Sunday, 24 March 2013

Gender inequality

By San Jose (map), Hayden120 (retouch),
 via Wikimedia Commons
I consider myself privileged to be a woman living in the UK. I had always considered myself one of the lucky ones, that having been born female I had the good fortune to live in a place where that wasn't too much of a problem.

33 better places to live

Today I discovered that actually there are 33 better places for women in the world, including all of our nearest neighbours.*

This is because the UK has been ranked 34th in the Gender Inequality Index, part of an annual development report published by the UN Development Programme.

This assesses countries based on three areas - reproductive health, empowerment (parliamentary representation and educational attainment) and the job market, to find out how equally or inequally women and men are treated in different countries. The report rates 148 countries (data isn't available in all countries of the world).

As you'd expect, developed countries come out at the top of the index, and the poorest come out at the bottom. Australia and Canada come in at spots 17 and 18. The US bombs in at 42.

Holding their heads up high

These are the countries with the most gender equality, according to the Gender Inequality Index:

Silvio Berlusconi, by Ricardo Stuckert/PR
(Agência Brasil), via Wikimedia Commons
1. The Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. and 4. (joint) Denmark and Switzerland
5. Norway
6. and 7. (joint) Finland and Germany
8. Slovenia
9. France
10. Iceland
11. Italy
12. Belgium

I was just going to give you the top ten, but then I noticed that Italy was ahead of the UK, and felt compelled to include this information. It means that the country that elected Bunga Bunga Berlusconi to be its Prime Minister, is ahead of us in terms of gender equality. That is pretty galling. 

Doing the walk of shame

These are the bottom 12 countries - those which ranked as having the least gender equality. There are few surprises - some of these are the worlds poorest countries, whilst others (spots 145 and 148) have notoriously bad human rights records. These are the places you don't want to go to be a woman.

136. Zambia
137. Cameroon
138. Côte d'Ivoire
139. and 140. (joint) Mauritania and Sierra Leone
141. Mali
142. Central African Republic
143. Liberia
144. Democratic Republic of the Congo
145. Saudi Arabia
146. Niger
147. Afghanistan
148. Yemen

What does it all mean?

I idly speculate that the UK does so spectacularly badly because we have relatively low representation of women in parliament, bringing us down in the 'empowerment' ranking, and our job market is still relatively unequal, partly due to the high costs of childcare, something which the countries above us have all pretty well sewn up, allowing women to go forth and be useful and productive members of society.

The fact that we come 34th doesn't mean that the UK is a bad place to live. But it does highlight that, as a relatively rich company, and a nation that considers ourselves to be progressive, we are lagging behind our nearest neighbours when it comes to equality between genders. It's time to try and keep up with the Johanneses.

*Except Ireland, which seems to be strangely absent from the report.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Is it cos we is thick?

This week's Guardian Women's Blog asked the question, 'why are there so few female maths professors in UK universities?' It reports that only 6% of UK maths professors are women.

This is, according to the blog, the worst gender imbalance of the university subjects. I don't know what the figures are for the sciences, but I'm guessing they're not far off.

At university I once attended my boyfriend's computer science lecture. A woman! In computer science (I think they were amazed both that a woman might come to one of the lectures, and also that one of their compatriots had managed to find one). Of course I didn't understand a word of it, I'm not bright enough.

Female professions

There are many industries which are heavily skewed towards one or the other gender. I work in the arts, which is much more heavily populated by women than men.

My previous job, for a support charity, was even more imbalanced. In our entire head office at one point we had just one man (he was, of course, the boss). And there are many more female than male teachers at all levels, but at primary male teachers are extremely rare.

My husband works in the computer games industry, in which the numbers of women are gradually increasing, but are still very low. He once told me that the word for 'woman' in their office was 'receptionist', another area of work that is dominated by women.

Here is a picture of two beautiful receptionists, as decorative as the flowers which seem to be quietly consuming one of them...
Evan Bench, Paris via Wikimedia Commons

Are we too stupid?

Here are some reasons why there might be so few women pursuing scientific study and careers:

  1. We are not clever enough - we don't have the intellectual capacity to grasp the rigours of science
  2. We don't want to - there is something in the female brain that predisposes us to the arts
  3. Social conditioning - society makes us believe we are not suited to scientific studies
  4. Intimidation - we might not want to take a university course or pursue a career in an area dominated by men
There are many more reasons why this might happen, and each of these could be broken into a proper argument, after all, what is 'clever'?. For the purpose of this blog, I am making wide generalisations. I am an ex-journalist.

Science v arts

Of course, no one really knows why it happens. I hope and believe that it is not our intellectual prowess  preventing us from pursuing maths and science after age 18. I suspect that it is partly social conditioning, but maybe not entirely.

Maybe there is something in the idea that women prefer more people-centred subjects - if you study an arts subject you will spend much of your time thinking about people. In the case of my subject, English literature, it is about understanding humanity and their stories. We grapple with difficult philosophical questions, which require rigorous academic thought and understanding, but these are essentially people-centred questions. That doesn't mean they are necessarily less complex.

Maths and science on the other hand, are much more abstract subjects. With the exception of biology, they have little connection to our personal, social and emotional stories.

Women - stay away from science!

All this is just speculation. I don't have a clue why, in an age of equal education and opportunity, there are so few women pursuing scientific careers. And even if we are just naturally inclined that way, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing these things.

Women represent 50% of the world's population, so to disqualify ourselves from the sciences would represent a massive loss of potentially brilliant researchers, professors, doctors and teachers, who could bring invaluable skills, experiences and a different gender perspective to these areas.

The gender imbalance, whyever it exists, is all the more reason to encourage girls and women that the sciences are a viable area of study and work for them, in which we have as much right and chance as men to succeed.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

One step forward, two steps back

International Women's Day

Friday was International Women's Day, a chance to celebrate how far we have come, talk about women we admire and think about how far we still have to go.

The UN used the occasion to highlight its work to stop violence against women, providing the sobering estimate that up to 70% of women will be beaten, raped, abused, or mutilated in their lifetimes.

The Home Secretary Theresa May (second on the Woman's Hour Power List) asked for an end to domestic violence against women and girls in the UK and the rest of the world. It's great that a successful and powerful woman like May would stand up and use her influence to try and improve the lot for women around the globe. She doesn't have to do that.

Although it shows how far we still have to go, International Women's Day is a step forward, inching us closer to equality . In 1909, when the first Women's Day was held in America, women didn't yet have the vote on either side of the Atlantic. Women's role in society were wives and mothers, they weren't supposed to aspire to be independent or influential. Now we can be all of these things, and that is something to celebrate. 

Mother's Day

What's not to like about Mother's Day? It should be a chance for us all to celebrate the person who brought us into the world and has done so much for us. Well, it should be. 

In reality Mother's Day is a commercial concept, for which businesses fall back on every feminine stereotype they can to get our business. It's greeting cards that get me going. Buying cards always takes me ages, and is invariably disappointing. It's disappointing because of the vast selection of cards I have to plough through, the stereotypical messages I have to encounter, and the sorry offering that I end up taking away with me at the end. 

This year's selection suggested that mothers were mainly interested in cupcakes (what is this weird obsession for cupcakes?) and the colour pink. The idea that mothers might just be normal human beings with a healthy range of interests is not considered. She's your mum therefore she'd like nothing more than a picture of a cupcake to prop on her mantlepiece. 

Mother's Day should be about saying thank you for everything mothers do, which includes setting an example to their daughters to grow up and take the opportunities the world offers them to be educated, independent and influential. Unfortunately it's become an opportunity to remind women that their place is in the kitchen, baking cupcakes. It should be a step forward, but it looks more like a step backwards. 

Jobs for the girls

Then this morning, another step backwards in the progress for equality between men and women. My Sunday newspaper greeted me with '1 in 7 new mothers made redundant', that many women are made redundant whilst on maternity leave.

The story, based on another of those interminable polls, also suggests that 40% of women's jobs change when they're on maternity leave, often with hours cut, demotion or simply being replaced by the person who was covering their absence. 

It's a reminder that although we have come so far, to the point where we can have good jobs, often (not always) equal pay, and maternity leave, we still have some way to go.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Getting angry about Emmeline

Emmeline Pankhurst, by Photoprint
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I recently spent many lunch hours in a well known coffee establishment reading reading Emmeline Pankhurst's book, My Own Story, and getting very cross. On the outside I may have been calmly sipping a latte on a sofa, but on the inside I was stamping, fuming and shouting.

You probably already know about the endless rallies, arrests, imprisonments, police brutality, hunger strikes and forced feeding that the suffragettes went through on the long journey to get women the right to vote. There are few surprises in the book, but plenty that is shocking.

Criminals not campaigners

Mrs P draws parallels between the way the suffragettes were treated and the way different groups of men engaged in political protest were treated around the same period. At least, she tries to draw parallels. What is shocking, is that the women campaigning for suffrage are consistently punished more harshly for acts of political protest than men.

The presiding authorities refuse to see the women as political campaigners acting in the only way they can to get themselves heard. Instead they see them as wild and out of control harpies, wilfully committing acts of violence against society. I found this shocking. I stamped about a little. 

Deaf politicians

I was also shocked by the flat refusal of the political heavies of the time to even listen to Mrs P and her compatriots. 

The suffragettes wanted to get the vote through persuasion - by getting people and politicians on their side through lobbying and debate. But over time it became clear they would not be listened to, and when they tried to arrange an appointment with the senior political figures of the day, they were evaded at every turn. Hence they resorted to more violent tactics.

It shocked me that these political figures include men who we've come to regard as heroes - both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill evaded the suffragettes' pleas and refused to countenance the idea of votes for women. This made me fume a lot. 

Intelligent, eloquent and organised, but not as good as men

I can't understand how they (the ruling politicians) could continue to dismiss these women as inferior when they showed at every turn the ability to structure an eloquent and logical argument, whilst also organising a campaign with absolute military precision - when their office was shut down they still managed to write, print and distribute their newsletter. 

At every other page I wanted to shout 'but if they can do that, why aren't they good enough to vote?' It wasn't the most relaxing read. 

Of course I knew before I read the book what the prevailing attitude of the early 20th century was towards women, but actually confronting it through Mrs P's experiences was still a shock. Having grown up never questioning that I was equal to my brothers, the boys in my class at school, my husband and my male colleagues, I find the idea that I might be inferior to all of them incomprehensible. When I have finished being incomprehensed I get angry. And that's when I want to shout.*

Mrs P being arrested in 1914.

The Pankhurst legacy

Women were finally granted the right to vote in the UK in 1918, just as long as they were over 30 and owned property. It was another ten years before all women over 21 were allowed to express themselves at the ballot box. 

Mrs P went through several hunger strikes, at one point serving a long prison sentence a few days at a time as she was imprisoned, starved herself, was let out to recover, and as soon as she could stagger to her feet again was taken into prison to continue her sentence. 

The fortitude of this woman and many of her fellow suffragettes who suffered just as much, denying themselves food, water and medical attention, is shocking.

It shocks me that they were physically able to do this (I don't think I could), and it shocks me that they had to do this - that only by undertaking such extreme actions could women finally be given the same rights as men.  

The impact of this on Mrs P's health led to her early death, aged 69.

My Own Story, by Emmeline Pankhurst, is free on the Kindle if you’re interested. But you don't really need to read Mrs P's book to honour her memory - just spare a thought for the women who fought and died so that we could be recognised as equal to men, and cast your vote in the next election. 

* As I didn't want to put other people off their lattes, I did actually refrain from shouting.