I was very pleased to hear a male academic referred to as ‘not a shrinking violet’ the other day. Not because I was feeling particularly vindictive towards the person concerned, but because I have always thought that this unpleasant phrase was one reserved for women. It’s certainly one that’s been tossed in my direction often enough. I think I feel less bad about this if the phrase is regarded as appropriately ‘unisex’.
Stereotypes are perpetuated by careless phrases and images used without thought. It happens all the time and is of course one part of the unconscious thought processes that lead, amongst other things, to gendered letters of reference. A current example of such a lazy way of thinking fed into the recent attention when Robert Kelly was interviewed about North Korea on BBC World News. As first a toddler and then a baby in a walker came into the room, the male academic tried to keep talking with a straight face; the Korean woman who rushed in after the baby was sometimes identified as the nanny (she was his wife). And a spoof version of the interview purported to show how a woman under the same pressured situation would have been capable of multi-tasking whereas the poor incompetent man (I.e. Kelly) could not. These commentaries annoy me on many fronts, but all of them suggest appalling gender – and racial – stereotypes.
Firstly, how would anyone feel when doing an interview ‘down the line’ on a difficult subject if interrupted by a third party, whoever it might be? It is hard enough doing a live interview, particularly if the interviewer is somewhat disembodied because you’re doing the interview from your home, so it would be natural to be flustered if someone crept up on you. That it is your own child is only going to exacerbate the problem. I don’t think one’s first reaction would necessarily be one you’d be proud of, either because you burst into hysterical laughter, shout at the child or excuse yourself from the interview. I don’t believe, man or woman, we would necessarily do very well in that first flush of ‘OMG what do I do here?’. Keeping talking, while gently pushing your child off camera, strikes me as a not-unreasonable off-the-cuff response. The only thing that it seems to me could necessarily have been done better would have been to make certain the door was firmly shut before getting in front of the camera.
Then we have the fact that the woman entering the woman was presumed by some to be the nanny because she wasn’t white. I don’t think it is worth labouring the point as to why this is racial stereotyping of a pernicious kind, so I will move swiftly on.
Finally, the parody version has a woman handling the situation entirely differently, smoothly handling, indeed cuddling, both children as well as dealing with other hurdles such as a bomb and a roast chicken. How clever women are, we are meant to think, how much more capable of multitasking than a mere gormless male. Oh dear. Parody it may be, but it is simply reinforcing tired stereotypes. Having just been reading a pre-publication copy of Angela Saini’s excellent new book ‘Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong, and the new Research that’s Rewriting the Story’, with Cordelia Fine’s latest book Testosterone Rex burning a hole metaphorically in my bookshelf, I think it is important that we don’t fall back into the use of lazy stereotypes about either men or women or assume the many myths about the sexes that people buy into without reflection.
Many men can multitask, many women cannot. Some women make lousy mothers and some men are wonderful at cuddling their children (with or without a camera being turned upon them). Not all wives are white and not all nannies are from south-east Asia. We need to learn that we are all guilty of making assumptions about skills, gender, race and more and it is a dangerous thing to do, even if intended in humour. Maybe you think stereotyping like this isn’t terribly serious, but it can affect everyone’s lives in unhelpful ways.
In the case the low numbers of girls taking Physics A level, a recent report published this week by the IOP shows just what direct impact lazy labels, an absence of diversity in examples cited and unconscious bias in teachers’ actions in the classroom can have on children’s exams choices and hence their subsequent careers. Attitudes across the school, as well as gendered attitudes to boys and girls in the classroom, can deter girls from physics just as much as stopping boys considering becoming vets or studying languages. Teachers do not always see pupils simply as who they are, but start to pigeonhole them by gender from an early age and interact with them accordingly in gendered ways. I have never forgotten the English teacher of my 11 year old son telling me at his parents’ evening that boys ‘simply can’t do English’. Luckily he was not present to hear this vast overgeneralisation which no doubt permeated the way she interacted with her classes.
Over many years the IOP has been working with schools to try to tease out what goes on in the classroom and what might be done better. Some interesting interventions have been identified and it is clear that there are multiple ways in which things can be improved. A pilot group of schools where multiple interventions were trialled apparently saw a trebling of the number of girls going on to AS level physics as their confidence, science capital and involvement in the lessons increased as this latest report documents. The interventions involved assistants going into the schools to help in the classrooms and advise all the teachers about the issues so that the sort of comment I cite from my personal experience, gendered in the grossest way, is less likely to happen. These things cost time and money. However, if we are to have the skilled workforce we need, if we are to get the innovation pipeline flowing optimally and productivity up – things that will become only more important in the uncharted post-Brexit world we’re entering – then we need to ensure we don’t lose half the population inadvertently from our STEM A level classes. I hope all teachers will read the report and engage with it. I hope all of us will think twice about lazy stereotyping in our daily lives.