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[personal profile] shermarama
So, [livejournal.com profile] feanelwa 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.

Date: 2012-05-12 08:59 pm (UTC)
ext_3375: Banded Tussock (Default)
From: [identity profile] hairyears.livejournal.com
I happen to believe that television has a mission to educate, inform, and entertain: Nation Shall Speak Unto Nation and all that...

Others, working in television, see it only as a job and will follow the advertising 'spend' into pink-stinks marketeering masquerading as programming but, in reality, a profitable vehicle for product placements.

Some of the benighted individuals work in childrens' television.

Which leads on to a corollary question to your point about 'headline' roles fuelling youthful ambition, and propelling them through education until they either succeed in gaining the pinnacle, or accept that much of what they had desired is illusory, while finding themselves well-placed and well-prepared for interesting and worthwhile things...

Or not. Could the defeat of ambition be infecting them - or some of them - with cynicism?

Could the most repellent sellers of dissatisfaction, insecurity and diet problems to young girls have been ispired by a real role model like (say) Valerie Singleton?

Date: 2012-05-13 08:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shermarama.livejournal.com
I doubt the defeat of ambition is leading the youth into cynicism, or at least, if it is it ought to be already intruding a lot more. It's been a few years now since you went down't pit like yer dad and were grateful for it, and plenty of people that spent their formative years wanting to be rock stars have already got over themselves, got on with something else and done well enough. A certain Mr. Blair that once thought he was Mick Jagger, for one.

Date: 2012-05-12 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] feanelwa.livejournal.com
I'm finding it vaguely ironic that you've just written a huge long post on a misinterpretation of the point of a blog I haven't even written any posts in yet.

I'm going to show the hard work and the real life of it because that's what needs exposure. Science is hard work and it's not some god-given gift that you can just make breakthroughs. Some external agency doesn't decide how good you can be at something and that's it. The power to decide if you can do it is in your hands, kid.

I'm also going to show the hard work happening without being an obnoxious made-up squeaky-voiced character all the time, because that's still what so many of the TV drama woman scientist characters are, the ones that are going LOOK I'M A GIRL LOOK AT MY NAILS AND MY HAIR and I am doing science. It's going to be a story about doing science written by a woman, not a story about a woman doing science written by a media company.

Date: 2012-05-13 01:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shermarama.livejournal.com
Well, one of the reasons I moved this to my own LJ rather than commenting on yours was that I don't think I responding to your blog idea much any more, but trying to work out what I felt was weird about the assumptions made in that article.

I mean, what you talk about here sounds really positive in terms of showing what science is and that people can do it if they put the work in; you're dead right that that needs exposure. I think there's a use to showing that it's perfectly normal for a woman to be doing that too, if only because historically that was less likely. Top stuff. But certainly for me, any hint of 'and look, it's a woman, so that means you can do it too!' was instant death for any engagement I might have had. That always seemed to me what WISE was all about, and what they're still doing now, by the looks of the quotes from them in that article, and what Girlguiding seem to want too. I am not predicting that your blog will do that, and reacting against it; I'm reacting against the things like WISE that have got this wrong in the past. I don't know what you're going to write yet, and will be interested to see, but I wanted to talk about my own issues with things in this field.

(I mean being the same gender always felt like such a rubbish reason to be expected to be able to identify with someone. I have a soft spot for anything Stuart Maconie does because he's also a music enthusiast from Wigan; the fact that we've both stood nervously in front of the very same cassette rack in Smiths, pondering what our selection will tell the person behind the counter about our taste, as if they cared, gives me a lot more ground to put myself in his place as he reports other events, to imagine myself doing something he does, than merely being the same gender as someone else.)

Date: 2012-05-13 09:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] katstevens.livejournal.com
One of the (many) reasons I prefer CSI:Original Flavour to all the other spin-offs is that it shows numerous women scientists/detectives/whatever just getting on with their (difficult) job. Occasionally it will clunk badly around the issue of 'oh I am a MOTHER working NIGHTSHIFTS and my DAUGHTER is on the RAMPAGE as a result' with lots of handwringing, but hey, that's something lots of working women have to deal with so you can't exactly not mention it (though it could be handled better). But my point is that all of the female characters' main motivation is their job and doing it properly, rather than dealing with their love lives. This is massively unusual for a tv show! I'd say ER had similar levels of professionalism from its characters but very often they would drop everything and act like hormonal teenagers. CSI's characters (both male and female) approach their non-work lives like grown-ups. Except for Little Greg, obviously.

Date: 2012-05-16 12:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aphroditemf.livejournal.com
Ah, GirlGuidingUK! The hypocrisy of their statement astounds me (I say this as someone who has been a Girl Guide and Brownie volunteer for ten years). Having been to training days, I've noticed that 99% of my fellow Guiders are white, middle-aged, terribly posh churchy women. And yet in the same breath as dismissing throwaway celebrity culture, they're saying that the future success of Guiding lies in dumbing down the organisation by making the whole thing a bit more hip and "yoof" - something they are woefully out of touch with. So every year there is an official pop concert for Girl Guides, where the latest batch of X Factor rejects perform, the girls can do badges in party planning and chocolate, and there's a lot more pink on the uniform. Quite what this is supposed to achieve I don't know, because most units have long waiting lists, and attracting girls isn't a problem, but the top brass seem to have this idea in their heads that being trendy and down with the kids is more worthwhile than preserving traditions.

Guiding used to be largely about outdoors activities like pioneering, orienteering, abseiling etc., but now it seems that there's a reluctance to encourage the girls to try those things, in case it's too hard, or not 'cool' enough, or their teenaged attention spans won't be able to cope with the complexity of learning what a round turn with two half hitches is.

Anyway, I'm trying to do my best to be a good role model to them regardless. Last week I played them Mastodon's new album in the middle of a field and at least half of them are reading Kerrang already.

Date: 2012-05-16 06:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shermarama.livejournal.com
That's a good point - weren't the Girl Guides themselves supposed to do some of the stuff they're complaining is missing? I'm glad to hear you're doing such sterling work as a role model yourself, though. *grins*

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