Women don’t make good researchers. Feminism needs re-branding. Education will only give girls a misplaced sense of power. These are just some of the judgements pedalled in recent debates about the gender gap.
The common denominator seems to be the idea that women are neither capable nor worthy of changing the social landscape which, according to those harbouring such archaic views, they should simply accept as their lot. Thankfully, the many who disagree have something far more interesting to say.
One of the groups challenging the stereotypes in the academic world is Soapbox Science. Run by two research biologists, what started out as an annual public science forum on London’s Southbank has fast become a critically acclaimed network of remarkable scientists telling it like it is.
Their events in London aim to bring science to all people, irrespective of background, experience or prior scientific knowledge. The events have proved hugely popular and the associated blog, which features female scientists from across the world sharing their experiences in the lab and in life, offers an inimitable insight into the reality of working in a hugely competitive and demanding field.
It’s a much needed approach if we’re to buck the trend where only 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs in the UK are occupied by women. According to the 2012 report from the WISE campaign, while equal numbers of girls and boys are taking science at GCSE, the numbers gradually dwindle the further up the academic and career ladder you look.
Yet counter to the proactive lobbying by groups such as Soapbox Science and WISE, there is still a disturbingly prevalent myth that science is a no-go zone for women. I was alarmed to hear about a report published recently that declared that women prefer teaching while men favour research. Can that really be true? Not at all, when you look at the number of highly successful female scientists and advocates. The issue is more to do with the challenges in overturning institutional prejudices and male-orientated hierarchies.
Education, education, education
Education is an absolute necessity to changing the narrative about women’s success. And not only in the sense of informing and engaging people, but also in terms of the right to it in the first place. Because if you deny a child an education, you block their path to any kind of progress; it’s a calculated conceit aimed at denying them a future.
Education makes women powerful, and nothing poses such a defiant threat to fiercely preserved corruption than a confident woman with the knowledge and the power to oppose it – something that Malala Yousafazi knows too well, the Pakistani teenager who survived an attack by the Taliban only to become their worst nightmare and Pakistan’s greatest champion for women’s rights. Malala’s story was easily the most inspiring of all those in the news this week about women’s on-going battle against a patriarchal agenda.
Pakistan is an extreme example, though of a pernicious and widespread problem. The gender gap is still an expansive one that it takes years of graft, determination, resilience and sacrifice to overcome. And even then, only a few do. According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report the majority of countries out of 111 surveyed over the past seven years have made slow progress – the global economic gender gap stands at 60%.
The language of power
The Guardian recently listed “the world’s most powerful women”, prompted by the anticipated appointment of Janet Yellen to Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Yellen was noted for deftly “straddling” academia and public office. Others in the list were similarly highlighted for their capacity to influence and shape the corporate or public agenda in ways that demonstrate how they have managed the seemingly Sisyphean challenge of both being a woman and a success in a man’s world.
The response to lists such as these is predictably mixed. On the one hand there is applause for the fact that these lists recognise accomplishment and inspire others to follow suit; on the other, there is irritation that women are still credited by their gender first and their merit second.
Is it ever possible to separate a woman’s gender identity from her professional status? It’s as much about the language and the pitch as it is about the substance of the story. But that’s for another post, in which I’m interested to explore how journalists, PR and influential thinkers choose to talk about women.
The narrative voice has undoubtedly changed, but there’s still a long way to go.