I know the following sentence is going to get me into trouble. Still, there are times when you wonder whether highly feminised people should perform certain jobs. I am not saying ‘women’ and I am not saying ‘always’, just ‘times’. Still, I can hear you say: what sort of a dinosaur are you?
Well, join me in the Jurassic period for a moment by contemplating the social media activity of our lead diplomatic representative and ambassador in the Ukraine, Melinda Simmons. Simmons is in a rather important position at present, yet her social-media account suggests otherwise.
Here is Simmons a few months ago, writing on Instagram about a photograph of her at a podium with a chaplain to one side and a military guard at the other. ‘In this picture, all three people are wearing a uniform,’ she writes. ‘The army chaplain on the left wears his robe, the military guard on the right his army colours, and I wear my Work Dress.’ Simmons’s work dress is a dark blue top with a pleasant light blue jacket — something I would not draw attention to had she not done so herself.
Her point turned out to be that whereas the uniforms of both the chaplain and the guard had pockets, Simmons’s ‘uniform’ is pocketless. Such, apparently, are the pitfalls of being a woman. You may wonder why Simmons could not get an outfit with pockets, or even a handbag, as several women have before her. But this would not allow the ambassador to make her point. Apparently bags, for instance, are messy and need to be rummaged in.
Happily she has a solution. ‘Behind me stands a really lovely guy who can only just be seen, who’s holding my four essential items while I deliver my speech.’ Well phew-ee, what a close call. Anyone expecting to be subjected to a dressing-down about the shortfalls of women’s clothing will be relieved at this everywoman answer: obtain a valet. Jolly good. Ambassador Simmons’s self-aware post was hashtagged #workfashion and, inevitably, #womenatwork.
On another recent occasion Ambassador Simmons could be found on LinkedIn mulling over whether she should drink tea or coffee during media interviews. She thinks it’s ‘a real sign of confidence if you do’, yet says that ‘the pitfalls are huge. Taking a sip when it’s too hot is not a good look for anyone, spilling it on your outfit, dribbling accidentally while trying to answer a question’. Amazing, really, what you must juggle in the diplomatic corps. Still, on balance Simmons believes that it is important to drink a hot drink during media interviews, not just because it relaxes her but because ‘it sends a subliminal message to the interviewer that I’m not fazed. This is particularly helpful for responding to leading or aggressive questions which I think can often have a gendered tinge.’ Of all the surprising things in that passage perhaps the least surprising is that Simmons identifies ‘a gendered tinge’ in ‘aggressive questions’.
Of course all these twitterings would be of no import whatsoever were Russian forces not now amassing in the vicinity of our lady in Kiev. The job of UK ambassador in Ukraine has taken on a certain seriousness in recent days. Our country — along with some of our allies — has chosen to arm the Ukrainians. The Russians look likely to invade, and at some point in the coming days we are going to have to work out whether to bluff with President Putin and hope he believes us, or bluff with him, watch him ride into Ukraine and then we have to scarper from the place pretty sharpish, apologising and explaining that we didn’t really mean it. In such a standoff it is probably a good idea to give off a certain resolve; a steeliness even. Of the kind that some women, as well as men, excel at.
And yet. Here is our ambassador to Ukraine in the past few days, once again keeping us up to date via Instagram. ‘It is intense these days,’ she says, in full teenage mode, adding sagely that it might be ‘for some time to come’. The amassing of around 130,000 Russian troops on the border can make you feel that way. But Ambassador Simmons reveals that she feels the pressure especially badly. She explains that at such points having some me-time becomes even more important. ‘Nobody can keep going indefinitely on adrenaline and nerves,’ she wrote this week. Except perhaps certain countries’ elite fighting forces. Ambassador Simmons has her own way of coping. ‘Today I grabbed 30 minutes for a walk in the snow and came back feeling as if my brain was several kilos lighter.’ Perhaps it was, for she accompanied this particular musing with the hashtags #decompression and #stressmanagement.
I do not wish to pick on her, but in previous posts in the build-up to this crisis Simmons has talked of the ‘finite resource’ of resilience and said that she struggles to find the time to top up her endorphins in order not to ‘burn out’. In fact her social-media activity is pretty much a stream of suggesting that she is on the border of succumbing to stress, and is just about coping.
Not far away from her are people facing a yet more stressful set of events. And it is not at all clear that a walk in the snow, a bit of me-time or even finding a valet to hold their personal items will help the civilian soldiers of the Ukrainian army. For their part, they have been training for years with pitifully little weaponry in the hope that when the hour comes they might hold off the Russian armed forces for a few hours, if not days. And I regret the type of ally we have become to them.
When exactly did Simmons-like behaviour become our national character? When did me-time and self-esteem replace stoicism? People used to talk of drawing on reserves in a crisis, not least because it gave confidence to our friends and allies as well as to ourselves. Clearly that isn’t the case now. And I’d reach into my pocket and place a bet on the consequences, if pockets didn’t have such a gendered tinge.