Get a Life

I should have known better. At the Hay Festival last week, as my last post alluded to, I mentioned the gendering of toys. This point was one of many I tried to put across during my talk on why the cultural stereotypes we impose essentially from birth on our children, boys and girls alike, is not likely to lead to the best outcomes for individuals or for the country. I was specifically trying to make the point we are losing talent from the pool of potential innovators and, if one of the key problems with our economy is our lack of innovation in the UK, losing this talent has to be detrimental. The questions I was asked after my talk covered the full spread of issues I raised; they were intelligent, searching question from an involved audience. I ended up with a slide of the 20 actions I believe everyone can find one or more to make their own: Just1Action4WIS. But I should have known better than to introduce toys into the conversation.

Two years ago, in my Presidential address for the British Science Association it was Barbie: I mentioned ‘her’ in a sentence or two – out of many pages. And it was Barbie that was the one angle that every mainstream newspaper picked up in the UK. And it was Barbie that formed the focus of every single radio interview I did – for the Today programme and what felt like a large proportion of local radio stations. In one sense I didn’t mind.  I was impressed by the way the interviewers approached the topic. I felt – and this was no doubt why it was picked up  for local radio – it was a topic the presenters could easily understand in the context of their own families and they wanted to know why I felt only giving girls Barbies and not offering them the choice of Meccano (or Lego), for instance, mattered. I know not everyone does believe this matters, and goodness knows there are enough other ways in which our society collectively imposes gender stereotypes (as my Hay talk made plain), but it does seem to me to be something that is very easily avoided. So why do toy manufactures and toy shops continue to make gender choices so stark? And why do more shops and parents not heed the advice of Let Toys be Toys? Nothing wrong with Barbie, pink Lego Friends or whatever per se, but it should not be the unremitting diet of a young girl’s playtime.

After Hay, after I came away feeling pleased that I had survived my experience and felt I had been heard with interest, when I got up the next day I realised my mistake. By the time I checked my email at 8am interview requests were coming in and the fact that this aspect of my talk had made it onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph had already been brought to my attention.  Nevertheless, the interviews with local radio once again went well, in the same spirit as two years ago. The problems arose with TV.

I agreed to do an interview through Skype with Sky News over lunchtime. This did not go well; the interviewer seemed less well informed and the questions weren’t so helpful in drawing out the points I wanted to make. I found doing this interview ‘down the line’ disconcerting, since all one can see is oneself, and the angle the iPad was propped up to make (balanced on fat tomes of University Statutes) was not calculated to be flattering. Nevertheless I was slightly surprised, not to mention appalled, by the instantaneous hate-tweets that appeared. Just a handful and I’m not going to repeat them all, although none quite amounted to death threats. One I did report to Twitter as abusive and harassment  (who acted promptly); one of the more bizarre, which appeared to refer to me as a terrorist – unless my eyesight is worse than I think – seemed to be rapidly deleted.

So I will merely mention two explicitly. The first ‘inspired’ the title of this post: Get a life. I found it intriguing someone should write this to me, someone who had nothing better to do on a Friday lunchtime than watch Sky News and send immediate tweets about an interview to a complete stranger. No doubt it helped them believe their life had some point after all, that trying to shut a woman up who was speaking publicly was a productive use of their time. It was tempting to reply something along the lines of ‘I’m the Master of a Cambridge College. What do you do all day?’, but remembering the wise advice not to feed the trolls I refrained.

The other tweet I will mention took a different line in attempting to shut this particular woman up: go jump off a bridge. I don’t think that amounts to a death threat, but it is hardly pleasant. I am reminded of Mary Beard’s detailed accounts of public women being silenced, about which she has written here and more recently here so eloquently. (It is perhaps not irrelevant that when I mentioned these charming messages to a fellow female head of a college tweeter she remarked she’d often had death threats.) I am puzzled why remarks about toys are seen as so threatening to what some perceive as the ‘natural order’ to require intimidatory messages to be fired off instantly.

There is no doubt that this set of messages upset me more than perhaps they should. Whilst I understand that not everyone agrees with what I say, it doesn’t strike me these remarks justify attempts to silence me (they won’t of course succeed though it is possible they will make me more cautious). They pale into insignificance by comparison with recent acts or even the racist and misogynistic commentaries that too often adorn some mainstream newspapers. I am lucky to be in a position where the literal threat level is low but it only serves as a potent reminder that many people, whatever their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, daily run up against hate for no reason other than who they are. As we watch a new government forming we all have work to do to create a society of which we can be proud, rather than live in bunkers where if someone is not in the same one as you they instantly become the enemy.

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4 Responses to Get a Life

  1. Imogen Coe says:

    Dear Athene
    Thanks for your work and your willingness to stand up and speak out about cultural conditioning and the insidious nature of stereotyping through gendered toys. It is not always easy but it is so important. I have also spoken frequently on the topic in Canada (see for instance And I have run into similar comments – not quite on the national scale as you – but the sentiments are the same from people who want me to “get a life”. And I thank them for caring – and that they can be reassured I have a wonderful full and rich life so they needn’t worry. More importantly, I always try to emphasize that gender stereotypes disenfranchise boys as well as girls – it’s more than Barbies vs, Lego – it’s the idea of limiting the potential of our children (boys and girls). Boys cuddle, girls build. Parents of boys and girls all know this. This approach seems to be more palatable to those that feel that somehow pointing out that girls can do more than play with Barbies means boys are going to be short-changed. Of course its not rational – but it’s how some people feel. Focusing on the importance of us enabling and facilitating the potential for all our kids. seems to make the message a little easier for some to accept. All the best and keep up the great work.

  2. James Lush says:

    It’s perfectly reasonable to be upset – such comments are a disgrace. I also admire your restraint! A rather good comeback you proposed, I must say

  3. Nikki Mann says:

    Hi Athene. Contrary to the belief of the trolls (well done for starving them) you raise an important topic.

    Interestingly, when my son was born he had a multitude of outfits in blues, greens and creams but never pink. This didn’t occur to me until my daughter was born 2 years later and I dressed her in her brother’s hand-me-downs. It was interesting to me that perfect strangers assumed she was a boy on that basis, and it upset me that her Grandparents even went so far as to inform me I was being abusive by forcing my ‘hippy-dippy ideas’ on to her.

    That awful comment had an effect on me so opposite to its intent that I smile even as I type. At that moment I realised that I had a duty to counteract the obstacles in our lives that would crop up to tell my children they could not do/be/look/sound/act as they feel comfortable. My son has autism and so appears magically ‘different’ at the best of times, usually smartly dressed through his own preferences, and incredibly well spoken. My daughter wears jeans she has skidded the knees out of, chases children in the playground, shouts the loudest, wears blue, and gets her points HEARD.

    I let them choose to be the people they want to be, and I have to check myself frequently to ensure I’m not allowing gender stereotypes to sneak in. Because they are, simply, everywhere. In every shop, on every children’s programme, in (almost) every book. My daughter has chosen to start gymnastics this September instead of football, which surprised me, but made me appreciate the balance, and the fact that she is able to choose her own path.

    I digress!

    Thanks for raising this topic, and I’m very sorry you had to endure the trolls.

  4. Beth says:

    So sorry to hear you received abusive messages. You certainly don’t need to get a life – you’ve already lived enough and done enough for half a dozen!

    In my online exploits I have found an increasing acceptance of the ‘drip drip drip’ nature of sexism and gender stereotyping. We will get there in the end!

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