Thursday, 8 January 2015

Mum's the word

Minutes before the dawn of the new year, I found myself locked in a dispute over gender. As our wineglasses glittered in the dying candlelight of 2014, my friends and I duelled over the dining table, debating whether there were innate differences between men and women and how these might determine their career choices. 

In the heat of our exchanges, there was no time to make resolutions about taking up yoga or cutting back on Facebook. There was barely enough time to rush over to the television to watch London explode in fiery delight as Big Ben tolled in the new year.


Image of girl mixing tubes in a laboratory
Her mum said it was okay
Credit: ©  | Dreamstime.com
Oblivious to the passing of the years, we had been preoccupied with the need for female role models in male-dominated professions (such as fund management or engineering) and the possible virtue of using a quota system to employ more women in these bastions of male achievement. 

We also wondered why women gravitated to professions such as primary-school teaching. Was it because women were more nurturing? Or was this simply social conditioning at work? Despite our inebriated fervour, we fell short of putting the world to rights. Time was not on our side. There were more questions than answers.


The laws of physics


Recent figures show that about 29,000 boys sat an A-level in physics last summer versus nearly 8,000 girls, a ratio of almost four to one. And this is in an era where girls habitually outperform boys in the classroom, so much so that there have been calls to educate boys separately to shore up their fragile confidence.

A new piece of research on the difficulties of encouraging girls to take up careers in science, engineering and technology has made a surprising discovery, however. Apparently, promoting female engineers as role models has little impact on increasing the number of girls who study physics; funky science experiments in the classroom don't work either. According to Averil Macdonald, director of science and engineering engagement at the University of Reading, it all comes down to our mothers. She told The Times newspaper last week that if we want to boost the amount of girls studying physics, we have to convince their mothers that a career in science is a worthwhile occupation.

There is some irony in this. The research suggests it's not the old boys' network barring our girls from these doughty professions, but a league of mothers who are more comfortable with little Susan becoming a high-flying lawyer than a boffin. But at the end of the day, I expect it still comes down to an insidious form of social conditioning... which is why I have made a mental note to wield my maternal powers with greater discretion.

On the bright side, it shows that parents have the tools for change at their disposal. I believe that most children, regardless of gender, have some innate preferences when they start out on life, which are then supported or stifled by societal pressures. The challenge for us as parents is to keep an open mind and expose our offspring to a range of different influences. 

Perhaps there is a resolution in there after all. Happy New Year and may 2015 bring us one step closer to world peace and an equitable society!



FURTHER READING

What should we tell our daughters? by Melissa Benn
A  manifesto for any mother who has had to comfort her daughter for not being 'pretty' enough or for not being taken seriously in the workplace.