linked to this article
, which reports a statement by Girlguiding UK that 'a lack of positive female role models is damaging the future prospects of girls and young women'.
The first thing I thought on reading it is that we could do with changing what's on telly, but that would be missing the point. Telly's meant to be entertainment, not preaching. It shows us celebrities and glamorous people because that's a diversion from our everyday lives. The caption under the first photo in the article says 'Reality TV shows like The Only Way is Essex have been blamed for shaping unrealistic views of what life is really like'. Well, yes, but an unrealistic view of life is what they're for, isn't it? We could turn television into an endless parade of gritty social dramas but that wouldn't help much. People would not want to become the people in the gritty dramas just because they see them on telly. That's not how aspiration works.
One thing that bothers me about this article is that it's cast as a problem that only girls are suffering from. I think it says more about how much effort kids can get their head round putting into anything than anything to do with gender. How many boys of the same age want to be pop stars, actors in films with all explosions in, video-game designers so they can get paid for playing video games all day, or footballers? Not the ones that play for Fleetwood Town, the ones who play a match and then take their private jet back to their mansion with the eighteen cars and the really fit girlfriend. Where are the campaigns suggesting that boys are being misled, saying it's a shame that so few boys of that age want to be sales managers, or product designers, or accountants? Even the ones that want to be doctors are probably thinking of childhood role-play, white coats and stethoscopes, not the years of study and the long hours and the stress. What sort of child would?
That happens later, when you realise you actually have to make a living doing something, and some of these more ordinary roles come to your attention. Chris's little brother has been obsessed with children's TV since he was small, and these days he's an assistant producer at the BBC doing things like writing scripts for Hacker the Dog, but when he was younger he was convinced was going to be a presenter himself. It wasn't til later that he worked out there were all these other jobs in children's TV you could do, and that actually most of them were more interesting. Even within the sphere of people who've decided they want to do engineering, everyone starts off with a more glamorous idea of what they're going to do than how their career actually ends up. Everyone starting an automotive design degree thinks they're going to build Formula 1 cars, not redesign the ignition system of a Nissan Micra. Aerospace engineering degrees get far more sign-ups than there are jobs in the industry, because who doesn't want to build rockets or fighter planes? Some of the engineers I work with now have aerospace engineering degrees. A cow is not a rocket, but the skills are transferable. (Maybe this is why the main robot arm that moves under the cow is made out of carbon fibre, has lasers in it and is called the mothership.)
Arguably the problem comes in that integration phase, in working out how you move on from childhood fantasies to something you can really do. I didn't do engineering the first time round at university because I hadn't really heard of it, didn't know anyone who was an engineer, but I mean I didn't know anyone who was an engineer, not that I didn't know women who were. How would I even know, anyway, if I'd met an engineer, either male or female, as a child? The only identifiable engineers you encounter as a child are in grubby boiler suits, same as the only identifiable science-related professionals you see are teachers, dentists, doctors. If your family contained a scientist or engineer, or you had a family friend that was one, yes, but apart from that you've got TV and books, and they're full of unrealistic portrayals of scientists of either gender. Great when you're a kid, not so good for when you're trying to work out something real to do next. If you've reached the stage where you no longer think you're going to be James Bond, you've probably also given up on becoming Q, although I hear forensic and crime science degrees are booming thanks to all the CSI type shows. Unlike Casualty, which I doubt made many people want to want to be a doctor, CSI and suchlike offer a sort of compromise, something that seems kind of real and achievable that also has the potential to be exciting. Whatever; we still need pathologists, metallurgists, analytical chemists, whether they work in anything crime-related or not. It's rockets and Formula 1 all over again. But I still don't see how this is gender-related. There are both male and female scientists on things like CSI, and they're all as well or badly characterised as each other. We're beyond the bit where the female assistant pulls the pins out of her bun and wins the male scientist's heart, these days, aren't we?
To divert for a moment, there's a thing about the insistence on female
role models that really bugs me. Once, at a Punch Judy gig, someone suggested to our bassist that she must be really into Bad Brains, because she was black, and liked punk, and they were a punk band who were black, so she must really like them. Er, right. She was quite offended and gave the bloke an epic cold shoulder for the rest of the evening. Now, I am a woman, and I play the drums, and every so often people suggest that I might like or even be interested in a particular band because they've got a female drummer. I have to say that I can't see why this is any different. Just because their drummer's got tits too, that means I like their music? That's not really how it works, you know? And, I've never quite understood how this is so very different from the idea of female role models in science and engineering. Look, it's someone else with tits doing science! That means it's okay for you to like science too, right? Perhaps you can ask her for tips on how to maintain fabulous nails while at the lab bench, or on glamorous up-dos that are still compatible with bacteriological procedures! How do
we combine our monthly attack of complete hormonal irrationality with the logical rigour of research, eh? (Seriously, if you can tell me how this is different, please do.)
But, okay, I can see the importance of the visible presence of women in science. Role models are as often as not about changing what's normal, for it not to be remarkable that the talking head telling us about their new breakthrough on cancer research on the news is female. But I think it's important that everyone thinks it's unremarkable, and particularly people who haven't had to think about their gender so much, and so role models have to be visible to society as a whole. Pointing them out specifically to women like that, all the Women In Science and Engineering meetings I've been invited to to hear all about how Girls Can Do It Too, just smacks of being patronised. In a lot of cases I've heard of, it's not women who need to be told they can do science, it's others around them who need to stop telling them they can't. And anyway, for what I'm trying to think about here, for girls who haven't made it through A levels yet, the reaction of other people in their fields is not really an issue. This report is about the decisions girls make when they're teenagers, and that's not yet affected by whether their post-graduate supervisor is going to be a creep.
I used to work at a couple of different sixth form colleges, and both of them had both male and female teachers for all the science subjects. There were plainly people around who could do science, and many of them were women. (I realise kids don't see teachers (or lab technicians) as real people a lot of the time, but still.) There were girls who avoided signing up for A level Physics even though it would be useful for their planned career, or did one year of AS and dropped it, or did a few weeks and asked to transfer, but in no case can it have been because they thought it was impossible for any woman to understand or work in the field of physics. Now, what I did see (sometimes, I'm not saying every time, sometimes someone genuinely did just find that drama was their true calling) was girls who said 'but I
can't do physics, it's too hard.' Some boys said that too, but I think they were more likely to be dropping out entirely than just changing to an easier subject. Why would so many girls think that 'it's hard' is a reason to drop a subject? What's wrong with doing some work to get the career you want? I think part of it is the culture of celebrity everything, that if it's not easy then it mustn't be fabulous enough to be part of your lifestyle, but I think that's not all of it. I think this is the place where being a girl can come into it.
When you're a child, certainly a child in the sort of circumstances this article is talking about, you don't generally have to do the hard stuff yet. This is an exercise, it's not real, you're just learning, that's still above your level. Then there comes a time when you get tested more severely, when you realise the sort of questions you're struggling with are the sort of questions your parents can't answer, and then that maybe quite a lot of people can't answer, and that you've got to make your own way through something. The problem is, in the world where girls are princesses and some women get to carry on being princesses, I think they can get let off for a lot longer; if you're really struggling, Daddy will come and sort it out. While young men are pretty much all being expected to apply themselves to something or other, however realistic or not it might be, not all women are. There's the whole business of 'strong women', which irks me because the implication is that the default position of women is not to be, and that they're to be congratulated for even trying to be independent, and therefore not encouraged to carry on if they fail at it. There was a cruelly ironic Punch Judy gig where the band on before us was three girls singing all harmony vocals about how they were strong independent women doing it for themselves and all that, but with a four-piece male backing band playing the actual music. When we got on stage, an all-girl band who as I recall had not one lyric about how strong we were, it kind of made a mockery of their whole act.
You can say that through celebrity culture, there are a lot of people pinning their hopes on making a living just from existing; getting on a reality TV show, becoming a pop star, hoping they'll be spotted as a model. When you've got no idea what you're going to do, and until you learn better, it looks like there's all these easy options, so why shouldn't you try for one of them? If you're in that position, though, more evidence of people having achieved success through hard work isn't going to make any difference to your choices. The presence or absence of female scientists in society is going to make bugger-all difference if your life plan is to win the lottery.
So, in short: I don't think there's anything new or problematic about children's career aspirations being unrealistic, and I don't think it's something that only happens to girls. I don't think there's anything new about naive young people hoping they can do it the easy way, and I don't think having more visible female scientists will even touch those sorts of choices. The biggest problem I used to see with women getting into science was girls giving up because they found something hard, and that being somehow more okay because they were girls; the presence or absence of other female scientists also doesn't touch that. I think those who want to be scientists will find their path a little easier if other people stop getting in their way, and more visible female scientists is useful for that. But I also think that presenting female scientists directly to girls who already think they can do science just comes across as incredibly patronising. I think the report is right that people need to pick up their ideas of what people can do from the people around them. Promoting female role models in science as special cases is, however, exactly not that. Girlguiding, you're barking up the wrong tree.