The Bearded Lady not just a sideshow.

20 Jun

A new group has emerged in France and I like their style.

Using aesthetic props reminiscent of the Guerilla Girls and a strong but silent message, La Barbe (or in English, The Beard) is getting the people of France to take notice. Launched in March 2008, La Barbe was born out of the 2007 election campaign in France when Marie-Ségolène Royal, the socialist party’s first female presidential candidate, lost to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Fed up with the lack of female representation in politics and on corporate boards, La Barbe shouted “THE BEARD! Manifesto of the Beard” (according to an amusingly poor translation of an article I found online).

In their manifesto La Barbe states “Its time to put feminism back into the saddle and set off to conquer the territories of power in all its forms.” Going on to further state their intention to infiltrate all “bearded chambers” and “vestibules”, La Barbe vows to highlight the gender inequality in France’s political and business community.

La Barbe has since been seen at meetings of the French National Assembly, Senate, boards of major corporations and festivals. Arriving in plain clothes, this group of women settles into the audience inconspicuously. However, as the proceedings begin it’s members position their fake beards and rise to join the all male panels.

On a recent occassion, the women crashed the board meeting of Veolia Environment SA shareholders in Paris. According to the Business Week article on the event, the women challenged the Chairman of the Board, Henri Proglio, over the existence of only one female member on a board of 17. A female activist from La Barbe sarcastically asked, “Is it really wise to allow women to define the strategy of a company, a task requiring intelligence, an ability to react and cool-headedness?”.

Women make up 9.5% of 103 French boards while in the National Assembly 19% of deputies are female, despite gender quotas being introduced 10 years ago. It is clear La Barbe has a big job ahead of them with parties preferring to pay million euro fines rather than find capable women to fill the gender quota’s.

A clever and thought-provoking approach, La Barbe’s protests make visible the lack of gender representation at important meetings across France and have successfully highlighted the poor record France has of gender equality in positions of power. They have successfully recruited media with their youtube videos and photos and have struck fear into all misogynist board members’ hearts. Whether their approach will have a long lasting impact is yet to be seen, but I certainly hope it raises questions in some people’s minds.

So the question is, could we do something like that here in Ireland? With only 13% female representation in the Dail and 10.1% female representation on boards, we certainly have reason to!

While I love the idea of donning a beard to senate committee hearings and shouting from the visitors box, Im not sure I have the guts. I felt bad enough when the security guard told me off the other day for drinking water while watching a Senate debate, I can only imagine how I’d feel being dragged out the gates of Leinster House shouting “Manifesto of the beard!”.

Still, I think it’s always worth thinking about more radical ways to get the message out there. Not enough people think about the impact lack of female representation has on perpetuating the gender inequality in Irish society. Though beards may not be the way to get their attention, Id be eager for other suggestions!


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