Where are all the women?

I’ve just read Peggy Reynolds’ comments on ‘where are all the women in universities‘.  It’s spot on:  she highlights the problems that women face in starting academic careers, caused by social expectations that they will have career breaks when they (inevitably) sprig, that they will end up caring for aged relatives, that they will receive that extra little bit of negative criticism in their work because of their sex.  And, moreover, she points out this fundamental:  ‘Boys at my daughter’s primary school regularly tell her that girls “are not good at” this or that.’

One of three letters in the same newspaper dealing with equality for women defends the EU’s quotas for women on boardroom seats.   Judith Baxter writes ‘Numerous women of exceptional talent and experience simply lack the confidence or platform to put themselves forward.’

Whilst she is, no doubt, correct, her statement raises an unintended but very important, nay crucial, point:  in saying that ‘women lack confidence’, we are implicitly allowing a particular form of behaviour to cling to a particular sex.  We must be very careful not to let this observation become a self-fulfilling prophecy or an excuse.  We must also be very careful of this ‘women’ thing.  Some women lack confidence.  Some men do, too – it would be a lie to state that ‘men don’t lack confidence’.  Some women want to take a break in their careers to bring up children.  Some, fewer admittedly, men do to.  And some women don’t (Julia Gillard being a recent noteworthy example).  Because society still expects women to stay at home to bring up the children and to care for infirm parents and because you have to be pretty individualistic and firm to get on with what you want if it’s neither of those, and because society still expects men not to put the babies to bed when they come home from work or to wash up regularly or whatever, men are still way outperforming women at more senior jobs.  But it goes further than this – and we’ll now return to Reynolds’ daughter and the sexist comments pouring forth from little boys being prejudicially brought up by unimaginative and conventional parents.

In fact, we’ll take a round-about route to my point, with a letter from a Carol Hedges to the Grauniad, September 2012.

“A return to a single end-of-year exam is a return to a system that penalises girl students. Coursework was introduced into the GCSE syllabus to create a more level playing field. Girls learn differently, and the pressured “memory test” exam format does not always suit them. Under the current system, girls have been thriving – indeed they are forging ahead of their male counterparts, something they were not doing under the one exam fits all. Sadly, I suspect this has played a part in this retrograde decision to revert to the former method of pupil assessment.”

My reply, which the Grauniad sadly didn’t print:

“Carol Hedges (Letters, Wednesday 19th September) is talking rubbish.  End-of-year exams will not disadvantage girls, and the myth that ‘girls learn differently’ is one of the many manifestations of the ‘equal but different’ mantra that allows us to perpetuate prejudices based entirely on confirmation bias.  As a girl, I used to love exams – and loathed coursework.  As a teacher, I taught many girls who did very well in exams but struggled with coursework throughout the year, and many boys who went to pieces at exams but loved coursework.  Girls who are encouraged to think and to form opinions will do well in exams.  Sadly, we still live in a society where if you hold opinions as a girl or woman, you are a termagant:  if you want to be a womanly woman, you shouldn’t have ideas.”

Hedges has fallen into the trap that Gurlz Think In Certain Ways.  No, Carol, they really don’t.  In fact, happily, neuroscientific discoveries suggest that the male and female brains are really not different, and that differences in cognitive behaviour are more to do with the individual than the individual’s sex.  (I’ll have to find some references for this statement, I know.  I will, at some point.)  It’s like the great lie that Girls Like Pink.  Girls only like pink because society expects it.  Boys would if they could, but can’t, so they have to make do with red instead.

So, the point of this flabby rant is that women will only get to the top if they are taken as individuals with individual, HUMAN, non-gender-specific intellects, and not – as they still are a glorified pair of tits.  Dorothy L. Sayers said all this, but much more eloquently, nearly a hundred years ago.


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