As soon as you say the word feminism a lot of people get defensive. I’ll bet some of you are already feeling anxious just from the title. Generally I don’t want my blogs to get political, but the way I see it, feminism isn’t a socio-political stance you take, it’s just being sensible.
It’s a shame we need to have such a concept as feminism – it’s like having a word for “I believe everyone should be allowed to drink water”; it’s something we should just assume everyone automatically thinks. But, unfortunately, we do need feminism. Badly. So yes, I am a feminist.
Rest assured though, I’m not attacking men. Let’s just state the obvious here: I am a man. Obviously I’m pro-men. I’m just pro-women as well. Really what I am is pro-human, and half the humans are women, so I have no choice but to endorse feminism.
The majority of men (I’d like to believe) recognise that a society where women have equal rights, representation and treatment is for the benefit of everyone. So why is feminism needed? Well, the problem is women aren’t equal citizens of the Earth yet.
Sometimes I’ve heard men saying things like “women are equal in today’s world, what more do they want? They just hate men.” If you think women are treated equally in our society, you need to take a closer look at it. It’s true society has come a long way in the last hundred years. Women are allowed to vote, study at University and get high-paying jobs, which is fantastic. But this is still not enough. The numbers vary depending on where you source them but the picture is much the same anywhere:
29% of MPs in the UK are women
70% of minimum wage earners in the UK are women
4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women
30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films are women
29% of female actors in the top 500 grossing films wear revealing clothes (only 7% of men do)
22% of U.S. parliamentarians are women
24 states have never elected a female governor.
98% of teenage girls feel under pressure to look a certain way (for boys it’s 30%)
92% of teenage girls feel they ought to lose weight.
So yeah, we do need feminism. Until those numbers have changed.
To be clear, I don’t think there are groups of men sitting in dimly lit halls cackling and deciding “how can we suppress women today?” In fact, all the men I show these numbers to are shocked by them. It’s a very skewed and worrying picture.
What we’re seeing in those numbers isn’t a society devaluing women, I think it’s a hangover from an older society that did devalue women (or rather, only valued women for their baby-making ability), and we just haven’t fixed it yet. So this is the first key message:
Feminists are not trying to upset a balance, they’re trying to establish one.
I should also point out that the issues I’m talking about here are fairly domesticated compared to how women are treated in other parts of the world. I want my blog to be thought-provoking but not too dark. I’ll try to keep it light but we all know about the atrocities women have to suffer in some of the world's cultures.
It’s true that women’s rights are worse elsewhere and there are bigger issues to tackle than how women are represented in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). I’m lucky to live in a country where women have the freedoms they do. But that isn’t an excuse to stop striving to make things better!
I’m also conscious of the fact that I’ll probably receive a backlash for this blog post. Some people will think I’m overreacting to the issues, some will think I’m not reacting enough. Some people will think I’m only saying it to impress women, some will think I’m writing the whole thing sarcastically to attack women.
I will say it clearly and emphatically here: I feel strongly about this. I mean the things I say sincerely. I am saying them because I want to say them, not to provoke any particular reaction or response. We need feminists and I consider myself one of them.
What the problem is, briefly
13% of STEM jobs in the UK are held by women.
49% of schools in the UK send no female students to study Physics at University.
39% of year 13 Maths students are female.
8.5% of year 13 Computing Science students are female.
Physics is the 19th most popular degree choice for girls (for boys it's 4th)
There are 1.8 times as many men studying Maths at university (i.e. almost twice as many)
And the numbers go on like that. Whichever country you look at, whatever level of education and whichever STEM subject you chose, the story always comes out roughly the same. STEM subjects are not widely taken by women.
It has to be said that in the UK, Biology manages a better male to female ratio, but the overall picture is still guy-heavy. The most optimistic number I could find anywhere is women working in chemical engineering: 39%.
I’m very fortunate at my school. We have an even split of male/female STEM teachers, so our numbers compare favourably with the rest of the country. But the fact remains that STEM subjects are more often taken by boys.
Why this is a problem
Some people might argue that by highlighting women as missing from Science I am, indirectly, being anti-feminist. After all, if men and women are equal then a workforce of men is equal to a workforce of women. Why am I singling women out?
Well here’s the thing. Women and men are equal but they aren’t identical – and it’s an important distinction. Men and women are anatomically, hormonally and neurologically different to each other. Treating both sexes identically is a recipe for disaster – obviously – but giving both sexes the same opportunities (treating them equally) leads to good things.
If you look up differences between men and women’s brains you tend to get one of two approaches. Either you hear that men are from Mars and women from Venus (i.e. utterly different) or you hear men and women are the same in every respect. The reality is closer to the latter; men and women’s brains are, on the whole, the same. But there are subtle differences.
These differences don’t affect key aspects of thinking like memory, working memory, pattern recognition, synthesis, puzzle solving etc. but they do present some minor variations in how men and women approach things and what they notice.
This isn’t to undervalue the great work men have done over the past centuries, mind you. The men involved in Science have made remarkable progress in understanding the world. But think how much more progress we could be making if we had everyone working on the same problems. So here’s the second key message:
Men are awesome, women are awesome too.
Let’s get together and make Science doubly awesome!
I also think we need more women in Science because it will be good for civilization in general. When people are better educated, they make better decisions about how to live their lives. In some countries women aren’t even educated properly about pregnancy and female anatomy! The tragedy is that these women end up not knowing anything different. If they learnt the reality (that women aren't inferior to men) they might start objecting to oppression and that has to be a good thing.
And more. If young girls see women changing the world, inventing new technologies, curing diseases and teaching about the universe, it might help them become more aspirational about what they can do. If we’re lucky they might feel better about themselves and their potential. They might become less likely to accept second-rate positions in society and everyone benefits. The more people in a species pushing it forward, the better that species does! The more women do Science the more other women see them doing Science!
What if women just don’t want to study STEM?
I understand this objection, I really do. Perhaps the reason so few women choose STEM is simply because they aren’t interested. If that’s genuinely the case then fine, we’ll soldier on with the gender divide. Women should have the right to choose not to go into the STEM subjects. I suppose what I’m interested in is the fact that very few women go into STEM subjects when they are allowed to!
I should mention that a female student of mine recently told me a story about an exchange she had with an engineer. She expressed an interest in engineering and he responded “You can’t do engineering because you’re a girl.”
I was a bit speechless when I heard this. Mainly I was curious how this guy had managed to survive the meteor impact which got rid of all the other dinosaurs. I really don’t see how the fact she’s a woman could in any way impact her ability to do engineering, like…seriously, what was his thinking?
Apparently rampant sexism does still exist in the STEM community, but I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naïve) that it’s not usually as blatant as this. I would like to believe that most women aren’t told “you can’t study this subject” and that if they are, they don’t believe it.
But I have to be honest: I’m not sure I'd want to go into an area if everyone in it thought I was unworthy of being there. That's the kind of thing which might put me off. I wonder how many women avoid STEM because they know they'd be an outsider in the field?
I think the problem is usually more subtle than what that troglodyte told my student. It’s an unintentional message our society parrots that boys do STEM and girls do not. Unfortunately this makes it harder to combat because it’s harder to pin it down, but I can give examples. For instance, do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is campaigning against Malibu Stacy dolls promoting gender stereotypes? Did you know that’s based on a true story?
In 1992, Mattel released Teen-Talk Barbie. Two of the messages some Teen-Talk Barbie dolls said were: “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough.” That’s a lot of little girls whose toys – allegedly representing how teenagers talk – saying girls value clothes and find math difficult.
I’m sure some girls really did grow up to hate maths and love clothes on their own. But how many, do you suppose, got it in their heads “that’s what a teenage girl is supposed to say and think” STEM is not for you, go and buy clothes. I should point out that Mattel did recall the dolls, but it’s the fact that nobody found a problem with the messages before release which worries me.
I think part of the problem might be a lack of confidence some girls have in STEM, rather than a lack of interest. Tell little girls they aren’t suited to STEM and it might be harder to persuade them otherwise when they’re in high school. Even the US department of education found that girls who have a strong “self concept” of themselves in Science are more likely to choose it as a career. So what happens if we tell little girls that STEM is a boy’s subject?
If we were to put a huge push on getting girls into STEM we might find most of them don’t like it after all. Fine. At least then we’d know for sure.
How do we solve it?
Complaining about things is necessary, but if you don’t suggest solutions, it’s just a whinge. I also think it’s important to keep an optimistic outlook (when the world looks unpleasant, try to believe it can be better). I’m not claiming I’ll fix the world with my internet blog, but I would like to suggest some practical ideas for your consideration and discussion. These are in no particular order of importance.
Support Primary School Teachers with STEM training
A 2015 report by Brunel University found that a third of Primary school teachers don’t feel confident teaching Science. Primary school teachers are usually children’s first contact with STEM education and around 87% of them are women. That means a significant number of children are seeing a woman who doesn’t feel confident in STEM.
This is not the primary school teachers' fault at all. Primary school teachers are amazing and I couldn’t do their job. But I know if I’m teaching a subject I’m less confident with, it comes across in the lesson, kids pick up on it and the lesson doesn’t go as well.
So we need to start offering more training for primary school teachers who don’t feel as confident in STEM. Give them lesson ideas, resources, send them to workshops, train them how to do interesting demos, run practical activities and extend kids’ scientific thinking. Provide primary schools with engaging Science books and make sure girls and boys get access to them. Send the message early on that women can be confident in STEM, the same as boys.
More Programs to support women in STEM and more exposure for those that exist
The Athena Swan Charter (as an example) is a group dedicated to championing and promoting women’s careers in STEM. They defend women who feel they’ve been unfairly treated and reward institutions who are supportive of women’s issues. We need more attention given to such programs.
I’m, not necessarily saying government should fund these programs (although I think it would help) but I think public recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way. These organisations do need more funding and they need more exposure in the media. Give them enough funding to make television adverts maybe? Get some celebrity endorsement to raise the profile. The more people are aware of programs like Athena Swan, the more they are funded and the more capability they have to make changes.
Representation of female Scientists in the media
At the moment, a lot of Scientists depicted in TV and movies are men. The Big Bang Theory has, in fairness, introduced two female characters who are scientists, but only several seasons in…and they aren’t really good depictions of Scientists (just like the guys in fact). Generally Scientists in the media are portrayed as caricatures (boffins/nerds/lunatics) but as such they are usually guys.
There have been some outstanding female Scientist characters in recent sci-fi movies though, Gravity, Interstellar, and Sunshine all feature well written, confident, intelligent female Scientists who aren’t there to look attractive and be romantic foils for the men. It’s definitely a promising sign.
To me one of the best Scientist characters ever (one of the characters who really made me realise what it is to think like a Scientist) was Ellie Arroway from Contact. I saw the film when I was about 13 years old and read the book many years later, both times I found her inspiring. A woman inspiring a boy to think Science is cool? Shock horror.
Arroway is evidence-driven, skeptical, confident and isn’t defined as the romantic interest of a man. She is fierce, brilliant, ingenius and stands up for facts when everyone else is looking for a political angle.
One of these women is a confidently written independent, intelligent scientist, one of them is Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory dressed in a nightie. Good luck telling them apart!
Also, I’ll just say it: a female doctor in Doctor Who would be great. The doctor is often a very Scientifically minded character. He solves problems through thinking, analysing evidence, using prior knowledge and experimenting. At the moment, his companions are female, so let’s try flipping it. Let’s have a female critical-thinker solving her way through adventures. And let’s not worry too much about whether men will find her pretty. Let’s worry about whether men and women will find her inspiring.
Include current Science in our textbooks and syllabuses
We have to teach children the basic laws of Science and they were discovered over the past few centuries – by men. Girls in school hear names of endless dudes doing great things, and might get the unconscious impression that this is a subject built by guys. Usually Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin get a cursory mention but that’s it.
There is a simple fix for this. Start including up-to-date Scientific discoveries in the syllabus and textbooks. Take astronomy for instance. Starting with people like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt, astronomy is full of pioneering female names. Why not teach kids about Dark Matter and (therefore) Vera Rubin? Why not teach them about Carolyn Porco, one of the most widely respected and listened-to Scientists in the world today? Or how about teaching older students about Emmy Noether and Chien Shiung Wu and what they did for theoretical physics?
Sure, we have to teach pupils about the genius of Charles Darwin, but let’s extend that to the courageous fieldwork of Jane Goodall. Science is full of inspirational people with inspirational stories and a lot of them are currently happening. Science education does need to include the history and the basics, but there’s a lot of important Science happening right now in our lifetimes. And guess what, a lot of it’s being done by women!
Men need to make an effort
I’ll be brief on this one. Women can easily promote the message that Science is for women…by being a woman. Men need to work a little harder to emphasise the role of women in Science. I’m not saying male Science teachers need to have the name of some great female pioneer thrown into every lesson at random. I’m just saying be mindful that you’re a man in a male-dominated field, with a high male uptake and a lot of girls automatically lacking confidence in it. Just…be aware of that.
There are other things which could and should be done to solve this problem. I’ve ignored outright sexism in the lab and workplace because that’s easier to spot and other people write about it better. Obviously men shouldn’t make misogynistic comments, harass women sexually or only value them for their looks. Well…duh.
I genuinely believe the best thing for civilization is Scientific education for all. So let’s get more girls into Science because it will be good for Science and, therefore, the human race…which contains both women and men.
Solvay conference recolourised: Sanna Dullaway
What feminism is: Blended with Hope
Angry-looking George Carlin: Pop Matters
Teen-Talk Barbie: Divine Caroline
Ellie Arroway: Reel Life Wisdom
Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory: Worn on TV
Carolyn Porco: TED
Stick figures of people doing math: Randall Munroe
I love science, let me tell you why.