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

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.

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