Manifesto for Change

‘Science needs women’ proclaims the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science awards tagline. For the last 18 years the pairing has been awarding five laureates to women from different geographical regions around the world each year to celebrate (and publicise) their success. With L’Oreal’s effective PR machine, they are able to reach mainstream media in a way that most ‘women in science’ organisations fail to do. I know this from first-hand experience having been one of the 2009 Laureates who speedily found herself propelled into newspaper and radio interviews. This year’s ceremony was on Thursday evening and, alongside the awards a so-called Manifesto For Women in Science has also been launched. They are seeking a broad response supporting their six bullet points, although so far the number of signatories is disappointingly small.

As a matter of process I suspect this time their publicity may have been less than perfect. Although I was called to do several interviews on the back of it (e.g. here on the BBC World Service where you can hear a couple of minutes of a rather longer interview done, inconveniently, at 11pm last week), as no doubt others were around the world, the Manifesto itself seemed to get lost. It is easy enough to talk about the issues facing women in science, but at the level of the World Service interview it struck me how generic the problems were. We can talk about the challenges ad nauseam, but structurally society does not seem to want to do anything to remove the basic obstacles.

I heard Charlotte Proudman talk recently about the challenges for women in law. The specifics may be different from science but the basic problems are the same. You can read parallel description of the issues for women in the media, finance, medicine or, I suspect, any profession. The problems are obvious but collectively society (and not just the men) don’t seem to be able to move beyond them. Here are just a few of them, all things I have read about in the mainstream press pretty recently:

I could go on and produce a much longer list, but there is little point. We  know –  men and women –  that there are problems. Yet the will (or ability)  to change our society collectively seems weak. Science is just one specific place where the problems are obvious. Different science disciplines have slightly different flavours of issues, and at a specific level these may also differ from law or journalism. There are undoubtedly many things to be done. I sometimes think the sciences are ahead of the curve because – certainly in a subject like mine – the disparity in numbers is so grotesque from undergraduate level on that there is no hiding the fact. In Law or Medicine where numbers start out equal or even with a preponderance of women it is probably easier to pretend the problem is simply choicism, that women opt out rather than that systematically structures make it harder for them.

Now the latest social sciences study I’ve come across tells me that things are even worse than I feared: that women (or other minorities) are actually penalised for promoting equality, whereas (white and only white) men are not. So, if this is correct, the ‘rational’ thing for women to do is to be as nasty as possible to their minority friends. I sincerely hope women will go on being irrational on this front! I am well aware that, speaking personally, I have long since passed that point in my career where this is an issue – indeed that people make a virtue out of my championing of women in science – but, that earlier in a career those around you may mark you down for speaking up is horrendous. However, as with unconscious bias more generally, that can only be the case if we don’t appreciate that is what we’re doing.

When asked, as I often am, how things have changed during my life, it is very obvious that we have moved a long way. There are no longer formal barriers (I can recall quotas of women for medical schools for instance when my peers at school were applying), but informal ones are even harder to address. We can’t tear down invisible walls so easily, merely constantly bump into them. Sexism it seems to me is even more rampant, perhaps because the old-fashioned and patronising idea of ‘respect for the ladies’ has long since gone out of the window. Whereas I may be glad to see the retreat of condescension, the dominance of explicit sexism is hardly progress. We have a veneer of equality that for far too many women simply doesn’t translate into the lived reality. And this veneer means it is all too easy for the male who wants to bury his head in the sand or, worse, feels threatened by genuine equality and inclusivity, to continue to deny opportunity and due progression to 50% of our population.

There is no point getting angry, since this too often is simply misplaced energy and a waste. But there is every point in highlighting transgressions – small and large – whenever possible to emphasise the structural inequities that exist. The sad fact is, however, that too often circumstances mean that speaking out can backfire. Every genuine supporter of equality has to walk that tightrope. In the meantime, signing the L’Oreal Manifesto is one small action to spell out that enough is enough. We need to shout about the deep-seated societal problems and we need to do it loudly and persistently.


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