological pressures can cause real personal pain; for fair-minded people sexism just causes anger.

Where's the truth?
I don't think there is a single truth in all this - except that no way is it 'just' a 'women's dilemma'. Whoever heard of a baby that didn't have a dad somewhere along the line?

My recollection is that these psychological influences on decisions about having a family were always there, lurking in the scenes; but in previous decades we've had to concentrate on rights as such. Now young women (and their partners) have to make personal judgements, because genuine choice does at least to some extent exist.

It was never, ever, easy. But perhaps if real choices start to be made by women and men together, the climate might begin to change so that at least most folk understand and respect the dilemmas and decisions we all have to make, when we bring (or decide not to bring) babies into the world.

The expression 'work-life balance' could be about to become genuinely meaningful at last.

A version of this article was first published in Diverse Liverpool: the gender issue, in March 2006, pp. 113-115.

Read more articles about Gender & Women, and see more of Hilary's Publications, Lectures & Talks

Woman with political rosette, detail (small) 80x81.jpg Cities like Liverpool still seem to have a problem about 'strong women'. On-going changes of civic leadership in the city offer an opportunity for the chaps to disprove suspicions that they continue to hold this antiquated attitude across all spheres of influence. Institutional sexism has no place in an adult and forward-looking city.

Recent turbulence in Liverpool's civic leadership has set me thinking about what comes next. Do we want more of the same, or do we want something fresher and more responsive than the present arrangements?

This is a city with a tradition of behind-the-scenes chaps' groups who met for luncheon and called themselves 'The Big Four' (or is it Super Six, or First Eleven, or Secret Seventeen?), and which has no, repeat no, really serious power-brokers outside Westminster who sometimes wear skirts. (There are some fine women out there doing excellent jobs, but they ain't at the top of local government in Liverpool.)

Does Liverpool have a problem about women?
I'm certainly not of the view that women are necessarily 'better' than men in any respect, or that change necessarily means feminisation. But I do think, on the basis of many years' experience, that this is a city which still has problems with welcoming the input of strong women. Maybe that's not just a characteristic of Liverpool, but we are quite evidently trailing in the so-called Equal Opportunities stakes, as the Mersey Partnership Gender Agenda illustrates all too painfully.

Equality of opportunity is also best use of human resource
This isn't just (though it is anyway) a matter of equity. This is a matter of the optimum use of resource, including talent, knowledge and understanding. In cities like Liverpool (I assume there are others too) problems seem to be 'solved' by top-down directives. Maybe that was necessary at one stage; but it won't take us up to the next level - at least, not in my opinion a next level which in the long-run will do us any good.

Using human resources well means accommodating different styles and different perspectives. Even putting aside the compelling moral case, the fundamental reason that equal opportunities is critical is that any other way wastes potential to serve the best interests of everyone. (Has someone forgotten that over half the population is female?)

Sometimes men of influence are afraid of women who are strong
Men and women across the globe are in the end much the same; the variations within each gender are usually greater than the differences between the genders when it comes to work, decisions, personal choices and so forth. We (nearly) all want what's best, we (nearly) all want decent, effective decision-making. So theoretically it doesn't matter whether our leaders are men or women, as long as they're able and of good faith.

But in one respect Liverpool at least hasn't got there yet. The chaps who decide things - not all of them, but some - are not yet prepared to change their perceptions, to see individuals for what they can bring to the party, rather than what they wear (to be facetious, a skirt or a tie?). Whilst the city continues to be run by an unspoken convention about what sort of person is 'appropriate' for serious influence, leadership and decision-making - and challenge as you may, demonstrating this convention isn't the case is very difficult - we are desperately missing a trick.

Influence and leadership across the board
Covert sexism in Liverpool applies whether we're looking at the Town Hall, the local economy or community development and involvement. There is an inflexibility somewhere in 'the system' which results I suspect from insecurity and / or protectionism masquerading as traditional, definitive leadership. And this overall leadership, as we have seen, is hugely male-dominated.

Current civic changes offer a chance for those decision-makers who really do care about the best interests of us all now to deliver something more inclusive and thereby also more effective for the whole community.

We shall be a Grown Up City when, and only when, the Chaps are no longer afraid of Strong Women.

Liverpool's physical location and economic situation make it difficult for some local people to know much about what's happening elsewhere. This is turn results in difficulties in determining locally which new ideas for the city are good, and which less so. The proposed 'How Do They Do It?' programme could help here... but only if those who are able to do so actively support the idea.

There was a letter in the Liverpool Daily Post of 10 February, in which local commentator John Elcock writes of his concern that we in Liverpool should not reject everything that's new in the city. He refers to his sadness about the 'growing culture of parochialism in a city that used to trade ideas with the world.'

John's letter is specifically about proposed new architectural designs in Liverpool; but I fear his remarks might also apply to other parts of our cultural and civic life.

Liverpool pride
I came to live in Liverpool 35 years ago this week, having never before had the opportunity to visit this city. There was plenty to be proud of for Liverpool's citizens - its University, its Royal Orchestra, its fine Cathedrals, Theatres and Museums, its wonderful architecture; and of course the conviction of those who lived here that there could never be a better place to be.

Pride in one's city is a fine thing, and fundamentally necessary for well-being and future success. But, unexamined, it can also be an obstacle to progress. Despite the ravages of the 1980s, we still have our flagship centres of learning and culture and our wonderful buildings; but somehow their backdrop is now more self-defensive, more openly unaccommodating of new ideas and of the give-and-take of modern life.

And Liverpool parochialism?
Many people in Liverpool do not even know about the lives of their neighbours at the other end of their own city, let alone those down the road in Manchester, Birmingham, London or perhaps further afield. Perhaps in previous times this knowledge was less essential; but now, when our young people do know about the opportunities elsewhere, many decide to leave Liverpool for pastures new.

This is a serious issue of opportunity and of cost. It is a legacy of comfort zone living, being unable to move beyond one's own boundaries because of lack of money, lack of knowledge of what to do or where to go to find out new things, small opportunity to see why comparing our own and others' experience might be useful. The cost of such tight horizons is sometimes difficulty, as John Elcock suggests, in being able to judge which new ideas for Liverpool are 'right', and which 'wrong'.

Opportunities to compare and learn
I don't write these observations to criticise, but rather to suggest a new opportunity and a way forward. For several years there have been proposals for a civic and educational programme based in Liverpool and called 'How Do They Do It?'.

The idea would be to support small groups of young and older people together, as they visit other places, as guests of that town or city, to see what has been achieved (public service, enterprise, architecture and culture, whatever...) and how it was done. This would then be reported back in whatever way to our own people in Liverpool. Likewise, citizens of other places could - and indeed through the European Capital of Culture programme will - come as our guests to see what we in Liverpool do exceptionally well, and to report it back to their own neighbours and fellow townspeople.

Travel these days is easy, few towns and cities, whether in Britain or in continental Europe, cannot find a way to welcome guests who come in goodwill to learn together. Which businesses, schools and colleges, residents associations, religious organisations, individuals or whoever, can join us in making this ambition to share experience, with all the benefits it would bring to ourselves and others, a reality?

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