Sunday, 4 December 2011


When I was a student the first time round it was a relatively short time since most Cambridge colleges had started to admit women, a short enough time that no one in my year at Trinity was going to have a mother who also went to Trinity.  The gender balance of colleges and courses was something people were aware of in the way that they were also aware of the need for a balance of social and economic backgrounds.  In Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic we were proud of ourselves for being pretty much 50/50.  (And by the time I left ASNC many years later I think the senior members were about 50/50 too.)  So when I was first a student there was a feeling that gender imbalance was a problem that was slowly being overcome.

I don't know if it's just a natural part of moving from youth to middle age, which is famous for making you look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but it seems like in so many ways gender things have failed to get better, or even got worse.  I first noticed it at about the time I became a research fellow.  The fellowship was very male-dominated -- it was numerically more typical to be an out gay man than a woman -- and although no one was ever anti me as a woman, they certainly commented on it from time to time.  One fellow told me that as a woman I had got second place in the lottery of life, which I laughed at uproariously because I thought he was making a joke, until I realised that whether joking or not he did actually think this was true.  Anyway, it wasn't a problem, it was just odd because it seemed like a retrograde step.

Now I'm a student again things are even worse.  I'm one of seven women out of 56 students on my course, and although we're a pretty vocal bunch -- our year's student rep is a woman -- we're vocal in that way that women are when they're surrounded by men.  Imperial should be a bit ashamed of this imbalance, which is visible throughout the department.  They should be even more ashamed of the examples used in our Object-Oriented Programming lectures.  In object-oriented programming you model the scenario you want to program by thinking about different types of objects as classes.  So if you were modelling a traffic junction you might have a TrafficLight class and a Vehicle class.  You can have subclasses which share some behaviours and data with a superclass, e.g. Vehicle might be a superclass with subclasses Car, Bicycle, and Bus.  Then you can make things behave differently according to which subclass they're part of.  In our object-oriented design lectures we have all this demonstrated with repeated examples using a Human superclass which has a Female subclass.  Humans enjoy walking and Females enjoy cooking.  When a Human goes on holiday it spends its time walking, but when a Female goes on holiday she cooks.  When a Human talks to a Human they talk about sport, but when a Human talks to a Female they talk about discos.

Clearly this is appalling.  When I was younger I might have been actually genuinely hurt by it.  By now I just find myself thinking that the men involved in it are all arseholes -- I think they realise it's not OK but they think it's funny not-OK not change-it-now not-OK.  And because I too can be sexist I find it very hard for my contempt for these individuals not to leak out a little bit onto men in general, or at least the young men on my course who think it's funny too.  I wish they'd just sort it out.  The feminism I believe in is about ending not perpetuating the war of the sexes.  I'm not just damaged by sexism because it might stop me doing things, but also damaged by it when it makes me a worse person by provoking a reactionary sexism in me.

So welcome to a difficult world, little niece.  I promise never ever to buy you anything pink.


  1. This is very depressing. When I was younger, I thought it was taken for granted now that men and women were equals and wouldn't try to oppress each other, I thought that was a battle that had been won and an argument that didn't need rehearsing again. It makes me quite sad to think of that now.

    And I don't think there's anything productive that can be done about this situation; complain and you're humourless and hypersensitive, put up with it and you're tacitly agreeing that this is OK. Like you say, why can't they just sort themselves out?

    The pink issue, on a trivial but also quite serious level, is tricky - pink is a perfectly good colour, as are all the others. Though I confess to a twinge when my daughter requested 'a little pink tumbledryer'; I dread to think what prompted that.

  2. Pink is hard I agree. Why shouldn't it just be another colour? But the last time I wore something pink I felt so uncomfortable I had to go home and change. What makes me angry is that I go to get a birthday card for my god-daughter and the cards with specific years on all come in either blue or pink. And shopping with my parents for a new ball for my nephew in Tescos, they all came in blue with cars on or pink with Barbie on. (They were out of the blue ones and we couldn't quite bring ourselves to buy him a Barbie one.) Or you want a paddling pool -- they come in blue or pink. It's clearly a scam to increase sales by making it a tad less easy for something to be passed down between siblings. The worst one if the pink box full of pink lego -- or the pink powertools for actual grown women. Anyway, I rant.

    The great thing about the stupid sexist example in our course is that some of the gay young men are going to complain about it, on the grounds that it demeans everyone. So there may be hope for the world after all.