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Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

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Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Women’s Data

8 Mar

What would I like most for International Women’s Day?  I’d like better data on women’s lives.  Last year Melinda Gates gave the global gender data gap a boost by pledging funds to improve data collection and to set priorities for countries to record information on women’s health, economic and social contributions and their unpaid work.  It may all sound a bit wonky, but how can we set the record straight on women’s rights if we don’t count what women do?

Globally the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give a focus for collecting more and better data on women and girls, and there is a specific goal for gender equality, SDG number 5.  But it is striking how little we know in many areas, and how patchily data on women is collected throughout the world.  A report from 2014 identified key areas where gender data gaps exist, and the main types of data gap – gaps in coverage, gaps in international standards, gaps in complexity, and gaps in granularity (the ability to separate out data on men and women in large datasets).

Among the many topics in health, education, economics, politics and human security, it is quite telling which areas have all 4 types of data gap: employment mobility, agricultural productivity, access to childcare, access to ICT, women’s participation in peace and security processes. All of these areas highlight aspects of the invisibility of women lives – women are much more likely to be in informal employment throughout the world, their activity unrecorded and their ability to transition into formal work unaccounted for.  In agriculture, women’s work may be vital, but hidden in remote places, or beneath the umbrella of household productivity, which doesn’t show which people did what.  Access to childcare is crucial for women’s participation in all activities outside the home, and the fact that there isn’t consistent data, demonstrates both how undervalued childcare can be, and how service provision has not been a major priority in many countries.  Access to ICT is now a crucial part of everyday life, and mobile phones and the internet are transforming services and access to markets in both low and high income countries.  And yet, where there is information on access by gender (e.g. here ) it shows that women are disadvantaged when it comes to connectivity. Finally, women’s participation in peace and security processes has been shown to be crucial in rebuilding post-conflict societies and making settlements last, and yet it may often be overlooked.

So as we look to Make Work Visible on International Women’s Day, let’s remember to record all of women’s contributions to society. Women must be counted when they stand up.

 

Going round in circles …

16 Jan

Mid-January, and it’s Davos time again – the annual pilgrimage of business leaders and heads of state to the summit at the summit of Europe.  Davos, at 5000 ft in the Swiss Alps, is the highest town on the continent, and is the venue for the World Economic Forum jamboree, where big ideas are discussed by day, and big parties held at night.  Davos is the playground of the kind of ‘citizens of nowhere’ so derided in recent political conversations, and embodied in ‘Davos man’, the jetsetting, be-suited thought leader, to be found at the top of corporations, tech start-ups – and even governments.

Given recent political trends, it is perhaps not surprising that Davos is out to present its more caring and open-minded side to the world.  Around a third of attendees, after all, come from civil society organisations and academe.  This makes it all the more surprising that efforts to create a more gender-equal pool of participants has so far resulted in women forming less than a quarter of delegates. No wonder this progress was described as ‘glacial’ in the Guardian, although rumour has it that the side events ‘for wives’ of years gone by, have been shelved ….

Meanwhile, in the world of wider inequalities, WEF is keen to show that the crowd invited is younger  than before, with millennials on board, and that supporters of populist parties in Europe, and of Donald Trump himself, will be there. But since these types include at least one enormously rich man who is already a Davos regular, this may do little to assuage doubters who see it as an elitist talking shop. As Bloomberg note, this year’s overarching theme, ‘Responsive and Responsible leadership’, suggests that Davos man (and the minority of women) may have had cause to think that they themselves could be part of the problem.  There’s a lot of soul-searching about the inequities of globalisation going on in the programme.  With Oxfam unveiling its revamped index of inequality showing that this year 8 – yes just 8 – billionaires now have wealth equivalent to that owned by the lower half – yes half – of the world’s population, it’s no wonder.  Oxfam Britain’s Chief Executive said that this meant that those in control of half the world’s wealth could now squeeze into a golf buggy – it’s a wonder he didn’t say ski lift, but that may have been considered a little too close to the bone.

Over in Fortune magazine I’m told that the ‘circular economy’ is now more than just ‘Davos-speak’.  The ‘circular economy’ refers to processes whereby manufactured goods can be recycled or reused in whole or in part, so as to avoid ending up in landfill, with all the accompanying negative environmental and climate implications.  Every year at Davos a series of awards are handed out for the best initiatives in circular economy innovation.  It occurred to me that this scheme should now be extended to – but inverted – for politics. After years of alleged groupthink, and handing out colour-coded badges to show which ever-decreasing circle of the elite its participants belong to, Davos could take the bull by the horns. The Forum could give out prizes for the best echo chamber-busting innovations to emerge each year  – we all seem to have had enough of circular politics.

 

 

 

 

 

Does it matter what kind of man is on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

14 Dec

Last year I wrote a blog which asked ‘Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Committee?’, and I concluded that it probably did.  While it is entirely appropriate that the majority of members of the committee are women, the absence of senior male MPs could be construed as indicating that powerful parliamentarians are not much interested in women and equalities issues.  And there could have been a danger that those on the committee might be left to get on with ‘their’ business, apart from issues widely considered to be more part of the political mainstream.

Since then, following the General Election, a second man joined the Committee. More recently, The Good Parliament report was published, looking at how to make parliament more representative, diverse and inclusive. Recommendations included making single gender committees prohibited, and that issues of representativeness be borne in mind in Select Committee membership. These recommendations make a useful counterbalance to the fact that the most prestigious committees tend to be overwhelmingly male, and, that at one point, the House of Commons ended up with a Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport which was entirely white and male.

Fast forward to the news that has just emerged that Philip Davies, an MP with a record as an ‘anti-feminist’, has been elected unopposed as a new member of the Women and Equalities Committee.  Is this a problem? It could be, as he pronounced on the Daily Politics today that he saw his position as similar to UKIP members sitting in the European Parliament – they disagree with everything the institution stands for, but are there to hold it to account.  For a Committee whose purpose is to hold government to account on issues concerning women and equality, it seems odd to join in order to challenge its raison d’etre.  Davies has asserted that it should be called the ‘Equalities Committee’, dropping the reference to women altogether.  This indicates he thinks that gender equality has been achieved, which, given the continuing lack of equal political representation or equal pay, and the continuing unequal share of unpaid and caring labour – to mention just a few persistent gender issues – is a view which flies in the face of everyday evidence. Perhaps even more bothersome, though, is the fact that no-one stood against him to fill the vacant place.  This would suggest that the Conservatives have attached little importance to membership of the Women and Equalities Committee, or to wider perceptions of such an unconventional candidacy.  You might have thought that they would have produced a candidate who believes that the Committee needs to exist, and that women’s voices should be heard. On the anniversary of the day women voted for the first time, and just when women have reached the 30% mark among MPs in parliament, you would have thought that what the politicos call the ‘optics’ would matter.

Pro Bono?

1 Nov

I can’t quite believe that this is the third blog I’ve written this year about dubious choices for awards; but – like a lot else in 2016 – the apparently simple act of rewarding women with prizes, seems to have gone awry.

First up was the Pretty Curious Challenge. This was a science and innovation competition for girls, which mysteriously elected part way through the process to include boys too, and ended up with a male winner by popular vote; next, just a couple of weeks ago, the UN was in hot water, over the choice of fictional character Wonder Woman, as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. What could possibly be number 3? Well, Glamour magazine have just announced that one of the nominees in their high profile Women of the Year Awards is: Bono.  Yes, that’s right, U2’s frontman, and indubitably male philanthropist, is one of their Women of the Year – except he’s a kind of token man award winner, added in amongst the women. If you’re not speechless yet, the justification given for his award might just get you there:

‘when a major male rock star who could do anything at all with his life decides to focus on the rights of women and girls worldwide—well, all that’s worth celebrating. We’re proud to name that rock star, Bono, our first Man of the Year.’

Yes, imagine, a famous and talented man has actually thought about women – he could have done anything, supported any cause, but he decided to devote some time to the cause of women in poverty.  How telling is this statement about the secondary status of women? Women, it would appear, in Glamour’s world, are fantastically lucky if powerful men give them so much as a fleeting thought ….

What makes this all the worse, is that this reasoning behind selecting Bono, is preceded in the awards blurb by mention of the United Nations’ ‘HeforShe’ campaign.  This is fronted by Emma Watson, an actual woman, and a major actress who could have done anything, but decided to make the case for involving men in women’s rights across the globe.  So, if the shtick is, as Glamour put it, that ‘these days most women want men—no, need men—in our tribe’ why not give the award to a famous woman encouraging just that, instead of creating an additional place for a man? I cannot think of any convincing reason why not.

Awards that should be given to living, breathing female role models this year, have repeatedly been handed out to a man or boy, or a fantasy character.  This might hover just slightly above the indefensible if it was a case of ‘job done’ in terms of women’s equality.  And yet, over and over again it is shown that while there has been progress, women’s position in society is far from equal with men’s.  Only last week the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index showed that worldwide it will take an average of 83 years for women to reach parity with men, across economic and political power, health and education.  In spite of similar or better educational attainment, women still aren’t reaching the highest echelons of professions, and women remain disproportionately in low paid and undervalued jobs, and doing the bulk of unpaid domestic work and caring.  This means that awards for women should remain spaces where women who have achieved against the backdrop of continuing gender inequality are celebrated.  So, no, I am not pro Bono’s prize – why should a privileged man be rewarded here, in an award for women, for thinking about women’s plight, when so many women live and breathe the cause all the time?

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