One of France’s top colleges – the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – will be shut down, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce, under plans to boost social mobility.
A degree from the ENA has been the passport to the upper echelons of French politics for generations.
Its graduates include Mr Macron himself and ex-presidents François Hollande and Jacques Chirac.
However, it has become the target of populist anger at perceived elitism.
The entrance exams are notoriously tough, and the ENA’s intake is dominated by students from privileged backgrounds.
It admits fewer than 100 students a year, who are fast-tracked into prestigious civil service jobs.
Speaking in the western city of Nantes in February, Mr Macron said it was time to open up access to top colleges for students from modest backgrounds. The aim, he said, was that “no kid in our republic should say: this is not for me”.
He deplored the current state of social mobility in France, saying it was “worse than 50 years ago”.
His announcement is expected in a video conference with several hundred top civil servants. But he first suggested closing the ENA in 2019, after months of gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) street protests which severely challenged his presidency.
Those protests were triggered by a rise in fuel tax, but morphed into a much wider social protest against a perceived Parisian elite neglecting the needs of provincial communities.
Before becoming president, Mr Macron attended the prestigious Sciences Po university, then the ENA, before obtaining a plum job at the Financial Inspectorate – part of the finance ministry.
The ENA was established in Strasbourg in 1945 by then-President Charles de Gaulle, whose aim was to rebuild a modern French state from the wreckage of World War Two.
But while designed as a meritocracy, research shows that ENA students’ parents are often senior civil servants themselves or CEOs. Very few come from working-class backgrounds.
“It’s the school of the elite,” said Prof Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans, a political scientist who has studied the ENA extensively and now works with it.
Mr Macron is under pressure to improve his ratings ahead of next year’s presidential election, and France’s painful struggle with Covid-19 has exposed shortcomings in the state administration.
France’s vaccination rate remains relatively sluggish, and its long-admired health service has looked vulnerable in the crisis, especially intensive care.
French Europe 1 news says Mr Macron aims to attack what is widely seen as a French civil service job-for-life culture, dominated by academic qualifications.
The reforms could mean more staff turnover, job mobility and a sharper focus on pressing issues such as French secular values, poverty and the environment.
There’s strong evidence that creative insights need time to percolate – and that the right amount of distraction may be key to innovation.
If the history of creativity teaches us anything, it is that great ideas often come when we’re least expecting them. Consider Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who described how new melodies would arrive while he was eating in a restaurant, walking after a meal or getting ready for sleep at night. “Those that please me, I retain, and even hum; at least, so others have told me,” he wrote. “It seems to me impossible to say whence they come to me and how they arrive; what is certain is that I cannot make them come when I wish.”
It’s not just Mozart who experienced this phenomenon; the French mathematician Poincare described how his breakthroughs occurred while travelling on the bus or walking by the seaside, while Agatha Christie reported that ideas for her crime stories often came while washing up or having a bath. “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness.”
Psychologists would seem to agree, with strong evidence that creative insights are much more likely to occur after a period of “incubation” – in which you focus on something entirely different from the job at hand, while your brain works away behind the scenes. This could include taking a walk, doing household chores or having a shower. Even our procrastination at work – such as watching funny YouTube videos – may be helpful for our problem solving, provided it is done in moderation.
There are many reasons why a period of incubation could lead to new and inventive insights. According to one of the leading theories, it depends on the power of the unconscious mind: when we leave our task, the brain continues to look for solutions below awareness, until a solution pops out.
Just as importantly, a period of incubation allows us to gain some psychological distance from our task. When you spend a long time focusing on one problem, you can become fixated on certain obvious solutions. A period of incubation should help you to widen your mental focus so that you can make connections and come back to the problem with a new perspective. Intriguingly, incubation may work best when your mind is distracted with an engaging but relatively easy task, so that it is given just enough room to wander freely.
In 2012, the psychologist Benjamin Baird and colleagues put this idea to the test with an ingenious experiment. The participants were first asked to tackle a classic test of creativity called the “Unusual Uses Task”. As the name suggests, the aim is to find as many surprising uses as possible for a common object, such as a brick or a coat hanger.
After a few minutes of brainstorming, it was time for a period of incubation. Some students were allowed to rest for 12 minutes. Others were given a fairly undemanding test, in which they were shown a string of digits and had to say, intermittently, whether the number was even or odd. That’s akin to doing a household chore like washing the dishes – it requires a bit of focus but still allows plenty of room for mind wandering.
A third group were given a harder task, in which they had to keep the numbers in working memory for a short while, before giving their answers. In terms of the mental effort that’s required, this activity is closer to the concentrated thinking we normally do at work; it doesn’t leave a lot of mental space for mind wandering.
After the 12-minute incubation period was over, all these participants then returned to the unusual uses test of creativity – and were scored on the originality of their solutions.
For creativity, what you really need is looser, less focused thinking – and that seems to come with slight engagement in an undemanding task
The benefits of performing the undemanding task during the incubation were striking, with these participants showing a 40% rise in the creativity of their ideas for the questions they had previously considered. Importantly, there were no benefits for the participants who did nothing at all during the incubation, or those whose minds were more fully occupied with the working memory challenge; neither of these groups performed any better than students who had continued with the brainstorming task without an incubation period.
It may seem surprising that the pure rest period had not provoked greater creativity, but Baird suspects that we need some distraction to provoke the optimum amount of mind wandering. If we have literally nothing to do, our thoughts can become too logically sequential, he says (as you may think through one particular subject in detail). For creativity, what you really need is looser, less focused thinking – and that seems to come with slight engagement in an undemanding task.
That’s good news for procrastinators, since many of our ‘time-wasting’ activities may offer the optimal level of distraction for greater creativity. The key is to use distraction in moderation, as evidenced by a brand-new study from American management professors Jihae Shin and Adam Grant.
The researchers first asked the participants to brainstorm the best ways a student entrepreneur could spend $10,000 to start a new company, which they then had to write up into a business proposal. To tempt procrastination, the participants were also given links to funny YouTube videos from Jimmy Kimmel Live, which they could easily access during the exercise. The researchers then compared how much they procrastinated with the originality of their proposals.
The resulting graph looked something like an upside-down ‘U’. The people who took a few short breaks to watch the clips tended to come up with far more creative ideas than both the low- and high-procrastinators – supporting the idea that moderate levels of distraction can unleash innovative thinking.
Testing the principle in a working environment, Grant and Shin questioned the employees, and their supervisors, of a South Korean design company about their work habits and creative performance. In line with the results of the laboratory experiment, the moderate procrastinators came up with more original ideas than their colleagues who remained tightly focused on the day’s tasks.
How to waste time creatively
Whether you are a budding novelist, an advertising creative, a strategist or a teacher hoping to come up with more original lesson plans, these results are worth bearing in mind. Facing an impending deadline, we may fear taking any time away from the task at hand. But this will be counter-productive, and there should be no guilt about spending a few moments of pleasant distraction, or leaving the task altogether as we allow a solution to bubble to the surface.
Leaders may also take note. Rather than admonishing employees for taking time out of the working day, they should actively encourage it.
There are many ways they might do this. For example, Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz have found that walking boosts divergent thinking, providing fresh perspectives on whatever issues are occupying one’s mind. Interestingly the creativity-inducing effects of walking are similar whether it takes place indoors or outdoors. Leaders could therefore design workplace space that nudges employees to do more walking.
Apple’s new company headquarters, which opened in May 2017, may be the perfect example of this. Apple Park is circular and has a circumference of a mile and a diameter of 461m; it encompasses a 30-acre landscaped park where employees can wander when they are not walking to the café, the wellness centre or the theatre. As a bonus, this kind of layout promotes serendipitous encounters and conversations with colleagues, which could themselves act as a creative distraction, and which may also lead to exchange of complementary ideas and cross-fertilisation of research projects. Without issuing any explicit orders, the company is encouraging the adoption of behaviours that are known to increase creativity – a goal that was central to Steve Jobs’s vision of the park. And it seems to work: Apple is the most valuable company in the world at US$2 trillion and is regularly cited as the most innovative company in the world.
Not all companies can afford new office space, of course – and many employees are now working remotely. But managers can promote moderate procrastination in other ways, such as scheduling regular coffee breaks within meetings or even investing in nap pods, as seen in Google’s offices. (There is good evidence that short periods of sleep can also boost creativity when you are pondering a problem in much the same way as waking procrastination.) At the very least they should avoid chastising employees for the odd moment of distraction.
In the increasingly competitive workplace, we need innovative thinking more than ever before. But that will only be possible if we allow the conscious mind to find diversion and wander freely from time to time.
“I get all these splash reports, and they’re telling me about the border, they’re telling me about China, they’re telling me about Iran,” Mr Trump began, in a video released by the entertainment website TMZ.
“We were ready to make a deal, they were ready to do anything, they would have done anything. And this guy [Biden] goes and drops the sanctions and then he says we’d like to negotiate now,” he said.
President Biden has not dropped sanctions against Iran.
In February, the Biden White House withdrew a demand from the Trump administration that the United Nations Security Council enforce international sanctions on Iran for violating the nuclear deal.
Mr Trump then took aim at the Biden administration over the situation at the southern border with Mexico. The number of people arriving has grown since Mr Biden took office, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors who are being held in immigration detention facilities.
“The border is not good. It’s the worst that it has ever been,” Mr Trump said. “What’s happening to the kids, they’re living in squalor. They are living like nobody has ever seen. There’s never been anything like this.”
So, which is it? Who has more of an edge, and who’s more successful at work: bubbly, outgoing workers; or reserved, restrained ones? The answer, it turns out, is those who can be both: the chameleon-like ambivert.
Blending the best of both personality types can make you indispensable in the office, experts say. And although acting like both extrovert and introvert might feel tricky at times, it’s a skill we can all master, with a little practice.
The ‘ambivert advantage’
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term ‘the ambivert advantage’ in a 2013 study that challenged notions of extroverts being more successful and productive in a sales environment. After studying 340 call-centre employees, Grant found that the workers who made the most sales revenue were those who fell in the middle of the extroversion scale. In fact, the results made a bell curve: the worst performers were the workers who were either extremely introverted, or extremely extroverted.
“Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening, ambiverts are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale,” Grant writes in the study. But ambiverts are also “more inclined to listen to customers’ interests and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident”.
Karl Moore, an associate professor of management at McGill University and associate fellow at Oxford University, who has studied ambiverts for years, estimates that 40% of top business leaders are extroverts, 40% are introverts and 20% are “true ambiverts”, based on interviews with 350 C-suite executives. But he believes that the unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic have forced leaders of all stripes to try and act more like ambiverts.
In his upcoming book, We Are All Ambiverts Now, Moore says that the situation we were all thrust into required more leaders to call upon the strengths of both extroversion and introversion. For example, bosses needed to listen and take feedback in order to provide flexible and empathetic work environments for staff, but they also needed to broadcast clear and demonstrative enthusiasm to rally and guide the team into the unknown.
“What [the pandemic] means is that the CEO needs to listen a lot – a great leader is a great listener,” says Moore. “But [they] also need to be able to give the inspiring ‘guys, I am confident we can make it through this crisis’.”
‘Adapt to what’s necessary’
So, whether it’s sales figures or muddling through a once-in-a-century catastrophe, it’s good to be an ambivert. But how do you become one?Actually, say the experts, it’s very doable. Most of the popular personality testswill place you on a sliding scale of extroversion anyway, so ambiversion is likely within your grasp.
“It’s more about adaptive leadership style” than about thinking you need to re-haul your entire personality, says Alisa Cohn, a start-up and CEO coach based in New York City. “I think it’s less about working on your [perceived] weaknesses than it is about building up your ability to push yourself outside your comfort zone.”
It’s not just CEOs who benefit from ambiversion either, she says. In fact, the earlier in your career you build these skills, the better, since “the benefits will improve over time”. For people who identify as extroverts, this may mean being consciously quieter in meetings; for introverts, it may mean contributing more in meetings.
“It might be a specific behaviour: to listen longer or to ask another question and listen to the answer. To be more extroverted, it might be to initiate conversation or make small talk,” says Cohn. “I like the idea of practising the behaviour three, four, five times a day in little micro doses so you can do that a lot more easily without getting exhausted. And then score yourself.” Keep track of how often you do these things each day, and if you met your goal.
She also recommends spotting a role model you admire in your office who has the introvert or extrovert qualities you’re looking to emulate, so you can watch their behaviour and model yours on them.
Moore talks about working with an introverted CEO, Claude Mongeau, the former chief executive of Canadian National Railway, for his research. He says Mongeau worked with a leadership coach who gave him a clicker – like the one a bouncer outside a nightclub uses to count patrons – to keep track of every extroverted skill he practised each day. These were small things, like saying hello to someone or commenting on the weather. Moore says he was still very much an introvert, but realised to be an effective CEO, he had to channel his extroverted side.
Moore, an extrovert himself, says that channelling his inner ambivert has helped him in his own career, both as a researcher and for his radio show, in which he interviews CEOs. “On my radio show, 98% of the time I’m quiet, because I’m asking [the guest] a question, ‘Where are you from, what does your family do?’.”
Being an ambivert means being aware of your own natural social style, and knowing when the situation may call for just the opposite: “The most successful leaders are the ones who can recognise a situation and adapt their style as necessary,” says Cohn.
Avoiding the mental toll
The only downside is that this adaptation can wear you down. “You need to act like both. The problem is, it’s exhausting,” says Moore.
But remember, being an extrovert or an introvert comes down to how you are energised – either from the outside world or your internal one. So, when you try to go against natural preferences, it uses more “mental calories”, says Cohn, and it’s important to refill that mental energy tank.
For introverts, that might mean a solitary afternoon at home with a book or if you’re at work, a 15-minute break outside alone on a bench. For extroverts, it might mean surrounding yourself with people. Moore says his preferred ‘extrovert break’ when he’s on business is to find a restaurant and sit at the bar for dinner, so he can talk to other patrons. “It stimulates me. It gets my dopamine levels going, because I’m with people.”
It’s important to reiterate that few people are 100% one or the other. But becoming an ambivert is something more active; it’s deciding which switch to flip, and when. Sharpening that skill could mean all the difference – not just for you, but for the people you work with, too.
Cohn says one of her clients, an introverted manager, worked hard to strengthen his extroverted side by talking more in meetings, and responding more enthusiastically with confirming gestures like nodding. The result? His team “felt like there was more harmony in the meeting”, says Cohn. “It made them feel more important and empowered.”
“It wasn’t about him,” she says. “It was about other people feeling heard, feeling met.”
TV host Naga Munchetty has apologised for liking “offensive” tweets referencing a flag that appeared in an interview with a government minister.
On Thursday, she and BBC Breakfast co-host Charlie Stayt drew attention to a flag and a picture of the Queen behind Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick.
Ending the interview, Stayt jokingly mentioned the size of his union jack.
Munchetty said she had removed the likes and that they did not “represent the views” of her or the broadcaster.
“I liked tweets today that were offensive in nature about the use of the British flag as a backdrop in a government interview this morning,” Munchetty posted on Twitter. “I have since removed these likes.”
She added: “This do not represent the views of me or the BBC. I apologise for any offence taken.”
The BBC declined to comment. In September, the corporation’s incoming director general Tim Davie warned BBC staff about their use of social media
The European Parliament has declared that the whole of the European Union is an “LGBTIQ Freedom Zone”.
The symbolic resolution was passed in response to local authorities in Poland labelling themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones” in recent years.
Poland also plans to close a loophole that allowed same-sex couples to adopt.
The Polish government announced its proposal for the adoption ban just hours before the European Parliament’s declaration in support of LGBT rights.
Same-sex relationships are not legally recognised in Poland, and the country already bans same-sex couples from adopting children together.
However, as single people are permitted to adopt, some have managed to get around the ban by applying to adopt as single parents.
Under the new law, the authorities will be required to perform background checks on anyone applying to adopt a child as a single parent.
If a person is found to be applying as a single parent when they are in a same-sex relationship, they will be criminally liable.
Announcing the new plan, Deputy Justice Minister Michal Wojcik said: “We are preparing a change where… people living in cohabitation with a person of the same sex cannot adopt a child, so a homosexual couple will not be able to adopt a child.”
What is in the EU resolution?
The resolution declares that “LGBTIQ persons everywhere in the EU should enjoy the freedom to live and publicly show their sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of intolerance, discrimination or persecution”.
It adds that “authorities at all levels of governance across the EU should protect and promote equality and the fundamental rights of all, including LGBTIQ persons”.
The resolution was supported by 492 MEPs, while another 141 voted against it and 46 abstained.
German MEP Terry Reintke, one of the people who put forward the resolution, praised the “overwhelming majority” in favour of it.
“Let’s use it,” she tweeted after the vote. “Let’s put it into concrete political action: better laws, better enforcement, better protection. Together we can do it.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had already backed the resolution before it went to a debate on Thursday.
“Being yourself is not an ideology. It’s your identity,” she tweeted on Wednesday. “No one can ever take it away. The EU is your home. The EU is a #LGBTIQFreedomZone.”
Last year, Ms von der Leyen said that Poland’s “LGBT-free zones” had “no place in our union”, and vowed to push all EU member states to recognise adoptions by same-sex couples.
Thursday’s resolution said that discrimination not only needed to be addressed in Poland, but that it was “an issue across the EU”.
Abuse on social media is the biggest obstacle facing women in public life, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader called on social media companies to take “more responsibility” in dealing with anonymous abusers.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme, she said there was “literally hourly trolling” about appearance, clothes and haircuts.
Mrs Foster said the abuse could be “really, really painful”.
The first minister addressed the issue at the Women in Media conference in Belfast on Monday, which was International Women’s Day.
Speaking on Tuesday, she said she found the abuse most difficult to deal with “when it impacts upon my family”.
Mrs Foster said that when young women who want to get involved in politics “see the abuse that leaders are taking at present, who are female politicians, it’s bound to have an impact on them wanting to get involved”.
“What we need to see is social media companies taking more responsibility for the anonymity of these people so we can deal with these issues,” she said.
“We all know that social media allows people to be anonymous and therefore that works in favour of those who want to attack.”
‘Underbelly of misogyny’
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill told BBC Newsline she was “frequently critiqued on how I look, what my hair looks like, my clothes, my eyebrows”.
“Who knew that men would be so interested in my eyebrows?” she asked.
The Sinn Féin vice-president said she was often criticised about “how I speak” but she added: “Let me say: I’m fiercely proud of my Tyrone accent.
“The digital world has certainly exacerbated our experiences as women.
“We are targeted by those who use the cover of anonymity to create a toxic and malevolent underbelly of misogyny and abuse and degradation of women.”
‘Very protracted process’
Her comments were supported by Justice Minister Naomi Long, who said she struggled to get social media companies to respond to even the most serious abuse. Mrs Long, the Alliance Party leader, said social media users should have to verify their identity when signing up to platforms such as Facebook Twitter and Instagram.
“If something like a death threat on social media is discovered – and I mean I have considerable experience dealing with this – it can be very difficult to get the social media companies to take it down, which is remarkable,” Mrs Long said.
“They’ll come back when I make a complaint through the normal channels and [they will] say it doesn’t breach the community standards.
“But also they won’t assist the police very often or it’s a very protracted process in trying to discover who owns the account.”
SDLP MP Claire Hanna said social media companies were not doing enough to combat the “sheer lack of accountability” of their users.
The use of social media was essential as a “communication and listening tool” in her line of work but the abuse she received often drowned out constructive conversation, she added.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland said that while there is not a specific law against online abuse in Northern Ireland, trolling or sending abusive messages could constitute a criminal offence under a number of pieces of legislation.
“Social media users are personally responsible for the content they post and there can be both criminal and civil law implications to posting comments online,” said Det Supt Gareth Talbot.
“Where a report is made to police of possible criminal offences, we will always investigate and take appropriate action.”
“I want to address my appearance on the @mothecomedian podcast, when a story I told caused massive and righteous offence,” she wrote.
“Firstly, I want to say that I am wholeheartedly sorry”.
She continued: “I know that in this case, sorry is not nearly enough, throughout my life I have made a lot of mistakes and what I have come to know is that the only benefit to making one is to learn from it.
The word Jess used in her interview is among the most commonly used slurs against trans people online – according to a recent study.
“To be in the knowledge that I have negatively impacted the community through my own ignorance has ripped out a piece of my heart.” she explained.
“I know I needed to address my mistake head on and educate myself about an issue I was frankly ignorant of.
“The language that I used on the podcast was unacceptable, as someone that has always been immersed in the LGBTQ+ community, I have witnessed first hand the progress that has been made when it comes to language, I am ashamed that I was unaware of the potency of the T-slur until now.”
The singer then shared a list of organisations we she said her followers could “learn from”.
Organisers of London Trans Pride say the singer “still has a lot of work to do”, but called her apology “a step in the right direction”.
Newsbeat asked Mo Gilligan for comment, but he hasn’t responded.
Amid grim times, putting on your biggest smile may seem like the best coping mechanism. However, that approach could be harmful – but luckily, there’s another way through.
Over the last year, as the pandemic has morphed from terrifying to inconvenient to long-term life-altering event, our coping mechanisms have had to adapt and evolve. Yet there have been differences in the ways we’ve approached time spent in isolation.
For some, positivity has been essential to coping with the crisis – many have relished a chance to slow down and reevaluate, felt grateful to still have a job or kept the good things in perspective (even while balancing virtual schooling, remote work and keeping the family safe). Of course, staying upbeat and expressing gratitude are hardly adverse practices, but this unrelenting optimism – known as ‘toxic positivity’ – paints negative emotions as a failure or weakness. Plus, there are few things more grating than encountering a toxic positivist when you’re grappling with grim reality.
By contrast, another mindset approach boasts a more realistic framing. ‘Tragic optimism’ posits there is hope and meaning to be found in life while also acknowledging the existence of loss, pain and suffering. First defined by Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in 1985, proponents of tragic optimism maintain there is space to experience both the good and the bad, and that we can grow from each.
Experts suggest that this kind of philosophy may be exactly what we need to cope as we’re still trudging through the pandemic – and may help us once we’re on the other side, too.
Finding meaning amid chaos
Tragic optimism, says Emily Esfahani Smith, offers a perspective on adversity that helps people weather crises with more resilience and grow as a result of them. “It acknowledges the difficulties and the pain and the suffering of what’s going on, and at the same time, the ability to maintain hope,” she says.
To be tragically optimistic is a happy medium where instead of crushing our spirit, difficulties and challenges provide us with a learning moment
A cornerstone of the philosophy is the ability to find meaning and purpose amid challenges and setbacks. “Suffering is a part of life, and the question is how are you going to cope with it?” explains Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning. “A lot of people are going to deny or ignore their suffering, and a lot of other people are going to be completely overwhelmed by it.” To be tragically optimistic is a happy medium where instead of crushing our spirit, difficulties and challenges provide us with a learning moment, like re-framing the stress of giving a public speech as a challenge rather than a threat.
The realities of the pandemic can make finding the bright side a very difficult endeavour, which is why acknowledging the loss, pain and guilt of our situations is so beneficial. At the start of lockdowns in the UK last spring, Jessica Mead, a PhD student in the psychology department at Swansea University, sought to measure changes in wellbeing among residents. Naturally, wellbeing levels plummeted as a result of the pandemic, but Mead and her colleagues found participants who showed tragic optimism coped more effectively with the trauma of the pandemic.
Participants ranked how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I have learned how to face and adapt to whatever life throws at me” and “I accept what cannot be changed in my life”. Those who most strongly identified with the statements were measured as exhibiting tragic optimism. People who had accepted that life comes with difficulties – and were prepared for them – coped with lockdowns more effectively than those who did not.
Mead also found that tragic optimists looked to things like their relationships with friends and family to find meaning. She points out that finding meaning in tough times is a deeper process than a short-term fix such as playing video games for a few hours to zone out. “Focusing on meaning might take a bit longer for people to develop that relationship with whatever does bring them meaning, but it will be so much more long-lasting,” she says.
From stress to growth
Our mindset may not only affect how we cope with the pandemic on a day-to-day basis, but also how we emerge from it in the months to come.
It’s OK to feel bad, it’s OK to feel anxious. Welcome to human club – Paul Wong
Some who experience a traumatic event have difficulty coping and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a major concern for many mental-health professionalsas we anticipate the end of the pandemic. This can be the case for many who depend on toxic positivity; encouraging people to be optimistic and grateful when they may be going through very tough times doesn’t encourage growth on the other side of tragedy, says Mead. And while positivity can, in the right amounts, have benefits, taken to extremes it can also leave people feeling guilt, shame or in denial about their real feelings.
In contrast, however, others find trauma gives them a new lease on life, an altered perspective known as post-traumatic growth. Tragic optimism helps facilitate this: by accepting and sitting with the distressing feelings the pandemic has foisted upon us, we can use them as fodder for personal development.
Paul Wong, a psychologist and professor emeritus of Trent University in Ontario, says the road to this transformation may be uncomfortable, because life currently isn’t easy. “It’s OK to be lonely,” he says. “It’s OK to feel bad, it’s OK to feel anxious. Welcome to human club.”
But instead of letting these negative feelings overwhelm us – or ignoring them completely, as is par for the course in toxic positivity – embracing tragic optimism means making a daily effort to feel comfortable with loneliness or anxiety. In these moments, we may learn we enjoy solitude, that we highly value community or discover who we want to be on the other side of the pandemic.
So, although it may feel tempting just to grin and bear it, taking the slightly more uncomfortable route of a tragic optimist may actually help us see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – and help us take a breath as we wait to reach it.
The pandemic has had widely varying effects on different generations, races, nations, sectors and genders. Nearly a year in, the data shows women in the UK have not been more likely to lose their jobs, but they have been harder hit in many other ways.
They are more than half the population, so a focus for one day each year is bound to look tokenistic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the try.
So, for International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at the way the pandemic has affected them, particularly in the workplace. March 8 brings a lot of new evidence.
In sectors including key workers – health care, schools, social care and supermarkets – women outnumber men by 4.8m to 1.6m, according to the Living Wage Foundation.
However, within these sectors, women are more likely than men to earn less than the real Living Wage (the non-statutory one calculated on basic needs, at £9.50 per hour and more in London). In schools, it found that is true of 22% of women and 8% for men. In supermarkets, it is true of 50% of women and 41% of men.
Women business owners are more likely to have found the pandemic stressful. NatWest/Royal Bank of Scotland reports its own survey finding that is true of 71% of businesswomen and 55% of male entrepreneurs. The gap is larger when asked about struggling business demands with family life.
The Economist publication runs an annual Glass Ceiling Index across 29 developed economy nations, combining data on higher education, labour force participation, pay, childcare costs, maternity and paternity rights, business school applications and representation in senior roles.
To no-one’s surprise, northern Europe does well, with Sweden top, followed by Iceland, Finland and Norway. Britain ranks 20th out of 29, up three places on last year because it does relatively well in the share of senior roles occupied by women. The USA is two places higher.
Home-working through the pandemic is thought to have landed women with a disproportionate workload in childcare and home schooling, while disparities in housework persist.
With childcare centres closed or restricted through lockdowns, the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted that the paid childcare sector has been particularly vulnerable to financial distress.
Many such businesses are run by women and employ mainly women, and run on very narrow margins. The drop in income risks putting many out of business altogether, risking a worsening of access to affordable childcare when the crisis phase is over.
Is the gender pay gap important, and a top priority right now? In a recent survey of 1,000 British people for Ipsos Mori and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in London, 28% said it has that urgency.
That was much lower than other west European nations, with France at 51%, Spain 46% and Italy 44%.
But are claims about the pay gap for real? The study compared 28 countries and found the British are more likely than others to agree that it is a problem (61% of women, 48% of men).
But 18% think is is an example of political correctness gone too far, and 15% of men questioned think media reports about it are “fake news”.
Julia Gillard, former Australian premier who chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, commented: “It’s been said that we’re at a coronavirus crossroads: we face a choice between building back better or allowing progress on gender equality to stall or even be reversed.
“If we’re to have any chance of ensuring women don’t lose out further because of the crisis, we need to keep this issue high on the agenda.”
What are the facts? This is what the House of Commons Library published last week: “Median weekly pay for female full-time employees was £543 at April 2020. This compared to £619 for male full-time employees.
“After adjusting for inflation, median pay for female full-time employees was around 2% higher than its 2008 level, while median pay for men was around 8% lower”.
(Median is the person half way along the population: in this case, half paid more, half paid less.)
It used to be assumed that male brawn was required to drive a train, and more to shovel the coal. That was a while ago, yet rail union Aslef reckons that only 6.5% of British train drivers were female as recently as 2019.
LNER, the publicly-owned operator of the East Coast Main Line, says it has raised female driver applications from 7% of the total in 2017 to 17%, and it is aiming for 40% within four years.
Last month, the Resolution Foundation, a think tank specialising in labour market issues, reported on many labour market trends through the pandemic.
It did not bear out the expectation that women have been more likely to lose their jobs, because they’re more likely to work in the worst affected sectors. That is true of young people, but not women.
Job losses have been much lower than expected, with 1.9% of men losing jobs, and 1.1% of women.
However, a study of lockdown last year found that women were significantly more likely than men to be furloughed.
Surveys for the Resolution Foundation over the past year found there was not a significant gender difference between the share who were either furloughed, or lost their jobs, or lost pay.
It cites research at the London School of Economics concluding that men have been more likely to face job losses during recent recessions.
However, there is some evidence that employers have been less likely to supplement furlough pay, above the 80% provided by the UK government.
The report also notes evidence from Public Health England that women are facing a tougher impact on mental health through the pandemic.
Close the Gap, a Scottish pressure group on women’s inequality in the workplace, does not agree on all the Resolution Foundation findings: it cites research published last year suggesting women have been more likely to lose jobs through this recession.
A briefing for MSPs ahead of International Women’s Day raises its expectations for improvements after the Holyrood election in May: “Action on women’s labour market inequality has been rendered even more pivotal by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
“The social, economic and labour market impacts of Covid-19 have the potential to reverse gender equality gains and exacerbate women’s pre-existing inequality.”
An inquiry by MPs into the UK government’s response to Covid found repeated instances where rapidly-designed emergency measures had failed to take account of gender differences.
The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme has several holes in it, which have been controversial. One of those to have got less attention than most is that its dependence on recent tax returns makes little allowance for those who took maternity breaks.
It noted that “government priorities for recovery are heavily gendered. Investment plans skewed towards male-dominated sectors (‘shovel-ready’ etc) make for unequal outcomes and exacerbate existing inequalities.
MPs on the Commons’ Women and Equality Committee also reported last month that they were “gravely concerned by evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic”.
In the first 15 years of work, women contribute two-thirds of the sum put into pension pots by young men. Why? Mostly career breaks to raise children.
There are, meanwhile, positives to take out of the side-effects of pandemic. Home working can be made to work for women who are juggling careers with family responsibilities.
If working from home is becoming the norm, and a more flexible routine is likely to last, then women have a better chance of mixing family life with work and career progression.
There’s a positive for fathers too, at least those who have the traditional role as primary household earner. Where their jobs demand long hours, and previously meant absence in the office or while travelling for work, they have more chance of being active parents and seeing their children grow up – into a fairer jobs market, perhaps?