The Numbers Game

If you are the only boy in a ballet class or the only girl studying physics, it can feel uncomfortable. However much what you’re doing may be your passion, it may feel awkward. Quite likely you will adopt some adaptive strategy: perhaps talking extra loud, showing off – or alternatively trying to hide metaphorically under the table so people do not comment on your ‘difference’. Following the maxim that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger may mean you come out even more determined than you went in. But you will almost certainly also come out differently from how you’d have turned out without the loneliness and perhaps hostility. Being different is hard even if rewarding. I think for many of us, however, being unusual may become so ‘normal’ that when suddenly you’re not in a minority it can feel strange.

Recently I attended a small, select lunch of diverse academics whom I’d not met before. As it happened there were four women and three men. As it happened there were four vocal women and three rather silent men. It felt quite extraordinary and I found that terribly sad. I was sad that I’d noticed this gender split, sad that it felt so unusual, and sad that we couldn’t just be people but that I was so aware of the way we behaved by gender. I would have been interested to know if others present spotted the way the conversation was carved up but, not knowing these folk nor likely to meet them again, I don’t suppose I ever will.

I have previously been at discussions over formal meals when, with a minority of men present, the conversation has been dominated by them. I well recall one when with a ratio of 2 women for each man, nevertheless the first five speakers were all male (out of a total of seven I think). I reached a point, as the fifth man weighed in, of deciding I was going to speak next wherever the conversation had got to. I hadn’t consciously been holding back before but I had not felt the need to leap in swiftly. Again, at the time, I remember being disappointed that I had noticed what was going on.

These comments are not meant to be castigating anyone, of whatever gender. It is much more a reflection of how hard it is to be ‘normal’ or to know what should be ‘normal’. The world I move in is not gender-unaware. Just because we are not discussing anything to do with gender (the dinner I am describing was discussing school education in some specific branches of science, though not physics) does not mean that gender does not intrude. It is perhaps worth wondering what it would take for this not to be the case and I suspect the answer is only when no one thinks there is ever a need to discuss gender at all. We are not there yet, not by a long way.

This situation impacts on conference platforms, on appointment panels and other committee memberships. It is easy, too easy, to say that the numbers should reflect the population from which they’re drawn. But those numbers may be hard to access with sufficient granularity, slavishly following them may lead to poor coverage by area (geographical or disciplinary), and fluctuations in small numbers should mean some leeway anyhow. I have seen people applaud a platform that is 80% women when the population is 30%. Should this be regarded as success, as a fluctuation, or a failure because it is out of line with the pool from which they’re drawn? You could approach this in any of those ways and justify your position.

People are increasingly sensitised to this problem, without necessarily knowing what is ‘right’. A new science communication prize has recently been announced by Stephen Hawking, and Twitter reacted with frustration to the fact the ‘panel’ was all men (Brian Cox, Dr Brian May, Dr Richard Dawkins and Alexei Leonov along with Hawking himself). It isn’t clear to me that the panel is in fact a judging panel rather than simply those who shared the platform when the prize was announced, but nevertheless they could have involved some notable science communicators who also happened to be female to balance things up at the launch (Alice Roberts, perhaps, Kathy Sykes or Helen Czerski immediately come to mind). But they didn’t. I wish we had got past the point where we need to count, to notice and to complain. On every platform, in every room, it seems we still have issues to be resolved.

I started off by remarking on the boy in the ballet class. It could be the man in the nursing lectures just as much as the woman in the engineering lab. They are an uncomfortable oddity. In the UK as in much of the developed world we remain steeped in stereotypes. These may have shifted substantially over the decades but they have not vanished. A female CEO is still a focus of surprise, her dress is still scrutinised in a way no man’s would be (unless it’s Jeremy Corbyn not showing sufficient respect) and her actions analysed looking either (or both) for signs of feminine weakness or unfeminine strength. Each of us has to keep a watch on our own biases as much as on our actions, but knowing when we have reached true equality – that is a challenge.

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