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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad skills are from Mars ….

9 Oct

Buried in the headlines the other day (but not sufficiently interred to avoid mention in the Today programme’s papers slot) was a story about ‘Dad skills’.  A survey was conducted to find the top 50 skills for the modern father.  Even the king of low expectations could not have masked a little disappointment that the number 1 skill was identified as ‘keeping calm during family arguments’ – because women and children are always just losing their shit – and in the case of mothers, cleaning it up afterwards too, obviously….

As the relentlessly stereotyped list wandered on through barbecuing and DIY via the gift of bonding with kids through sport – which is, of course, a male preserve – my pink brain wondered what a list of mum skills would look like.  Since my kids’ Dad has set up wi-fi* (skill no 14) I was of course compelled to Google it.  And I have to say I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found – if you  Google ‘mum skills’ what you get is a range of lists which are all about how to put mothering stuff into that awkward gap on your CV.  I was so slack-jawed that I was almost late for picking up my children from after-school activities (I thought that was a task, but as ‘taking children to after-school clubs’ is no. 29 on the Dads’ list, I’m upgrading) ….

‘Mum skills’ are about transferring domestic and child-rearing competences to the workplace, so it’s all time management and negotiation skills (after all, how else do you get 3 year olds to cars?), and how you too can get teams to do what you want.  Now, I know as well as any parent that bringing up children is a profound learning experience, and that you can transfer all sorts of things to the workplace, but the idea that ‘Mum skills’ evoke a kind of marketization of relational stuff, while contemporary ‘Dad skills’ are mainly about outdoor activities and technical fixes, should give us all pause for thought.

Since the majority of mothers are employed outside the home, it seems remarkable that ‘Mum skills’ are discussed in terms of long-term career breaks. As it’s 2016, even Dads need to be ‘skilful’ in meeting their children’s emotional needs.  And apart from the odd nod to ‘counselling’ and ‘negotiation’ these needs seem strangely absent from the lists.  It’s enough to make me want to go and lie in a heap on the sofa with my offspring while discussing their day, or chatting about what’s on the telly (just as well Dad configured it- skill no 8 – but then I do no. 15, plastering holes in walls).

The ‘Dad skills’ survey was conducted for the people behind Bob the Builder – slogan ‘Can we fix it?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, we can’. How? With less gender stereotyping of tasks/skills, decent shared parental leave, and listening to children, no matter what our work-life balance happens to be.  Meanwhile I’ll carry on blogging while doing other things – after all, ‘multi-tasking’ is pretty high on all those ‘Mum skills’ lists …

 

*he’s a geek, it makes sense

 

Power dressing

26 Sep

One way or another there’s been a lot of talk about dress codes lately. Last week law firm Slater Gordon released a survey which found that female workers are still scrutinised on appearance to a much greater extent than men, and that some are even actively instructed by bosses to change their clothing for the sake of business.  What changes are women expected to make? To wear high heels and make-up in client-facing roles, sometimes with the explicit suggestion to be ‘sexier’.

In 2016 it’s pretty depressing that expectations of female appearance should still centre around a particular version of what it is to be female.  And the real trouble is that senior staff (predominantly men) still find it acceptable to tell working women how to dress.  The point is that it should be up to women themselves how they choose to present themselves, within the levels of formality demanded by their role.  Dress is performative – we show aspects of conformity, individuality and identity through our choices – it can be a manner of showing all sorts of things about who we are.  To be told how to be is not a good look for the modern workplace. Nicola Thorpe’s campaign earlier this year to prevent employers from imposing the wearing of heels, gained high profile and made an important point about how expectations of appearance can turn into compulsion, which is a bad thing. Campaigns in support of flats shoes at work have followed, and have been good at showing how stylishness can take many forms with no relation to professional competence, but have sometimes tipped towards telling women not to wear heels at work. This seems like falling into the enforcement trap again.

It all got me thinking about how we negotiate our work appearance in the light of personal preferences and social cues. And it’s not just an issue for women.  Back in August research was published showing that City firms could pass over male candidates who wore the ‘wrong’ shoes with their suits.  Men without experience of mixing in these professional circles, often those from less advantaged backgrounds, might turn up for interview in brown, rather than black shoes, a potent indicator of lack of ‘polish’ which could cost them a job offer.  Like junior women being told to wear more make-up by their bosses, these men are in less powerful positions than the senior people assessing their presentability.

So what of the powerful men?  What are they wearing as they pass judgement on their more junior staff?  The answer is, of course, the suit.  The suit is the ultimate signifier of authority, the sign of the professional who means business.  Its subdued colours and ubiquity confer a kind of invisibility, and we forget its roots in military history, the jacket vents for horse riding, the shoulder line for epaulettes – reminders of established male power. When we think of leadership, we picture men in suits.  As Grayson Perry has written ‘The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man’.

And this notion of seriousness is at the heart of the problems with dress code.  Women can find it particularly hard to win on this one.  ‘Power dressing’ is often a matter of taking on the suit mantle – tailored jackets, dark trousers.   Or adapted via a pencil skirt or a dress under a jacket into a more feminine version of the same.  The paradox is, that should a woman take up advice to wear more make-up and heels, she may meet one set of criteria for ‘smartness’ but lose on another to do with being taken seriously. The men in suits still rule, and they can still look at the world with a male gaze.

Coverage of the dress code survey included examples of women negotiating this minefield – a barrister drawing sceptical looks and not being taken seriously when wearing a colourful dress in court, hospitality staff being asked to tone down make-up that was seen a ‘too much’ for highbrow clientele.  And you don’t have to look far for examples of academics or of MPs being underestimated because they happen to be presentable and female while doing their jobs.  Tonight Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet in the first of this year’s presidential debates, and Hillary is likely to be wearing one of her infamous pantsuits, her solution (like Angela Merkel’s) to the ‘what do powerful women wear amongst all the men in suits?’ conundrum.  Tomorrow we should be talking about what she said, and not about her pantsuit.  That would be presidential.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.

 

 

Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.

 

 

 

Scientists, we have a problem …

11 Jun

The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.

As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.

 

 

 

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