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: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

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

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

[2) Bodies]