It can be really encouraging to see attempts to raise the issue of gender inequality in high profile media. More often though, it seems that reporters somehow manage to mess it up to such an extent that whilst verging on amusing for feminists, the framing of reports is simply demonstrative of sexist presumptions and perpetrates the problems it tries to address.
Take the following article from BBC’s ‘100 Women’ in October, for example:
It really caught my attention. Of course it did- it mentions makeovers and attraction, and whilst I wouldn’t normally check out the education or technology sections of BBC News, I love makeovers and all things attractive! I’d never had any interest in technology before, but to be honest if it’s associated with makeovers I don’t care what ‘it’ is! Being a girl, I also do not have my own agency, but rather rely on the pull of external forces. I would never have decided to look into technology, but I am ready and waiting to be wooed, and it’s great that the technological world might want to attract me, welcome me into their arms, summon me as with a whistle or bell. Evidently someone cottoned onto the fact that though nowhere near as majestic as the magpie, Woman too will be dazzled by something that shines, and swept off her feet will change her course of direction to find it.
Or at least, that is what someone at the BBC seems to have been hoping.
To be honest, the extent to which this one headline demonstrates the problems women face in being taken seriously in all sorts of areas, industry to academia, makes it almost funny. In fact, perhaps this is a joke, or at least an ironic critique, a parody. Somehow I don’t think so. The reduction of women to concerns of appearance and the negation of their agency and intellectual processes leading to decision making is not the only reduction made in this article. The first piece of text in the body tells us that the woman interviewed is ‘already planning the future of her unborn children’. Fair enough, she is at liberty to do that, and if that is one of her concerns that’s fine. What isn’t fine is that this is not elaborated on whatsoever. Merely the fact that she has the potential to bear children and sustain population growth is mentioned in the first paragraph of text, seemingly just to remind the reader that even if she has done great things in technology, she is aware that her primary purpose is elsewhere. Like I said, I have no problem with thinking about one’s future potential children, but to mention it like that in the first paragraph, presumably the one that most people will read, and not to elaborate seems pretty fishy to me. Pretty reductive of women, pretty heteronormative and pretty pronatalist. And despite all those ‘pretties’, I’m not won over.
Perhaps in a douse of internalised sexism, the female interviewee refers to her ‘stubborn’ nature which enabled her to succeed in STEM subjects, as opposed to choosing a more positive adjective, such as resilient. Seems unsurprisingly similar to the ‘bossy girls’ label which has led to many women growing up to feel like it is not their place to be authoritative or enter positions of leadership.
Unfortunately, there was no plot twist at the end of this article. It was more like a knife that had already been plunged in being twisted. To quote the penultimate paragraph in its entirety:
‘The fact that Mrs Lovelace was coding in an age when even few men were, shows that there is no inherent aptitude problem, thinks Ms Imafidon’
That’s right, folks. The BBC in the year 2014 have helpfully stated that someone ‘thinks’ women are not biologically unable to excel in coding. Well that is encouraging. By which I mean totally disheartening. It is simply depressing that the BBC could not write an article about women in technology (an important topic) which begun with statement of the fact that a constructed biological essentialism (claiming women’s intellectual inferiority) is perhaps the main cause of women being marginalised in technology, and also simply believing they might not be up to it, starting from a young age. The conclusion of the article, which states tentatively that biologically equal disposition towards STEM subjects is one person’s opinion/theory, seems therefore almost as ironic, or at least demonstrative of the key problems, as the title.
With this sort of sexist, reductive reporting that infantilises women and deprives them of agency from the beginning, no wonder many women want to remain distanced from the world of technology.