Archive | February, 2016

Women just can’t win

28 Feb

Back in September, EDF, the energy company, launched a campaign to inspire girls to take part in science. They called it ‘Pretty Curious’, and the accompanying hashtag drew some criticism on twitter, as it associated girls’ interest with their appearance, and suggested that science has to be stereotypically feminised in order to appeal to female students. A similar approach had already led IBM to end a campaign called ‘HackAHairdryer, which was widely viewed as sexist. However, EDF defended its strapline as a way of opening the conversation on involving girls in science, and persisted in its plans to mount a series of science engagement events, culminating in a competition where students entered ideas for a domestic gadget.

This competition, the #PrettyCuriousChallenge, was opened to boys as well as girls, apparently on grounds of ‘fairness’, which is an odd decision when related to a campaign based on the fact that girls are underrepresented in science. As you may have seen in headlines, the ultimate irony is, that the competition was won by a boy. Yes, that’s right, a campaign with the stated aim ‘to change girls’ perceptions of STEM and encourage them to pursue science based careers’ , ended up with a male competition winner. How was the winner chosen? Well, a shortlist of entries was drawn up by a panel including girl students and then the entries were put to a public vote. Is it surprising that a boy won? No. A cursory glance at the literature around unconscious bias and science shows again and again that gender is a factor in hiring decisions, in perceived competence of scientists, and in rating work authored by men and women respectively. We still live in a world where men are advantaged because of baseline unconscious assumptions everyone makes about competence, credibility and science. I recently came across a study which showed that men’s academic work is rated more highly when it concerns stereotypically ‘male’ topics, while women’s – which is rated less well – suffers even more when in ‘male’ territory. So wider perceptions of girls are likely to influence public judgement of submitted work in science.

And this is perhaps the heart of the problem: shifting girls’ perceptions of STEM is only one part of the recipe required to make science more gender-equal. We need to address all the cultural and systemic reasons why women are less likely to persist in science or to be promoted in science careers once they are there. We need to confront the fact that this is about perceptions of women in an unequal society, not just girls’ own perceptions of their interests.

Jackie Fleming, the feminist cartoonist, has just written a book about women’s achievements being excluded from history. In a recent interview she points out that by not learning about the ingenuity of women in school, both girls and boys internalise the message that men are the important ones and women haven’t done much. This impression of women is cemented she says by ‘not giving them prizes, obviously, as that tends to go down in history’ . As I read that, I thought of what an own goal EDF has scored – the male winner will be on the record of their campaign to encourage women in science. It’s not the boy’s fault – I blame society.



Universal Credit – for men?

3 Feb

Last month I wrote a blog about the Prime Minister’s speech on supporting families, where he referred to parenting as a ‘job’, and families as ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Where in all this material and professional concern, I asked, was an acknowledgement of caring work in family life?

Seeing the discussion of the projected impacts of Universal Credit on different family types, I have to ask the question again. For today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that working single parents will lose the most income through the Universal Credit system, and second earners in couples will have reduced incentives to work, in contrast to the overall impact of the scheme, which will apparently do more to make work pay for recipients. While transitional arrangements will shield current claimants, the impact assessment looks at what will happen in the longer-term.

So why is this a gender issue? Well, in spite of increasing numbers of hands-on fathers and breadwinning women, 9 out of 10 single parents are still women, and dual-earning households most often have male chief wage earners. Secondary earners are often working part-time and doing most of the childcare in families. So we have two groups of working mothers (single parents, part-time employees) who are likely to find it hard to compensate for the reduced income or reduced incentives to move into or stay in employment, which Universal Credit will present. Because of their caring responsibilities, they are likely to find it difficult to increase hours or pay, in order to make up for any losses, alongside paying for additional childcare.

The government is likely to respond that the offer of 30 hours free childcare, along with rises in income tax thresholds, will help resolve these issues. But as I and many others have pointed out, the childcare proposals are underfunded, and quality childcare is least likely to be available in deprived areas, so that the poorest parents may have problems accessing it. And if you are amongst the lowest earners and/or work part-time, the tax thresholds may not make any difference to you. You will simply be left worse off, and your children will still need to be cared for.

Disincentives for second earners to work under Universal Credit are troubling because they may damage mothers’ future financial prospects. This is firstly because they make it less worthwhile to remain in work, so that more women may spend longer out of the workforce; and secondly because the Universal Credit system proposes making all payments to one person in every household, thus breaking the principle where child-related payments were made to mothers. This second feature may not matter if you are in a good relationship with access to a joint account, but it could be very disadvantageous where unsympathetic partners control access to family finances.

It appears then that the benefits of Universal Credit are not quite as universal as the name suggests. And without acknowledgement of the value – and constraints – of caring work, it is likely to give more credit to men’s work than to women’s.








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