Feminism’s unfinished business

30 October 2008

Is Cambridge sexist? Oh dear, what a question to ruffle feathers and offend sensibilities in this wonderful post-feminist age we live in. Not us, they cry, we’re not sexist, don’t hate us, Ms. Angry Strawfeminist, don’t hurl burning bras at us.

Joking aside, the question of whether Cambridge as an institution is sexist is a serious one that deserves thoughtful consideration and not mud-slinging and panic. In last week’s TCS, Sita Dinanauth made a valiant attempt to defend the university from its detractors, by ‘injecting some science’ into the debate.

I freely admit that as a humble history undergraduate, science is not exactly my strong point, but I would like to respond to some of the points she made, and argue how they can be made to demonstrate that sexism is as alive and well in Cambridge, as it is throughout society as a whole.

I fully agree that we should aim for the truth, not political correctness, but I also think that we should not ignore facts in favour of the rosy, comforting illusion that we have achieved full and fair equality.

When examining the figures about gender ratios throughout the university, particularly with regard to the proportion of female researchers, I notice that no attention is paid to the level at which these women are working. I fear that this is because to do so would undermine the argument here.

If we actually consider how many of these women are working at the highest level, of professorships and heads of department, the ratio immediately becomes skewed in favour of men. Admittedly, given that women have only been allowed to take degrees since 1947, one might expect that it would take some time for them to progress through the system to the highest levels, even sixty years.

However, an institution that largely employs men at the highest levels, with notable exceptions such as the Vice-Chancellor Alison Richard, should still find it difficult to defend itself from charges of sexism.

Opening our eyes to the truth is of even greater importance when it comes to the gender disparity in certain subjects. I am afraid that the words ‘evolutionary biology’ send as much of a chill down my spine as the word patriarchy does to so many others.

I always find it truly astonishing that according to many of these theories, we just happen to have evolved in ways that promote the cultural norms of the early 21st century West.

To use a perhaps frivolous example, a recent study in evolutionary psychology purported to have discovered that women were naturally drawn towards the colour pink, since it was useful in evolutionary terms for our cavewomen ancestors to choose pink-coloured, non-poisonous berries.

A very pretty theory, were it not for the fact that pink was in the eighteenth century believed to be a virile, masculine colour, and not associated with women at all. Similarly, it is a little difficult to swallow claims that all men, regardless of cultural background, are simply naturally attracted to infantile blondes, even in countries where blondes must have been pretty thin on the ground until the European colonial incursions of the nineteenth century.

I have, perhaps unfairly, deliberately chosen plainly pseudo-scientific examples to prove my point here, but any claims that existing gender roles as they are at this particular moment in time are simply ‘hard-wired’ into the brain by evolution rest on similarly tenuous ground.

When these gender roles appear to be natural and ‘hard-wired’ in the brain, this is the result of socialisation and not of evolution. In the absence of visible female role models active in the sciences, is it any wonder that young girls believe that they must be rubbish at these supposedly masculine subjects, and so not choose them at A-level?

In any case, we need to get away from the idea that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are monolithic groups who will all automatically act and respond in the same way.

With regard to whether Cambridge is an especially sexist institution, it would be miraculous indeed if this one place was a bastion of utopian equality in an otherwise patriarchal (there, I said it) society. Neither should we seek to hide the language of dominance behind rhetoric of difference.

Treat individuals and their skills on an individual basis, without reference to convenient gendered stereotypes about their abilities as either men or women, and then maybe I’ll shut up and go back to my needlework.

Sarah Evans is a 2nd year reading History.