May 142012
Spot the women

Spot the women

While making a website documenting an Intensive two week programme with 35 student participants from Poland, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, the UK, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, I and my 6 students suddenly noticed that on the website we had been building for three days there were no images of women except in group photos. Perhaps this was just a statistical quirk because in fact the group was composed of almost exactly 50-50 between males and females. But then I noticed that the four people I had earmarked to ask to be in the Absolutely Intercultural podcast were also ALL male. Well maybe that was just coincidence? But then one of our lecturers gave a lecture in which he had used images taken during the project period to enhance and illustrate some of his main concepts about competition, globalization and the effects of monopoly power and all his photographs were also of males. So three instances in less than a week indicates that maybe something is wrong.

Mentioning this to one of the teachers on the project, she pointed me to a visualization of a study that had been done of the incidence and portrayal of women in the media. One of the interesting results was that in fictional works 66% of the female characters  appear either naked or only partially clothed. Could there be a link between the way in which women are portrayed in the media and our willingness to think of them as case studies and role models when we are thinking of a professional context?

In our website workgroup we had been looking briefly at viral videos and flash mobs to explore the possibilities for presenting our work at the end of the project. Examples included the Grand Central Station freeze and the Belgian drama but even here, there was one example which was new to me, a video made to spread the anti-trafficking message but whose message, I felt, was ambiguous because at the end, the slogan calling for an end to human trafficking points to the women making the video. So are we to understand that they have been trafficked?

We tried to remedy the immediate problem by taking a good look at our website and making sure that the gender balance was more equal. However that sub-conscious bias against featuring the women in our project really shocked me and I wanted to pursue it further. So I asked my group of 3 males and 3 females about their ambitions and hopes for the future. These were mainly economics, financial management and management students and they have high ambitions regardless of gender. So I then asked the females whether they felt they would encounter any barriers and the response was that they did not anticipate any barriers apart from the challenge of mixing professional success with motherhood. Even so, one of the male students admitted that if he were in an employing situation for a position as engineer he would be inclined to think that female applicants would be less competent than male applicants.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, we were reminded in a lecture about non- verbal communication that the higher-pitched female voice sounds more hysterical and less reliable than a lower-pitched male voice! So what hope for female professionals?

I think that all this shows that there is undoubtedly a huge bias against women which is for the most part sub-conscious. I also feel that the feminist agenda has really disappeared and that this is extremely dangerous. The feeling is maybe that now that gender equality is enshrined in the European Union and its member states through legislation, that that box is ticked and we can forget about it. But society does not stand still and although freedoms and rights may have been won, I think that what we have witnessed here is that they need to be actively maintained otherwise they will be lost. The need for the problem to be addressed right now is maybe reflected in the fact that the May/June issue of Foreign Policy was totally devoted to the topic of the status of women’s rights around the world. And the picture painted is not a pretty one.

The same process is happening with democracy. Here in Europe we have ticked the democracy box but the proportion of people who vote decreases with every year that passes, while in other parts of the world people are still losing their lives for the right to vote.

When we told the student group as a whole about what had happened with the photos, we asked what they thought the reason might be. Their response was that maybe it was because the males were louder than the females. That was literally true, but if it is also metaphorically true then that means that women must once more make themselves heard. I have participated in several IPs before and the mixed group of students usually spend a great deal of effort exploring national and cultural stereotypes but I never imagined that this time we would be confronted by the much more basic gender stereotypes in such a clear  way. So this was one powerful and unexpected lesson from the RECEIVE Intensive Programme for me at least and, I hope, also for the group.

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