Will it always be one step forward and two back in the gender debate?

Before entering year 11 at school, I participated in a Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) Summer school course at Imperial College London. This was suggested to me by one of my teachers and had been designed to inform young female students with an interest in science of the opportunities available to them. Whilst there, my eyes were opened to the fascination of the subject, which subsequently helped fuel my decision to study Biochemistry at university. Despite educational initiatives such as these, the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers in the UK is drastically low – according to WISE it is currently a mere 13%. However, these statistics have improved since 2012, where there were 52, 341 less women in STEM careers. This increase highlights an encouraging sign of progress.

Gender balance

On a global scale, awareness surrounding general female education is progressing. We have seen the public support from US first lady, Michelle Obama, for the Let Girls Learn campaign. We have also witnessed Malala Yousafzi become the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, for her struggle against the suppression of female education. With this in mind, I was completely and utterly dismayed when self-admitted chauvinist, English Biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, Tim Hunt, revealed that the “trouble” with women in laboratories is that “they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”. Now I’m no Emma Watson, but with comments like that is it any wonder feminism is on the rise in the 21st Century?

Hunt demonstrated gender inequality at its finest. Not only did he imply that all women are emotionally unstable and desperately looking for love, but that men do not, and should not, display such attributes. Although apologising for his comments, Hunt did not retract them, he even added that he was in favour of single sex labs as he did not want to “stand in the way of women”. Rather noble of him, but perhaps he forgot Marie and Pierre Curie? Whether in a laboratory, an office, or on a field, surely a person’s skill set should carry more weight than whether they have the Y chromosome?

Hunt received a lot of criticism for his comments, apart from notorious Katie Hopkins who tweeted “I chuffing love Tim Hunt”. I am not at all surprised at her lack of female solidarity, or that she openly backed him, given the publicity she received by doing so. However, despite this rare tweet, the hashtag #DistractinglySexy was soon trending. Female scientists took to Twitter to share pictures of themselves at work covered head-to-toe in laboratory gear to mimic Hunt’s comments. The BBC shared some of my personal favourites from the trend.

Following the furore, Hunt was forced to resign from his post at University College London (UCL). In an exclusive interview with The Observer it was reported that he was then also forced to resign from his position on the science committee at The European Research Council. Commenting on this he said “I have been hung out to dry…I have been stripped of all the things I was doing in science. I have no further influence”.

Subsequently, The Evening Standard reported that Charlotte Vere, the executive director of the Girls’ Schools Association, had called upon UCL to reinstate Hunt as she felt his resignation exposed women as victims. She also revealed that she would have only been shocked if Hunt’s comments had been made by a younger man. In my opinion, if gender equality is not addressed with older generations, we will be hard pressed to address it with those that follow. However, last month, further support was shown in favour of Hunt. Jonathan Dimbleby, broadcaster and writer, resigned from his position at UCL as he felt their decision to force Hunt to resign was “inappropriate”.

Although Hunt’s comments sparked my interest from a scientific point of view, it caused me to think about the entire UK workforce. An analysis in 2014 revealed that only 30% of company director positions are currently occupied by women (data company Blue Sheep used figures from Companies House, taking into account all companies registered in the UK, from small businesses to FTSE 100 companies). This is a shocking statistic and highlights the struggle to achieve gender equality when 70% of all company directors are men. However, here at Aurora, we have a 30% to 70% split of men to women in the office and an equal split between our two managing directors and owners. This is deemed quite high for the public relations and communications sector, which is predominately a female led industry (I’ll leave you to make up your own minds as to why that is…).

As we saw from the comments Hunt made, and the trends that followed on twitter, how we communicate can have disastrous effects, both publicly and on social media. Last month, the Football Association (FA) demonstrated this through tweeting that the women’s World Cup team players can “go back to being “mothers, partners and daughters”. This resulted in uproar and headlines such as “The sexist dinosaurs at the FA strike again!” from The Daily Mail. In the face of this, energy company SSE, an official sponsor of the women’s FA Cup, proved that there are ways to communicate successfully. They released a heart-warming video of young girls polishing trophies and proudly pumping footballs, with an aim of inspiring young girls to pursue their love of football.

Aside from education and the workplace, gender inequality is also very apparent in the world of sport. As well as the alarming disparity in prize money (£22 million for the men’s World Cup against £630,000 for the women’s); I came across an interesting article published in Public Radio International. This compared the FIFA women’s World Cup points for the 23 qualifying women’s teams, against the United Nations 2013 Gender Inequality Index (GII), which takes into account reproductive health, empowerment and economic status. It was found that the countries with higher disparities were less successful, according to the FIFA points system. Brazil was the only exception, as despite having a high GII, their world ranking was also high. Brazil are clearly demonstrating their love for football and protecting their reputation within the sport, regardless of whether their teams are male or female. This month, it will be interesting to see how coverage of the Ashes varies between the male and female teams and whether gender inequality within sport will continue to be openly communicated.

Whether Hunt’s comments were deemed as sexist and inappropriate, or his resignation seen as an unfair over reaction, in my opinion I feel it highlighted an important issue. Gender inequality exists. In September 2014, the United Nations Women founded a solidarity movement for gender equality entitled HeForShe. Although this is a definite step in the right direction, are we doing enough to improve equality in the workplace and world of sport?


Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.