The equality debate fallacy

I’ve never thought of myself as a gender activist, and I think this is partly because I’ve never felt treated poorly – I’ve had equality throughout my life and have never felt the pull to be an activist, and as the years go by I am aware of how much privilege this background has afforded me, something that has made me start supporting those who were not as fortunate.  This evening I watched a conversation unfold on twitter that annoyed me, so I’m going to put aside the tech and maths for a moment and look at what the problem is and what it isn’t.

Dr Sue Black had been giving a talk at an event in London about her TechMums program, which aims to teach women how to code to better understand technology, not necessarily to get jobs as programmers.  This is a fantastic initiative and one of many that opens up understanding to people who may otherwise be ignorant on a subject that they may never have covered at school.  I’ll come on to why this is important later.  However, the inflammatory tweet was:

@Dr_Black @Frans_facts @paulwaugh @YvetteCooperMP We have a female monarch, home sec. And former female PM!! What glass ceiling? #tryharder

(Russell Blinman @Georgiasdad1)

While Russell Blinman was somewhat limited by 140 characters, he still misses the point.  Yes, we have some great examples of women who have broken the glass ceiling, but they are very few.  A woman in a position of power or authority is still a rare thing in most areas, even for the focused and determined individuals who want those positions.

Just before the general election a new political party was formed by Sandi Toksvig and others: the Women’s Equality Party.  This party is campaigning for equal representation for women in government.  On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing, even ignoring the somewhat traditional representation of gender that is inherent in their campaign (should there be proportional representation of the LGBTQ community in parliament?)  However, the whole concept makes me a little uncomfortable.

I have always believed in advancement through merit – I would hate to achieve something only to find it wasn’t a fair fight – that I had been short-listed because of my gender, or that I was a token female on a board.  So I would hate to be a female candidate picked from an all female shortlist – I would never feel I had earned the role.

We can’t force the government (or even the voting public), the FS100 companies or any business to have 50:50 gender split and nor should we.  All institutions must be free to choose the best person for the role and not be forced into picking a person based on gender, ethnicity, religion, disability or any other criteria that is irrelevant to the job in question.  Focusing energy in this direction is wrong.  We need to address why fewer women are in important roles and cure the problem not put plasters over the symptom.  So where is the problem?

What is it that we’re trying to achieve? What do we mean by equality?  Men and women are different physically – while there is overlap in fitness generally men are physically stronger than women so just in one thing we cannot achieve equality – the best female runners are still slower than the best male runners.  We just have to accept this.  However when it comes to ability to do a job that doesn’t depend on physical strength, women and men have the same potential.  There will be a distribution based on skills and aptitude, but generalising for any abstracted skill, men and women have equality of potential.

There is also equality of education (in the UK at least) – putting aside inequality in backgrounds and independent schooling – a girl from a state school in a low achieving area can go to a prestigious university like Oxford and sit along side boys from Eton and get the same degrees. I know this because I was one of those girls.  There is no restriction on the subjects offered in schools to either gender.

What we are starting to see now is equality of opportunity – it is a rare company who will find a reason to refuse a woman a job when she is the best candidate although misogynistic managers  are sadly prevalent and can encourage women out of the workplace (although happily more are disappearing from the workplace as each year goes by).

So with equality of potential, education and opportunity, why are women underrepresented at the highest levels?  I believe this is due to inequality of expectation and this is what we need to address.  Even at school, we see girls moving away from STEM subjects and other areas seen as male-dominated.  In the workforce, a lack of women at high levels can discourage any attempt to (as Russell Blinman put it) “try harder”.   For me, encouragement starts in childhood.  We need to tell our children (daughters and sons) that they can follow their interests and talents and encourage them, even though they may be in a minority.

I was very lucky – my parents we just as happy for me to have a science kit as well as Sindy dolls, and a soldering iron along side my water colour paints.  They encouraged me to be inquisitive and instilled a fantastic sense of self-worth and achievement that drives me.  As a result, I’m CTO in a technology company and am studying for another degree – because I can.  I’ve always felt I could achieve whatever I wanted to and it was just a case of deciding what that was!

That’s not to say I’ve never experienced discrimination, of course I have – the condescending managers, patronising co-workers and even embittered team members with some sense of entitlement for promotion due to longevity rather than merit.  I’ve vented, made complaints where I needed to and moved on if I had to.

There are far too many women influencing young girls the wrong way – giving the message that being female is is about weakness and being looked after or being some sort of vacuous doll.  At the same time, girls are being discouraged from achieving their potential because there are too many reinforcing stereotypes telling them they can’t, we need to tell them they can.  This results in a lack of women feeding through the ranks so they are not available for the key roles. We need equality of expectation.  In some areas this is improving – the number of female candidates for the election was very high and we now have the largest number of women in parliament ever at 29%.

To me, this feels like the problem is resolving itself in politics – that women are able to come through the ranks.  Regardless of political ideas, seeing women lead political parties and be passionate about what they believe in will inspire others.  I suspect that by the 2020 election, the Women’s Equality Party will find itself campaigning over a non-issue.  There is still a huge problem in other areas – the CXO roles and directorships particularly – ever the preserve of the old-boy network.    This is what we need to address.

There are initiatives like WISE to encourage girls into STEM subjects – I was part of this at school, but had already decided my career lay in STEM, so perhaps I wasn’t really the target audience.  Do schemes like this really encourage or do they just pick up those who, like me, were already decided on their direction?

To get more girls into STEM, we need to do two things: educate more parents in STEM – give them the tools to talk confidently with their children, and give them examples of strong women that can be inspirational to them.  Dr Black’s TechMums is a great example of the former – women who don’t understand computers can come away from one of these days with a great understanding of technology, which will enable them to connect with, encourage and inspire their own children in addition to gaining skills for their own careers.  There are also plenty of fantastic role models out there with no need for arbitrary appointments – we just need to showcase them more.  Maybe a combination of education and strong promoting of positive role models is the way forward.

Equality to me doesn’t mean arbitrary quotas, it means ensuring that regardless of an individual’s gender, ethnicity, religion or wealth, they have the same opportunities to pursue whatever paths they want – this may not result in a completely gender balanced parliament or business boards, but it will allow those who want to pursue those careers to do so.

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.