One crisp March afternoon, Alice strolled into Leopold Park where a tea-time seminar on equal opportunities had been organised, as was traditional on International Women’s Day.
She was a trainee in the Green Party, and was supposed to meet with other trainees for whom it was an excellent networking event, as well as an eating opportunity (as trainees are famously poorly paid). A vegan and a bio food supporter, she has a weakness for fair trade chocolate and vegan cupcakes. As the only female trainee in the political groups, she was strongly encouraged to eat cakes and drink soda in order to achieve gender balance by outweighing other, male trainees.
At the end of the long tea-table, laden with teacups and cakes, a stage had been set up for the political speeches of the seminar. At the far end of the table, three old unelected politicians were seated: the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, dozing in between the other two, after a heavy dose of cake.
Alice gathered her courage and tried to sit next to the March Hare, but got pinched on her thigh under the table cloth and quickly moved backwards. The Mad Hatter seemed to be boring everyone to slumber with some strategy of sustainable hat production, made of pumpkin tops, that would make him rich. He was showing a PowerPoint presentation on his Mushroom iPad to the March Hare, who was doped on green tea and the view of Alice’s skirt, but quite uninterested in sustainability.
Alice popped a blueberry cupcake into her mouth and moved away, in a clock-wise direction.
“You are a delicious young lady, I’ll catch you up later”, shouted the March Hare after her, salivating.
She went to the next group around the table, closer to the stage, which seemed to be made up of smart young men, some of whom she recognised as trainees in other political groups, from a previous common training course. They were all wearing polo-shirts with the motto “Boys will be Boys”.
They were eagerly debating a new strategic Big Deal project, and trying to prove why THEIR ideas were the best and could indeed change the world’s political agenda. Every couple of minutes one of them would scramble up the platform to “test” the microphone by introducing himself and pitching his self-proclaimed attributes. Alice thought: “How brilliant! Let me try to do the same – after all, this seminar is dedicated to gender-balance and equal opportunities, and I have studied at the same schools and have been a more brilliant student than some of these guys. And oh, what a beautiful stage with that smart glass ceiling!”
She tries to inch closer to the platform, gobbling up some carrot cake for courage, and chatting with a caterpillar trainee with a big, self-important pipe in his mouth. He kept blowing clouds of smoke into her eyes, laughing at the result. Another one, more sympathetic, kept smiling at her like a Cheshire cat, but soon disappeared towards the stage… When Alice stood up to step onto the stage, suddenly the caterpillar pushed her to the side saying: “It’s my turn, young lady, don’t you see I’m a butterfly? Wait until you’ve earned your colours!”
Alice dried her eyes and swallowed a bit of lemon meringue pie to perk up her self-esteem. “How am I to get to the stage if they keep pushing me aside?”
From the direction of the House of European Literary History, a strange couple was approaching: a former trainee, Lolita, whom she knew from an alumni meeting of her Ivy League college, accompanied by an older man who introduced himself as Mr Humbert Humbert. “Why, my dear”, said Lolita, “if you wish to succeed, you should find yourself a ‘sponsor’ or a ‘mentor’. They will teach you what to do.”
Thanking her for that piece of advice, but not knowing where to look for such a ‘mentor’, Alice decided to move on, clockwise, to the next group, wearing badges announcing ‘tutors’: one was a middle-aged lady, who kept repeating: “It is all in the process! Procedure is primordial! You cannot skip procedure!” She kept popping into her mouth some beet-cake that looked like red tape.
Next to her was a mousy, bespectacled man, who kept looking through his pile of papers, removing all the full stops and replacing them by semi-colons. “No, no, no, this is not clear! It is all the same thought! We cannot write these short and simple sentences: it is not in the spirit of political language!” The pile next to him was getting bigger and bigger.
Alice tasted some red tape cake and decided to skip the semi-colon man.
The stage was now occupied by another young male politician, using the time before the arrival of the first ‘inspirational speaker’, Ms Jane Eyre.
Jane came towards the platform from the House of European Literary History in a romantic cloud on a computer screen behind the platform: the only way to break the glass ceiling without glass shards showering down on her head. The audience, now suddenly full of young enthusiastic women thirsty for recognition, applauded in admiration.
In a soft voice, Jane explained why it was difficult for women to succeed in top management: “Many men see most women in top management as the ‘Queen of Hearts’ who will behead them, so fear makes them band together” (the Boys will be Boys were glancing at each other nervously and sending each other anxious messages on social media via their iPhones), “and it is only recently they have recognised that our qualities of empathy and ‘people skills’ may be useful in leadership. However, the plague of sexual harassment is still the scourge of our political parties, and indeed of tea parties in many places around the world, not to mention the business world. So we should strongly condemn it! Me too, I was sexually harassed by my employer when I was a governess!”
Lolita jumped up from the audience and shouted: “Me too!” Alice, remembering the March Hare, also shouted: “Me too!” She already felt dizzy from all the cakes she had stuffed herself with and decided it was time to go home. She must soon be gaining gender balance with all the pounds she had gained today at the tea party. So she picked up Lolita, who left her Humbert named and shamed, and off they went following in the footsteps of Jane Eyre, towards the House of European Literary Herstory.