‘What was called spirit and wit in him, was cruelly repressed in me’. It is interesting to try to date this quote from a female character in a novel, because the sentiment (if not the phrasing) could still be written today. It is in fact from Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria which has the sub-title The Wrongs of Women. I came across this quote included in Claire Tomalin’s 1974 biography of Wollstonecraft, which I have just finished reading (The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft). It struck a chord because one can so easily imagine a young woman expressing the same point of view today, contrasting how she and her brother might be treated (although there is probably less likelihood of cruelty in response to stepping out of line these days). Or by a woman sitting on a committee where speaking up might be seen as inappropriate but expected of every man round the table.
Sheryl Sandberg has complained about how the word bossy is used about women when behaving in a way that would simply be seen as leadership in a man. Other words that are unpleasantly attributed to that outspoken woman might be strident or aggressive. Women are simply damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they speak up they are marked down for unfeminine behaviour; if they keep mum (what is the etymology of that usage?) they are regarded as not-leadership material or incompetent. Now yet another report, this time international, has shown how women are marked down by university students in course assessments, again regardless of how they behave, again evidence provided not for the first time. The idea that a student can mark a reading list down when provided by a woman compared with exactly the same list provided by a man beggars belief. Does our education system – anywhere in the world – really not teach our students to be objective? Is this all about emotion? Oh no, I forgot, men aren’t emotional – at least no doubt that is what some of the students would claim. The trouble is, these scores matter: they can affect tenure and promotion decisions. A student’s casual dissing of their female lecturers can have direct impact on the career prospects of these women, regardless of their abilities.
Cordelia Fine has won this year’s Royal Society book prize for her excellently-argued and well-informed book Testosterone Rex . This book debunks many of the well-worn myths, such as those about women not being risk takers in the same way as men, or being naturally nurturing while men aren’t. Just as in her earlier book Delusions of Gender she points out that the science doesn’t provide the evidence that many commentators attempt to extract from experiments on young children’s minds. There are no pink brains or blue brains. We all simply sit somewhere on a spectrum of attributes, and where we sit between the two extremes will depend on exactly what attribute is being considered. So I could (though I’m not saying I am), for instance, be both reckless and nurturing without any problems, although the former would classically be identified as ‘male’, the latter as ‘female’. Wanting to risk all my money on roulette would not imply I couldn’t care for an elderly relative.
Do we have to spoon feed these ideas, produce the Ladybird version of Testosterone Rex for 6 year olds, if we are to have any hope of changing our society? Is that what it would take to stop the rubbish directed at women who wish to step up to a leadership role, deliver lectures or be the German Chancellor?
One attempt to change the way young women may view themselves, to encourage them to imagine themselves as future leaders, is being driven by Edwina Dunn’s project The Female Lead. This project has various strands, ranging from a substantial book with the life stories (and stunning photos) of 60 women in very different spheres ranging from Meryl Streep to Christiane Amanpour (disclosure: I am one of them) to events and media stories. The book has been sent to thousands of secondary schools around the country to encourage girls to think again about what they might achieve. But, as the examples I give here demonstrate, aspiring is only half the story. Those whom you come up against have to make it possible for you to thrive. This project cannot address the inherent prejudices in others, only help you cope with them.
For indeed there are those who apparently think that women are on a witch hunt against men; that things have gone too far in the tech industry and it is time we rowed back from equality drives. If you don’t recognize those phrases you probably haven’t been irritated or appalled by a recent article in the New York Times written in the wake of the Google memo about diversity written by the now ex-Google employer James Damore. Sexual politics have not gone away.
Mary Wollstonecraft bewailed the lack of opportunities women had in England at the time of the French Revolution. She went to Paris to see for herself whether French women really had gained freedoms under the revolutionary changes, but was disillusioned by the time she returned to London three years later (and also pretty disillusioned in the man – Gilbert Imlay – she’d attempted to live with, untrammelled by marriage). Robespierre’s France ended up giving women no more freedoms than the British Government. Women remained subordinate, denied the vote and in the main treated as their father’s or husband’s chattels.
Women may now be on the electoral roll and I doubt the word chattel crosses many men’s lips, but nevertheless there are many who suffer direct harassment and violence, whose careers are impeded by managers (who may be women as well as men) who cannot believe women can cope with stress or take on a leadership role. Universities are not likely to be the worst offenders in this regard but, as student surveys invariably exhibit, sexism is endemic even in the well-educated and the generation one might have thought were finally shedding old-fashioned ideas of patriarchy. Apparently not.