Human-computer interaction, cyberpsychology and core disciplines

A heat map of the multidisciplinary field of HCI @ Alan Dix

I first taught human-computer interaction (HCI) in 2001. I taught it from a viewpoint of software engineering. Then, when I taught it again, I taught it from a design point of view, which was a bit trickier, as I didn’t want to trawl through a load of general design principles which didn’t absolutely boil down to a practical set of guidelines for graphical-user interface or web design. That said, I wrote a whole generic set of design principles here: Designing Design, borrowing Herb Simon’s great title: The Science of the Artificial. Then, I revised my HCI course again and taught it from a practical set of tasks so that my students went away with a specific skill set. I blogged about it in a revised applied-just-to-web-design version blog series here: Web Design: The Science of Communication.

Last year, I attended a HCI open day Bootstrap UX. The day in itself was great and I enjoyed hearing some new research ideas until we got to one of the speakers who gave a presentation on web design, I think he did, it’s hard to say really, as all his examples came from architecture.

I have blogged about this unsatisfactory approach before. By all means use any metaphor you like, but if you cannot relate it back to practicalities then ultimately all you are giving us is a pretty talk or a bad interview question.

You have to put concise constraints around a given design problem and relate it back to the job that people do and which they have come to learn about. Waffling on about Bucky Fuller (his words – not mine) with some random quotes on nice pictures are not teaching us anything. We have a billion memes online to choose from. All you are doing is giving HCI a bad name and making it sound like marketing. Indeed, cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken, in her book The Cyber Effect, seems to think that HCI is just insidious marketing. Anyone might have been forgiven for making the same mistake listening to the web designer’s empty talk on ersatz architecture.

Cyberpsychology is a growing and interesting field but if it is populated by people like Aiken who don’t understand what HCI is, nor how artificial intelligence (AI) works then it is no surprise that The Cyber Effect reads like the Daily Mail (I will blog about the book in more detail at a later date, as there’s some useful stuff in there but too many errors). Aiken quotes Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, which I have blogged about here, and it makes me a little bit dubious about cyberpsychology, I am waiting for the book written by the neuroscientist with lots of brainscan pictures to tell me exactly how our brains are being changed by the Internet.

Cyberpsychology is the study of the psychological ramifications of cyborgs, AI, and virtual reality, and I was like wow, this is great, and rushed straight down to the library to get the books on it to see what was new and what I might not know. However, I was disappointed because if the people who are leading the research anthropomorphise computers and theorise about metaphors about the Internet instead of the Internet itself, then it seems that the end result will be skewed.

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists now, baby. It’s what we do

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists, now baby. It’s what we do. We make up stories to explain how the world works. It doesn’t mean to say that the stories are accurate. We need hard facts not Daily Mail hysteria (Aiken was very proud to say she made it onto the front page of the Daily Mail with some of her comments). However, the research I have read about our behaviour online says it’s too early to say. It’s just too early to say how we are being affected and as someone who has been online since 1995 I only feel enhanced by the connections the WWW has to offer me. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been all marvellous, it’s been like the rest of life, some fabulous connections, some not so.

I used to lecture psychology students alongside the software engineering students when I taught HCI in 2004 at Westminster University, and they were excited when I covered cognitive science as it was familiar to them, and actually all the cognitive science tricks make it easy to involve everyone in the lectures, and make the lectures fun, but when I made them sit in front of a computer, design and code up software as part of their assessment, they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t see the point.

This is the point: If you do not know how something works how can you possibly talk about it without resorting to confabulation and metaphor? How do you know what is and what is not possible? I may be able to drive a car but I am not a mechanic, nor would I give advice to anyone about their car nor write a book on how a car works, and if I did, I would not just think about a car as a black box, I would have to put my head under the bonnet, otherwise I would sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about. At least, I drive a car, and use a car, that is something.

Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby.

If you don’t use social media, and you just study people using it, what is that then? Theory and practice are two different things, I am not saying that theory is not important, it is, but you need to support your theory, you need some experience to evaluate the theory. Practice is where it’s at. No one has ever said: Theory makes perfect. Yep, I’ve never seen that on a meme. You get a different perspective, like Jack Nicholson to his doctor Keanu Reeves says in Something’s Gotta Give: Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby. Reeves has seen things Nicholson hasn’t and Nicholson is savvy enough to know it.

So, if you don’t know the theory and you don’t engage in the practice, and you haven’t any empirical data yourself, you are giving us conjecture, fiction, a story. Reading the Wikipedia page on cyberpsychology, I see that it is full of suggested theories like the one about how Facebook causes depression. There are no constraints around the research. Were these people depressed before going on Facebook? I need more rigour. Aiken’s book is the same, which is weird since she has a lot of references, they just don’t add up to a whole theory. I have blogged before about how I was fascinated that some sociologists perceived software as masculine.

In the same series I blogged about women as objects online with the main point being, that social media reflects our society and we have a chance with technology to impact society in good ways. Aiken takes the opposite tack and says that technology encourages and propagates deviant sexual practices (her words) – some I hadn’t heard of, but for me, begs the question: If I don’t know about a specific sexual practice, deviant or otherwise, until I learn about on the Internet (Aiken’s theory), then how do I know which words to google? It is all a bit chicken and egg and doesn’t make sense. Nor does Aiken’s advice to parents which is: Do not let your girls become objects online. Women and girls have been objectified for centuries, technology does not do anything by itself, it supports people doing stuff they already do. And, like the HCI person I am, I have designed and developed technology to support people doing stuff they already do. I may sometimes inadvertently change the way people do a task when supported by technology for good or for bad, but to claim that technology is causing people to do things they do not want to do is myth making and fear mongering at its best.

The definition of HCI that I used to use in lectures at the very beginning of any course was:

HCI is a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them (ACM, 1992).

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer is more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution, or indeed typing in sexually deviant search terms into a web crawler to find a tutorial. And, with the advent of social media, HCI is more than one person connecting to another, or broadcasting online, which is why the field of cyberpsychology is so intriguing.

But the very reason why I left the field of AI and went into HCI is: AI reasons in a closed world and the limits of the computational power you have available. There are limits. With HCI, that world opens up and the human gets to direct the computer to do something useful. Human to human communication supported by technology does something else altogether which is why you might want the opinion of a sociologist or a psychologist. But, you don’t want the opinion of the sociologist on AI when they don’t understand how it works and has watched a lot of sci-fi and thinks that robots are taking over the world. Robots can do many things but it takes a lot of lines of code. And, you don’t want the opinion of a cyberpsychologist who thinks that technology teaches people deviant sexual practices and encourages us all to literally pleasure ourselves to death (Aiken’s words – see what I mean about the Daily Mail?) ‘cos she read one dodgy story and linked it to a study of rats in the 1950s.

Nowadays, everyone might consider themselves to be a bit of a HCI expert and can judge the original focus of HCI which is the concept of usability: easy to learn, easy to use. Apps are a great example of this, because they are easy to learn and easy to use, mainly though because they have limited functionality, that is they focus on one small task, like getting a date, ordering a taxi, sharing a photo, or a few words.

However, as HCI professor Alan Dix says in his reflective Thirty years of HCI and also here about the future: HCI is a vast and multifaceted community, bound by the evolving concept of usability, and the integrating commitment to value human activity and experience as the primary driver in technology.

He adds that sometimes the community can get lost and says that Apple’s good usability has been sacrificed for aesthetics and users are not supported as well as they should be. Online we can look at platforms like Facebook and Twitter and see that they do not look after their users as well as they could (I have blogged about that here). But again it is not technology, it is people who have let the users down. Somewhere along the line someone made a trade-off: economics over innovation, speed over safety, or aesthetics over usability.

HCI experts are agents of change. We are hopefully designing technology to enhance human activity and experience, which is why the field of HCI keeps getting bigger and bigger and has no apparent core discipline.

It has a culture of designer-maker which is why at any given HCI conference you might see designers, hackers, techies and artists gathering together to make things. HCI has to exist between academic rigour and exciting new tech, no wonder it seems to not be easy to define. But as we create new things, we change society and have to keep debating areas such as intimacy, privacy, ownership, visibility as well as what seems pretty basic like how to keep things usable. Dix even talks about having human–data interaction, as we put more and more things online, we need to make sense of the data being generated and interact with it. There is new research being funded into trust (which I blogged about here). And Dix suggest that we could look into designing for solitude and supporting users to not respond immediately to every text, tweet, digital flag. As an aside, I have switched off all notifications, my husband just ignores his, and it just boggles my mind a bit that people can’t bring themselves to be in charge of the technology they own. Back to the car analogy, they wouldn’t have the car telling them where they should be going.

Psychology is well represented in HCI, AI is well represented in HCI too. Hopefully we can subsume cyberpsychology too, so that the next time I pick up a book on the topic, it actually makes sense, and the writer knows what goes on under the bonnet.

Technology should be serving us, not scaring us, so if writers could stop behaving like 1950s preachers who think society is going to the dogs because they view how people embrace technology in the same way they once did rocknroll and the television, we could be more objective about how we want our technological progress to unfold.

Women and religion: Society, Storytelling, Technology (6)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 6 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

I grew up in the Church of England and went to church every Sunday, often twice when I was a chorister: Sung Eucharist in the morning and back for Evensong later on that day. I have always loved high-church ritual: incense, candles, and drama, especially on Good Friday, when the vicar would prostrate himself in front of the altar.

Like many teenage girls with a religious mindset, I wanted to feel a divine transcendence, and watched The Song of Bernadette many times. My brother called it my happy-clappy phase. A Muslim friend of mine said that when she was growing up it was commonly known as la phase mystique for which I was very grateful, as it was a mysterious longing and not happy-clappy at all. And recently I read White Hot Truth, and was like wow, yes, when Danielle La Porte said she too, was desperate, as a religious Roman Catholic, to experience God.

Meggan Watterson, in Reveal, says that before the 9th century, a theologian was someone who had direct experience of the Divine. Nowadays we think of theologians studying and interpreting religion in a cerebral manner. There has long been the idea that we need to transcend our embodiment, which results in organised religion assigning sexuality to the female body (materia – or matter, blood and procreation), and the higher attributes of soul and spirit to the male mind. Watterson, herself a theologian, goes on to say:

And this has always been the reason why, from the Talmud to the New Testament and the Koran, women have been asked to remain silent, […]why their experience is not considered of equal value to that of men.

We are second-class citizens and not worth bothering about. Consequently, it was a Father God who sent his son Jesus to save all mankind, the brotherhood of man, whereas Eve, the first woman in the Bible, is responsible for the downfall of all mankind. She is the temptress with the forbidden fruit and her pal the snake aka the devil incarnate.

In her book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd says that prior to Christianity the snake was a symbol of feminine power, wisdom and regeneration, adding that no wonder a woman will feel lost in organised religion as she is cut off from her intuition, which is an evil thing, and which she understands from listening to her body, which is a dirty thing tempting men into sinning.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd discuss the irony of the Eucharist. This is body which is given for you… this is my blood which is shed for you. Women can give their bodies to breastfeed their kids, and they shed blood every month so that they are able to create new life, but in religious terms, this earthly way is unclean and unspiritual, which is why women were not, until fairly recently, allowed to handle the Eucharist or play a role in the service.

But then religion is a man-made power structure. We had the Holy Roman Empire, which wasn’t about God, or experiencing the divine, it was about man and power. And, the Church of England was created by randy King Henry VIII who wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry and have sex with Anne Boleyn, whom he then beheaded and called a witch. No divinity there then. As a woman in this faith, I was taught, from birth, to be validated by the masculine, with a male saviour, male vicars, male apostles, and male stories. It is so indoctrinated in me that until my girls took me to one side at St Paul’s Cathedral after attending a service, and asked me to point out the female apostles and the female saviour, I no longer noticed. And, therein lies a particularly painful irony, I took my girls to church, because I wanted them to know how to pray in order to find comfort. I wanted for them, in those worst moments which life can serve up, to know their way around a church in case they needed to transcend their earthly troubles and experience the divine. What on earth was I thinking?

A few years ago, after several traumatic life events, I took to weeping a lot in church. Just weeping. I would weep all the way through the service, as it was the only time I had to myself as my girls were in Sunday School being looked after, and I had a tiny slither of time in which I couldn’t do anything but weep.
One day the vicar came over and said:
I have noticed you have been weeping a lot during the service.
And I said:
Yes I am very sad.
And he said:
Don’t you think you should get some help for that? See a counsellor? A therapist? Go see someone.

Basically he didn’t want me in his church as a weeping woman in pain from my life experiences. He wanted me to stop it, to go away, to be silent. I was so upset that he didn’t want me there expressing myself, I told everyone, every woman I came across: female friends, random women in the street, anyone who looked at me. And all the women I talked to said that they too had wept in church and wasn’t that the point of church, to get comfort?

It has taken a while, but I am finally at the opinion that the Church is the last place a woman should look for comfort. Comfort comes from being free from constraint, being at ease, and from the familiar. In contrast, the Bible is full of constraints. All those Thou Shalt Nots… written in a time when women were classed as possessions, not people, don’t put anyone at ease. And, the subjugation of women means that there is no familiar femininity just a load of blokes standing about in dresses, saying things like: This is my body which I give to you. It is mind-boggling that the centre piece of Christianity is something women can do and are considered unclean when they do it, and men cannot do and have turned into a spiritual but cerebral act. Women are to be seen not heard. Do your crying elsewhere, woman.

I did try to stay in the Church. I asked the vicar and a few other ministers if they had anything for me to read on the feminine divine as the whole Jesus thing was no longer working for me. They looked at me like I was insane and made me feel wrong about who I am and how I feel. The results of my life have been experienced in, and written on, my body, a thing that I am supposed to deny, because it is not a divine thing.

Feminist theologian Nicola Slee captures the female role in religion perfectly in Seeking the Risen Christa, when she describes her first experiences of faith in the Methodist Church as an intensely personal quasi-erotic relationship with Jesus [..] which mirrored a white middle-class patriarchal upbringing. He was a trial run for that ultimate act of female self-fulfillment, oh yes the wedding day. Because of course what more does a woman need out of life? And, if this sounds far fetched, look at the Roman Catholic nuns who wore wedding rings because they were the brides of Christ (which always reminded me of the Bride of Frankenstein, who was created like Eve was for Adam, so that Frankenstein could have a bit of company and his laundry done and his tea made). The church is a power structure which reflects an old fashioned outdated patriarchal society in which women are not to be themselves.

And so when this is all the Church has to offer women, what are we to do? Watterson says we have to do what our heart desires and that we are worthy of love and recognition simply because we exist. Something the Church could never say because it wants everyone down on their knees kept inline. They don’t want people following their heart’s desires.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd have left organised religion to form their own definition of the feminine divine, because she, Herself, can be found, if you know where to look. It is a lot of work, but seems to me to be the only way forward because, as Lucy H Pearce says in The Burning Woman: Feminine stands for all that we have been taught to reject as deeply flawed or inconsequential: our mothers, ourselves, other women, nature – in society, in religion, in work. And this is so wrong.

It’s time to reclaim the feminine, and indeed the feminine divine. It is time to teach our girls that they are whole, and worthy and loved, and that there is nothing wrong with them. It is time to stop making us women wrong about who we are and telling us that the message came from a weirdy-beardy bloke called God.

It is time to reinterpret the message and make it right.

[7) In Tech]

Women as superheroes: Society, Storytelling, Technology (5)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 5 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

We all love Wonder Woman, we do. My childhood memories tell me that it was the only show with a main female protagonist, and I was glued to the telly when she was on. Until I had girls, I had forgotten that I had minded about the lack of females on TV until the day I watched part of the James Bond movie Die Another Day with my girls and they kept making me replay the scenes in which Jinx was centre stage. They didn’t want to see Bond.

I didn’t want to see Bond, I wanted to see women living out loud and having adventures. I have blogged about women centre stage before, mentioning: Suffragette, Spy, Star Wars, Hunger Games and The White Queen. And, after watching the Ghostbusters (2016) the all female reboot, I was so looking forward to Wonder Woman (2017), as I was expecting a modern day women-centred interpretation of a favourite from my childhood.

What a huge disappointment. I will just state up front: Wonder Woman is a male idea of a female superhero (or self-actualised woman), which would be par for the course if it had been produced by an all male team, but it wasn’t.

Paradise Island is a male fantasy of women warriors, honestly it was only missing some mud-wrestling, and it’s so patriarchal, all those sexy women – liminal women: an extraordinary phrase used by A S Byatt and @IsabelWriter in her fabulous poetry collection Don’t ask – hanging about, waiting for Ares to come back whilst preserving (probably fondling and worshipping) relics donated by Zeus. This pressed all my patriarchal buttons until it got worse and we saw that Paradise Island has permeable boundaries, and none of these women were monitoring the perimeter. Really?

Permeable boundaries is another fabulous phrase which resonated with me when I read it first in Ann Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident’s Daughter. She says that women are trained from birth to have permeable boundaries, so we can be invaded, serve others, not listen to our own self-actualisation, etc. Nowhere to date have I seen it better demonstrated than on the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman (2017).

So, hot (he tells her lots of times) Steve Trevor washes up on the shore and a glorious woman can’t take her eyes off him, even though she has lived for an eternity, and she follows him in his quest, to war: A war in which he doesn’t treat her as an equal, he tells her to be quiet, talks over her, renames her, denies her her identity and heritage, tells her how to dress, how to look, how to be, and expects her to toe the line. He then nips off to be a hero leaving her to endure a supporting role in her own movie!

The whole (clunky) plot fits right into the hero’s quest as defined by Christopher Vogler as the masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess and his updated female interpretation of the hero’s quest which sadly fits Wonder Woman’s journey in this film: Grapples with emotions as a romantic heroine, looking for the missing piece romantically. I’ll spare you the bit about homemaking. Yes please – feel the rage.

I am totally with James Cameron‘s criticism of this film when he says that she looks spectacular but seems to be designed to appeal to 14 or 18 year-old males. Looking at her half-brother Ares you don’t see him wearing a skimpy outfit which shows off his sexy form. Gods are supposed to have beautiful physiques – Diana does and add insult to injury, she is referred to as a God never a Goddess. Though, it works the other way with the female scientist – who was an anachronism if ever I saw one – she wears a mask because she is beautiful but has to be scarred to seem unattractive ‘cos she’s evil – a clumsy attempt as Chaucer put it in The Canterbury Tales as an outer manifestation of … inner characteristics. At no point does the film take us anywhere new and empowering, though it got rave reviews saying it did.

And, I get it. I do! I wanted Wonder Woman to be empowering and I wanted to write great things about it. But all it does is reminds me of those times when you want something so badly, like that job, that friendship, that interest in your book, to be good for you, and you want it so badly that you ignore the signs, you know the ones: the creepy, fake, lame behaviour which you think that with enough energy and patience you can turn into something else, but you can’t. All that happens is you feel betrayed by someone’s lack of integrity and you are left feeling that you’ve been had.

Lillian Robinson wrote a fabulous book about female super heroes called Wonder Women which aligned her joy of comics with her work as a feminist. She had lots to say about how Wonder Woman was created in 1942, and her creator Charles Moulton or William Moulton Marston had an interesting home life with his wife and children and girlfriend and children all living in the same house. Consequently, he thought Wonder Woman and her gang (which included Etta Candy) would conquer the world with some sexy lovefest which overpowers men’s need for domination and war.

Also, Wonder Woman’s magic lasso was really a symbol for using her wiles and feminine sexy powers to get a man to tell her anything. Her bracelets were to control her savageness. Anger is never accepted from any female – we have seen this from The Taming of the Shrew to Little Women’s Jo March. When women mature, they accept male domination, get behind the scenes and distract the menfolk by getting busy. Consequently, if Wonder Woman’s bracelets are chained together she loses her power, and Robinson had to wade through a lot of S&M themed editions as well as Marston’s copious lovefest fantasy notes to understand what was really going on.

Wonder Woman may be super powerful but she is not like Batman or Superman all muscly as she has to remain super sexy and attractive, with those magnificent breasts which stand up on their own in those metal breastplates. This means that she was super slim in the 40s and super toned in the 80s. She has always kept up her babe-status but is one of the rare female superheroes allowed to grow up: Super Girl for example never becomes Super Woman. She remains just a non-threatening girl. We don’t want our women fully grown, we want them malleable.

Robinson also points out that the term Superwoman is used to describe women who do everything, have a family, have a big career, run a home, which suggests potential exhaustion and no balance. There is no male equivalent. Men never talk about having it all. Men don’t need to have that conversation. So where does that leave us with self-actualised women and female superheroes?

Normally, at this point I turn to turn to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it explains most things. However, this time I can’t. Maslow only used two women in his group of self-actualised people, which Betty Friedan pointed out in 1963. Though, Maslow himself said he never expected the psychology community to swallow it whole and cite it indefinitely, he wanted it to be debated.

So, what I guess I am asking now is: What does a superwoman look like when viewed through a female perspective? And, fiction aside: What does a self-actualised woman look like look through the eyes of another self-actualised woman? I am asking because, that’s the movie that I want to see.

[6) Religion]

Women’s work: Society, Storytelling, Technology (4)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 4 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

The above statue in Whitehall is a poignant reminder of the women of WWII who kept the country running but then were forced to hang up their uniforms and heroic identities, as Lillian Robinson puts it in Wonder Women, to return to domesticity, motherhood and consumerism. The men needed their jobs back and that was that.

Thanks to the massive propaganda effort, by the 1950s, it was accepted that a woman’s role was to help men. Anne Lamott illustrated this brilliantly in a recent podcast by describing how at a buffet at a social event, a man could not go up and get himself a plate of food, so a woman would go for him. He was far too busy, far too important thinking important things, so much so that when the woman got back, he might not even notice, he might not even say thank you for his food. He was too busy and important to notice and say thank you.

Lamott’s podcast was part of as part of a Sounds True series on Self-Acceptance, and the host, Tami Simon, said that it was the only podcast in the series which turned self-acceptance into a feminist issue. However, if someone doesn’t even see you to thank you because of your gender, when they have been given food by you, how can you see yourself and your gender as anything than less than? How can you feel acceptable? And, how do you learn to accept yourself when your sole role in life is to be ignored? Lamott said that it has taken her a lifetime to unlearn those patterns of unworthiness.

Marion Shaw says in Man does, Woman is, that women’s work has always been of low regard and lowly paid, and some women have been denied access to employment altogether. And, if as a woman you were able to get work in a domain outside of women’s work, then there was and still is the construct of being a woman in a man’s world and all the things that went and still go with it.

When I was a student, I worked on site at ICI. Women on the chemical plants were almost non-existent and they had not had a woman fixing PCs before. I had to prove my skills for holding down that job with each PC I repaired. Fast forward a few years, when I was on bridges in Switzerland, everyone downed tools and followed me about. One of the other engineers with me laughed at the amount of attention I was getting. Now older and wiser, I wonder why I didn’t question any of this. I had been interviewed and hired to do a job. I shouldn’t have had to prove my worth and my ability, each and every time I entered into a professional situation during the course of my working day.

During my first lecturing position, I was paid 12% less than the youngest male lecturer. When I asked the (male) Head of Department why as an older, more experienced person I was paid less, he got a bit nasty. I stood my ground and got a pay rise, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and still to this day saddens me, that a) I had to ask and b) I was spoken to as if I was being unreasonable for wanting to be recognised fiscally as someone equal to my colleagues.

However, my stories are tame. We have all seen the stories this week of Harvey Weinstein and recently, the sexist culture at Uber. Anecdotely, often on the playground at pick up and drop off, I hear disgraceful stories across all industries. In publishing, finance, the public sector, to name but a few, women have been pushed out, their jobs reduced or even taken off them. Recently one woman said to me, thinking aloud, on the retirement of a senior (male) colleague:

There must be something wrong with me, otherwise why would you give all your clients to someone junior to me?

And, that is what women do all the time. We question and doubt ourselves and we experience imposter syndrome, instead of recognising that we are being treated badly. We feel we shouldn’t be there, because for centuries, we have been told that we shouldn’t be there. And, it is so institutionalised across society that men just don’t even see women, and if they do they follow them around to oogle at their female form, or check that they can do the job, or they don’t think that they should be paid exactly the same amount of money to do exactly the same job.

I went to a series of seminars this year run by TRIGGER: Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research. And, whilst they are looking at ways to find solutions for tackling inequality, it is staggering that in 2017, these series needs to exist.

Some of the facts I got from the research which was presented there are as follows:

  • There is a 40% pay gap between genders in the Financial Services.
  • There is a definite gender bias in publishing.
  • There exists a male group think where women are not even seen, let alone considered.
  • Woman are penalised against in the TEF and REF.
  • Only 16% of women run boards and conferences, and even fewer are no doubt invited.

Yes, I have loads more facts but am too weary to type them all down because the rage and powerlessness I feel as I reflect on this blatant discrimination gets me down.

The government has spent millions on initiatives to get more women into the STEM professions but it remains that in my areas of Engineering and Computing (am capitalising English style): 15-20% of students are female but in my experience over the last two years it is more like 5%, 10-15% senior faculty are female, and 2% of professors are female. Research has shown that women are less likely to collaborate internationally and travel internationally. And, everyone is scratching their heads wondering why. Really? You really don’t know?

Personally, I believe that it is no good encouraging girls to go into these fields if you are not going to change the very nature of these fields. They are ripe for change. But, this would mean changing the whole of society and the view that men are legitimately allowed to be there and women aren’t and should be at home looking after the kids. Myself! I am too tired to fight and prove my worth anymore. I just want to tell any man who even dares to looks at me the wrong way to go forth and multiply, which of course I don’t, because then I would be deemed unprofessional and that I shouldn’t be there instead of recognising my behaviour as a righteous rage. I would never question whether a man should be there or not based on the way he looks.

And this is a recurring theme. Society recognises the legitimacy of men in a way they have yet to do for women. So, as a woman, please know that when you show up to work, understand that your status and hierarchy as a woman will not be respected, you will need to know how to influence too. And, you will need to be more visible too, e.g, yes be on a board, but you must be the editor not just a reviewer, as you will disappear down the cracks when it comes to promotion time, as no one will see at all the amazing contributions you have made. And, don’t have a career break, no, it will be detrimental to your career. I know my career definitely got messed up because of that gap – you know that one where I took time off to look after our future generations in that lowly unpaid role of women’s work.

It is exhausting and infuriating, and no man in any role even thinks about being seen and presenting and justifying the very space he occupies, before being allowed to get on to do the job he has been employed to do.

When I started thinking about this series one year ago, I asked many of the women I meet socially and professionally about it and many of them didn’t even want to think about the inequality of society, because it is depressing.

I have been mired down for months trying to write this blog series, and now I am here I am in a rage as I write. In spite of that, I am raising girls. I am raising girls and I want them to have better experiences than I have had in the workplace, I want their lives to be the great experiences that I can only dream of, because they are the future. So each time I look at my girls, those magnificent glorious expressions of the future, I put aside my fury and I research and I write in the hope of figuring out some solutions to make the world easier for them to be themselves in, because left to be themselves they will definitely make the world a better place in which to live, something I absolutely know for sure.

[5) Superwomen]

Women’s health: Society, Storytelling, Technology (3)

Source: Huffington Post

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 3 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I wrote a paper based on part of my PhD research about function-structure-behaviour and got to thinking about serendipitous design which is when a happy accident has led to the discovery of a new thing. There are some famous examples like the text message and the post-it note, but, I wanted something different. So, I emailed round asking people, and got back vulcanised rubber, velcro, nylon stockings, mmm different, and then a female psychologist suggested the vibrator. Oh my!

The vibrator, so the story goes, was originally invented to help doctors who had tired hands from giving ‘pelvic massages’ to women to relieve their hysteria, long before it became a tool for pleasure. It does beg the question why did Victorian doctors starting putting their hands up women’s dresses to help with their minds? It reminds me of the time my mother nodded towards the consultant on a ward round who examined her and said: He’s never a doctor.

Older and wiser today, I applaud the psychologist’s creativity and think the vibrator is an extraordinary example of serendipitous design (though designed by men, so phallic shaped which is hardly surprising.  Lynne Segal says, even today the language of sex is phallocentric). Back then, I imagined myself at the conference in front of a load of men saying the word vibrator and went with the post-it note instead. Extraordinary example or not, it really wasn’t worth the aggro it could cause in the brain of any excitable male, who unable to see past my female physical form, would assume that me saying vibrator was code for please hit on me later. I mean why else would I be there, except to get me a maaaaan?

I have had many conversations with female academics who work in engineering and computing who have said: I don’t wear peep toe sandals, I don’t wear nail varnish, I don’t wear make-up. They eradicate anything which draws attention away from the smart things they are saying. And yet, I do not know a single male on this earth in any field who has ever felt the need to analyse his appearance in this way for fear that he will not be taken seriously, nor treated with the respect he deserves. Women are constantly subjected to being viewed as little more than objects even in a professional environment when they are there with a job to do. And, there are days, even now, when I feel the way a female cousin said to me once about a man disrespecting her: Somedays you just want to take an iron bar to the idiot and beat that respect out of him.

But, back to Victorian times, when doctors were busy putting their hands up their patients’ dresses and not getting struck off for it, the medical profession (men) believed that they had to keep a woman’s sexuality in check by getting them married and having children, as they believed that celibacy led to insanity.

And, once in that role of wife, the woman was encouraged not to do too much intellectual activity as it diverted the blood to her brain instead of her reproductive organs.

In her book Women, Madness, and Medicine, Denise Russell examines the lives of various writers such as Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Gilman Perkins who were advised to take a rest cure to dispel their creative urges, which were unhealthy. The only creativity they should have been doing was making babies. Motherhood was sold to women, as Marion Shaw puts it in Man Does, Woman Is, as their gift or their duty.

A woman could be an inspirer, but not the inspired; the muse, not the poet; the presence, not the activity. It may be a flattering notion (FOR FIVE MINUTES) but ultimately it was, and is, a dreadful, dreadful lie causing women to be defined from the outside, and to not be defined by themselves, and it still lingers to this day.

Danielle Laporte calls it the Patriarchal Lie of Authority: We know what is best for you and if you don’t do what we say then there is something wrong with you, which I guess is where #mansplaining comes from. How many men have come over to me and explained stuff about things they have no idea? Sometimes a male student will do it during lectures and I think: You have been thinking about this for two weeks under my guidance and I have been thinking about this 20 years, and yet you have to explain something to me. Would you do this if I was a man? And, when we get to assignment time you can guarantee the guy hasn’t really understood, because he wasn’t listening, he was too busy mansplaining.

On this blog, I have spent a lot of time talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but nowhere on that triangle is there a level which tells you to suck it up, defer to someone else, and do exactly what someone else prescribes is good for you. No! No one knows what is better for you than yourself, so why does society insist on telling women exactly what is good for them, when society itself is so damaged and damaging?

Russell says that there have always been more women than men resident in mental hospitals since the 19th century, because a woman’s role in society is mentally unhealthy and yet women are encouraged to conform to this role because that is how they are socially valued. And still today, many buy into this. There was a great article this week in the Mirror about Louise Rednapp who fell hook, line and sinker for the con trick that domestic goddess breeds domestic goodness. Which sometimes it does. But other times breeds isolation, resentment and frustration, especially when it comes to sacrificing your own self-actualisation to support someone else’s.

Consequently, given the boring and restrictive lives many women led there were many forms of madness and women’s complaints. Once society had done away with healing women – hunted as witches – and the church gave up on the theory that mad people were possessed by the devil, the patriarchy moved into medicine and often conflated medical treatment with morals.

Robert Brudenell Carter studied men’s mental health in the Crimea, but he still had a theory that women were more emotional, had stronger sexual desires, and were hysterical for an audience. It didn’t occur to him, like the men he studied, they were doing something they just didn’t want to do and which wasn’t at all what they thought they had signed up for. His cure for their oppression was marriage. It was imperative to avoid women becoming that female archetype of voracious hunger and sexual insatiability, ‘cos wouldn’t we all be hunting down men for our next shag if we weren’t married? His theory was a ridiculous confusion of medicine and morals, and don’t get me started on the randy old bugger St Augustine and his original sin, just ‘cos he couldn’t keep it in his pants, he had to make it into something outside of himself.

Consequently, poor women or single mothers could be committed. Women who engaged in political activity could be committed. Any deviant behaviour was viewed as illness rather than an unwillingness or inability to fit into an oppressive stereotype and was treated as such and these women would be committed in the name of the patriarchal lie.

And, it is this pathological approach which extended not just to mental health but to physical health and still exists today. Menopause, pregnancy, and menstruation are managed like they are illnesses that we have to get through. They are scheduled and treated with hormones and painkillers with very little celebration of it being a natural process, the cycle of life, and trust in the body. Don’t get me wrong, without the intervention of modern medicine during childbirth I would not be here to tell the tale, nor would my daughters. But, how often have women been dismissed as being hysterical? Or told to come back in a year if it hasn’t sorted itself out? Or told: that pain is not that bad, it will improve after you have kids, from a man who will never experience childbirth nor period pain. And, when I hear men grunting in Bikram like they are about to give birth, I can’t help but wonder like feminist Flo Kennedy, how different the world might be if men were the ones who got pregnant and had kids. Would they remain in a restricted role? Would women go about explaining how things work incorrectly to them? Would they be told to stop whinging and suck it up? Just because a woman can give birth, it doesn’t mean that it is the only thing she can or should do. And, she shouldn’t be told how to live her life.

I can’t find a reference to this, but originally women were barred from the priesthood because of menstruation. How could they possibly hold the sacrament when they were unclean and bleeding? Ironic, given that it is supposed to represent or be (in Roman Catholicism) the body and blood of Christ. It is similar to the idea that women after childbirth weren’t allowed in society until they were ‘churched’ and made ‘clean’ again. Seriously? You can’t make this stuff up. Oh no right, they did.

We live nowadays in a society which publicly embraces equality but in reality does little to effect change because these thoughts and ideas about what a woman should be are so deeply entrenched and institutionalised, that it is going to take a revolution to shake off the subordinate social status of women and to see that women can have their own interpretation of the world, we don’t need the menfolk to explain to us how it all should work. They need to be quiet and listen to who we think we should be in it.

[4) Work]