I think the crux of this matter revolves around the idea of specialist knowledge.
For example, I’ve noticed that in all areas of technology, there are some areas with more gender balance than others. When it comes to UX and design, it seems that this is a more gender-balanced field.
Scared of technology
As soon as we start talking data or software, males start to dominate. And what really surprised me is that SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is ridiculously male-dominated. This is based on the number of Twitter followers I get who specialise in this area, and they mostly are male.
This surprises me as SEO is essentially an area of marketing, which is historically heavily female-dominated (despite the stereotype of Mad Men in the advertising industry).
This is because marketing is essentially about understanding what people want and portraying your products or services in a positive light – something women tend to be very good at.
I must admit, when I was learning about marketing in my job as digital communications assistant, SEO was something I really struggled to understand. This wasn’t for lack of trying, but largely because it’s full of mysterious terms, like keyword stuffing, and everyone talks about ‘optimising your site’.
The danger of abstraction
But what does this actually mean? When language starts to get more and more abstract, this can be a barrier to entry.
I think women in particular are socialised to believe that some areas of knowledge are out of bounds to them. And of course, we have a long history of women being excluded from public places, like libraries! And they were not allowed to enter higher education or many professions for a long time.
If you were alive in the Victorian times, then a female doctor would have been nothing short of scandalous.
I think this attitude persists in the way that most women I know approach new areas of knowledge. They instinctively assume that they will not be able to understand, as I once did about many topics – including technology.
Stereotypes hold us back
But this was not always the case, and this is why I believe that media and other powerful agents of cultural stereotyping is to blame. As a child, I innocently believed that I could understand anything, and I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
You could say I ‘studied’ anything from engineering, to computer programming, to art and literature. I consumed any knowledge that strayed across my path and had no concept that some subjects were for boys.
And I actually did better in Maths GCSE than in English Literature, but guess which one I picked for my degree? Perhaps some people are less ignorant than I was at 15, but I’m almost certain I was influenced by conditioning, to believe that I must stick to arts and humanities, as more appropriate feminine subjects.
More interested in people
So I think what makes some subjects more taboo for women is that they are not people-related. Even if you take medicine, the practice of medicine is more biological and scientific than it is focused on healing people who are suffering. Doctors have to be retrained into being more humane, so much does their professional training sap their personality.
This isn’t a criticism, but an observation that we subconsciously draw a dividing line through knowledge, and we also treat feminine subjects more derogatively.
“Oh, you’re studying English?” people would say at university, as though I was studying Harry Potter (I must admit, I did in school).
Looking down on certain subjects
We start getting into dangerous territory if we place a hierarchy of values on knowledge, as we are so predisposed to do. We want to categorise things as good or bad, or if not that, then better or worse. But the really it, subjects are neutral. Anyone can understand them.
And the idea that we have separate subjects is artificial anyway. Sure, it’s convenient to categorise information, but really there is just knowledge, and tools we can use to understand our experience.
I loved Wordstream founder Larry Kim’s article about his research into the imbalance of gender performance at his SEO marketing company. He is committed to redressing the balance, to improving the status of women.
His findings were intriguing, because he found that as soon as women enter male-dominated professions like SEO marketing, they are treated more harshly (by clients!) than their male colleagues. They are trusted less, and their performance rated as lower, even though they outperformed the men.
My jaw was hitting the desk when I read this. Especially as it was often women who were being so critical of the female professionals.
Become aware of gender bias
So it’s really important that we all try to become aware of our innate gender bias, and also strive to consume and create positive images of women in culture and society. When you’re thinking of a list of great writers or thinkers, don’t just settle for a roster of dead white men (as amazing as many of them undoubtedly are!).
And while we’re at it, expand your boundaries of ethnicity and start actively seeking out figures to admire from different cultures than your own.
I’ve started a Pinterest board celebrating great writers whom I admire, and I’ve made a conscious effort to include both genders, and as many different ethnicities as I can. The list is growing.
What will you be doing to improve gender balance in knowledge and the professions?
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