Wed | May 22, 2019

Marcia Franklin-Robinson | Stop reducing the contributions of women

Published:Sunday | April 7, 2019 | 12:17 AM

At the height of the post-Champs euphoria, while the big news was Kingston College trouncing Calabar in that storied rivalry, I wondered if we had forgotten about the women of Edwin Allen who claimed their sixth championship in a row.

Both sets of athletes were inspiring. Yet even the TVJ Prime Time News the Sunday after seemed to give almost double the coverage time to the boys’ win versus the girls’ win. The Sunday Observer had the Kingston College boys on the front cover with their heavy wooden trophy and the Edwin Allen girls on the back cover with their less-robust trophy. The inside coverage was predominantly purple.

I get it: Boys’ Champs is 47 years older than Girls Champs, and there are historic rivalries between highly respected and competitive corporate area schools. However, it just seemed to me that both wins were covered very differently. Why, for example, would t he Observer not have celebrated both teams on the front cover?

I shared my thoughts with other women who had also noticed the difference in coverage. Some women said that what I was observing was the norm, and another suggested that maybe men just outperform women in track and field sports and therefore that was a bigger story. That seemed a reasonable assumption.

That prompted me to investigate the actual performance history of Jamaican women in the Olympics. It turns out, women have actually won 40 of the 78 medals (team or individual) for Jamaica in the Olympics since 1948. Given the future potential of these young girls as international sprinters, I was surprised that there wasn’t more prominent coverage. I was starting to think that the win by the Edwin Allen girls was just considered less important.

Something else was happening in Jamaica during that Champs week. People were remembering Dorraine Samuels, the late broadcaster who had passed away. In a commentary titled ‘Dorrained on my Parade’, for The Gleaner, Dr Orville Taylor wrote a passionate piece about his friend and colleague.

The mild irritation that I felt about the under-reporting of the victory of the Edwin Allen young ladies became full blown annoyance with some of the words Dr Taylor used to describe his friend.

Although Dr Taylor wrote passionately about his friend, it struck me that throughout the article, and I read it many times, he kept referring to the broadcaster’s physical attributes. He talked about her as the “shapely 20-year-old with a slight overbite and cute buck teeth”; likened her “bronze skin” to Donald Quarrie’s Olympic medal; and he referred to her as his “perpetual eye and ear candy”.

In the same article, he mentions a few other women who had competed in Miss Jamaica pageants in the late 1970s. Debbie Campbell, he said, was “a stunner in her own right and not overly depigmented [and] had been a return to the status quo of women who did not look like Kunta Kinte’s sister being selected”.

I could feel my blood boiling as I went further into the essay.

Taylor continued, “Campbell was fine, but most of us testosterone-laden teenagers had preferred the petite, proportional, and pretty Audie Culliton-Moore, whose Highgate Chocolate complexion and other rare assets gave as much pleasure as she approached as when she walked away.” And because – proper grammar be damned at this point – he mentioned Highgate and since I come from St Mary, I had to put pen to paper.

Keep in mind that these descriptions of women’s bodies were Dr. Taylor’s teenage fantasies as he paid homage to his colleague and friend. What if it was a colleague he did not like?

None of this was said to celebrate the professional excellence of Ms Samuels as a broadcaster. His overwhelming view of her was through his lens of a teenage boy viewing a beauty queen.

NO ACCOLADES FOR DORRAINE

To be honest, I searched the article for accolades about Ms Samuels’ broadcast skills, her impact on the broadcasting genre, and how Ms Samuels had grown in her expertise and wisdom as a morning drive-time broadcaster or evening news anchor later in her career. Alas, I didn’t see that.

I found that the juxtaposition, and I think, the intersectionality of the undercoverage of the Edwin Allen girls and Dr Taylor’s commentary had an overwhelming effect on me.

The reduction of a professional broadcaster to her youthful physical features, and the reduction of the Edwin Allen girls to also-ran status forced me to put pen to paper.

This struck me because I know Dr Taylor. In fact, in the article, he mentioned hanging out with the “Alpharians” back in high school. I was one of those Alpharians. I was an Alpha girl who argued for Alpha girls to take A-Level science classes at St George’s College, and for the St George’s boys to take their A-Level arts and humanities classes at Alpha. Dr Taylor was the first of that collegial exchange towards building equity and capacity in boys and girls by allowing them to have access to a high-calibre and quality education, according to their interests. Dr Taylor came to Alpha to study A-Level languages.

I was pleased to read his professional bio on the University of the West Indies (UWI) website about his delivery of lectures in both English and Spanish and that he was chair of the Sociology, Psychology and Social Work (SPSW) Department.

Since reading Dr Taylor’s homage to his friend, I have thought often about those days at Alpha as probably one of my early experiences in championing equity across gender. There have been more. Many more. It’s hard not to do that as a human resource professional myself.

That high-school example is special to me because it made me understand that if you stand up and speak up, you might be able to change something. After all, Sister Bernadette, a stalwart Jamaican leader herself and the principal of Alpha, was no pushover, but she did allow the exchange of students. In the end, that move benefited both Alpha girls and St George’s boys.

So imagine my discomfort when I read his commentary.

PARADOXICAL PHENOMENON

After reading his byline in The Gleaner, my curiosity led me to look at both his abbreviated bio at UWI.edu and at his extended bio on his personal website. I was disappointed to see Dr Taylor’s description of his ideal woman on his personal website: “Polished, black, good shape, smart, and non-confrontational.” His favourite female body part? “Butt. However, the nicer parts are inside.”

After getting more context for his words about his colleague should I dare to assume that Dr Taylor only saw Ms Samuels as a beauty queen? That thought crossed my mind, but only briefly.

However, because I am a researcher, I couldn’t stop asking myself: How do you lead a department with almost 70 per cent female faculty (according to UWI.edu) and run a department with a large number of female students while also broadcasting your preferences for women in this way? Even on your personal website. I chalked it up to just another paradoxical phenomenon in higher education where intellectual academic freedom sometimes trumps or runs rough-shod over reason.

Looking at his bio, his role as chair, his celebrated expertise in labour environments, his focus on the body of his colleague rather than her professional presence, I was really troubled.

As an expert in the areas of human capital and labour leadership, I have to say, Dr Taylor’s statements are similar, and in some cases, exactly the kind of stereotypes and contradictions I address often. Why? Because some men do this often, and it is always inappropriate.

I believe Dr Taylor should know better, having been a first beneficiary of that fight for equity in high school where he worked with Alpha girls who have gone on to achieve significant professional success. None of whom would appreciate being “honoured” with descriptions of their bodies.

By the way, I can’t even imagine any woman paying homage to a male work colleague and using similar language.

To be honest, I tried to dismiss the commentary, but I had to take a hard line on Dr Taylor’s words and believed it to be part and parcel of a global system that doesn’t value women’s work as much as it appears to value their bodies as objects of their delight.

So, enough about Dr Taylor. As any good academic, I would hope that when he reads this evaluation of his commentary, he will see it as a collegial exercise in free speech.

This is not his story. This is about the broader way we transmit messages across society about what is important to us as we try to define women – whether on the track or in the office.

When we undertell the Edwin Allen story, young women might not know that more Olympic medals went to Jamaican women than men.

When we craft musings about the body of a female colleague instead of speak to her accomplishments as a professional, we undercut her legacy.

When we do that, we undervalue the contributions of these women to Jamaica’s history and their roles as complex, thinking, breathing, professional humans.

Ms Samuels was a contemporary of mine. I didn’t know her personally, but I know she was a breath of fresh air who went toe-to-toe in the booth with other professionals with way more experience. She started broadcasting at the same time that I went to civil aviation as an air traffic controller.

At the time, that was definitely a male-dominated profession, where even when I placed first as one of the few women in a class of men, the higher-ups offered preferred locations to the guys. I digress. I told you that I’ve had to stand up for equity before. However, people, that was decades ago. Times should have changed.

Over the years, I am sure Ms. Samuels honed her skills and developed her craft in order to stay competitive and progress successfully in her field. She must and bound and compound, be recognised for that, especially by her friends.

MUST START PAYING ATTENTION

Finally, before you think these two situations were flukes, there is more. I know women talk quietly about the disparity in the acknowledgement of our merits all the time.

We have to examine why — in our culture, in 2019 — it is seen and felt but not discussed. I wouldn’t be doing my own Mama, sisters, cousins, or any of the other independent women who influenced me, any justice if I don’t speak up like they taught me to do.

How we show our girls what is meaningful and how they are valued is part of our legacy. We can’t, on one hand, speak to the value of women in our society and then skimp on telling their stories when we get the chance. We must start paying attention to how we describe the triumphs of women without reduction.

Jamaica’s collective progress is dependent on that. This island has such a legacy of creating champions and revolutionaries that maybe by using its surprisingly large influence, it can lead the collective global society in a better direction when it comes to how we discuss women who achieve.

I worry about any future women scholars in Dr Taylor’s department who would not advocate for her research on these types of women’s issues because the department chair openly states that he doesn’t like confrontational women. How is that acceptable?

ALL IS NOT LOST

All is not lost, though, as on the same weekend, I was exposed to stories of influential women through other media.

Lennie Little-White did a piece on Portia Simpson’s influence at home and abroad, and I watched a fabulous interview with Dr Amina Blackwood-Meeks that was conducted by another broadcast giant, Fae Ellington, who wove the story of her own meandering career and life.

It made me think that women have to tell women stories of strength, intellectual stamina, and career excellence. We can’t leave that to anyone else. It’s too important, and we don’t want men spilling their teenage testosterone all over our accomplishments even if they say they are trying to celebrate us.

Come on, Dr Taylor! If this Alpha girl had an impact on your academic path almost 40 years ago, maybe she can change your mind now. Since we are coming from far, I just wanted to nudge you and remind you that we shouldn’t still be having these types of conversations.

There is clearly still some work to do with gender equity, and as a sociologist, I necessarily expect Dr Taylor to be involved by setting a tone where others are welcome to challenge even his perspectives.

However, since we can’t wait on him to do it, big up to the women of Edwin Allen on victory number six and to all the young women who ran, jumped their hearts out, and set some new standards at the 2019 ISSA games.

Shout out to the legacy of Ms Dorraine Samuels, Jamaican broadcaster who changed the game and became part of Jamaican families through her steady resilience and professionalism.

In the end, one part of Dr Taylor’s commentary gave me solace. It was the part where he said that Ms Samuels put up with his “silly attempts at humour”. As your long-time friend, I am here to tell you that she didn’t put up with anything from you. She just never let you cramp her style. She had bigger fish to fry. She had a trail to blaze.

I implore all who study labour and work to please pay more attention to how we represent the work and contributions of women. It starts by calling out lack of equity in representation when you see it.

- Dr Marcia Franklin-Robinson, an Alpha woman, is an award-winning, senior certified HR professional who is the CEO at the Raye Martin Group LLC. She researches, writes, and consults on workplace automation and the future of work. Find her on Twitter @MarciaFRobinson or email feedback to mrobin@TheHBCUCareerCenter.com. and columns@gleanerjm.com.