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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s (not) have a heated debate …

20 Apr

After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.

Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think.  And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual  member of the public.  But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?

Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered.  But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not.  This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way.  Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future.  There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.

And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life.  Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility.  Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman.  For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.

Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents.  For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election.  That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised.  If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views.  Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …

 

 

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.

 

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?

EmPOWerment of women and girls

14 Oct

The UN has announced that Wonder Woman, the comic book superhero, is to become the Honorary Ambassador in support of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Whilst undoubtedly iconic, Wonder Woman remains a fictional character, which you would have thought might pose a few problems for a campaign about giving real people greater self-determination.  Is the idea of girls and women having power still in the realm of fantasy?

Coverage of Wonder Woman’s ascendancy has been more favourable at the geeky end of media, with both Wired and the Mary Sue emphasising Wonder Woman’s credentials as a strong female figure fighting for justice.  The Mary Sue went so far as to say that Wonder Woman represented the possibilities for females in a ‘world free from patriarchy’.  This might be going a little far for those who see her outfits (buttressed cleavage, hotpants) as an embodiment of exactly how patriarchy envisages powerful women ….

Newspaper commentary has been more sceptical, pointing out that an actual woman might have been a better inspiration for empowerment in girls.  Given that the UN has its own issues in terms of promoting real-life women to senior positions, going for the fantasy option seems unlikely to suggest that actual women have a chance of real power any time soon.  There is also an issue with the Ambassador’s role in speaking out around issues of violence against women, when Wonder Woman has been known to deploy high kicks and punches as conflict resolution techniques.

All in all if I had a lasso of truth I’d be tempted to fling it around UN headquarters and ask the powers that be if they see no problem with this decision.  Wonder Woman will be needing her indestructible bracelets to deflect the criticism of her appointment ….

 

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