Thursday, August 10

Women in STEM

With the very recent case of a Google senior engineer being fired over a 10-page ‘manifesto’ explaining that the low number of women in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has nothing to do with bias during hiring or the sexist reaction of male colleagues, but with the fact that women are, to put it simple, biologically bad at all of the above (you know, STEM, science, technology, etc.). They get too little testosterone before they’re born, apparently. Which makes me wonder whether or not that problem then could be solved with some prenatal injections of testosterone. (NOT.) Here’s the link to a Gizmondo reprint (also includes the company’s answer through the appropriate vice president in charge of diversity and other things).

He, like many people before him (and, unfortunately, probably also many people after him), uses the good old ‘women are better at social and artistic work and far worse at anything which can be considered systemic work’ prejudice. Why is that a prejudice? Go and Google (yup, use their search engine) people like Emmy Noether or Annie Jump Cannon (yes, that really was her name). Annie, for instance, was doing a job which required a very good grasp of science: she was a Harvard Computer. Those were, long before the computer as we know it today (the electronic device) became a thing, low-class assistants at universities who spent their whole day computing data - and they were overwhelmingly female. They, essentially, did what computer programs do today. And Annie was especially good at finding new stars through her calculations, even devising a new system (so much for systemic work) of classifying stars. The system is still used today. Emmy Noether, on the other hand, was one of the most brilliant mathematicians who ever lived. But, of course, mathematics aren’t part of the STEM field (since it’s now only the STE field).

Then there’s the ‘women are not speaking out and asking for a raise, then they complain they don’t get it’ thing. I’m still sure that if a woman did that, she’d be out of a job, not getting a raise, because it’s not what women do. And it’s not what men expect, so it would shock that boss to have a female employee ask him in a no-nonsense way which a man might use.

Next comes the ‘women don’t rise in hierarchy, because they’re not ready to spend all those long hours working which are required for a leader position’ spiel we’re also familiar with. First of all, a jacket over a chair’s back doesn’t signify long hours of work. But, yes, in middle management, you usually do a lot of long hours. Most women, however, never get to that stage, they are kept further down, ignored when it comes to promotion, pushed into jobs at the company where there is not further space for promotion.

‘Women are more cooperative than competitive.’ I guess this guy never came close to any ‘Miss something’ contest - women are highly competitive among themselves. But even if they are not: I can’t see where in the STEM field competitive behaviour would be better than cooperation. More eyes and more minds equal more work getting done. Sharing new information instead of keeping it to yourself (so you can get all the praise) might lead to quicker development.

The guy seems to think women don’t choose STEM mostly for the work. The truth is most women don’t choose STEM, because of what you hear about that ‘boys club’ behaviour towards female colleagues. Like that guy who complained that he can’t work with women around, because they’re distracting. Like ignoring and belittling female colleagues. Like that other guy who thought that during a panel at a science conference he should explain her work to a female colleague in front of all (and who was only stopped by a woman from the audience calling him out and telling him to shut up and let her talk, because the host was actually not up to his job). Women hear these stories and decide not to go into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. They have what we usually call a sense of self-protection. They are ready to work long hours and devote their life to STEM, they’re just not willing to do it in an atmosphere in which they will constantly be challenged, overlooked, harassed, or belittled. Personally, I can’t find a fault with that decision, but it makes things worse for the few who are brave enough. With more women coming into the field, they could form alliances to protect themselves and fight back. One woman is easily belittled or harassed, a group can stand up to those doing the belittling and harassing a lot better.

Society starts early to teach kids, boys and girls alike, what they should strive for. It teaches boys to be competitive and girls to be ready to compromise. It teaches boys that they need to work hard in their future chosen field and girls to look out for those hard-working boys so they can marry the right guy. It tells stories about the prince rescuing the princess, but few stories about the princess saving her prince (and those stories so far haven’t been picked up by Disney for large feature films). It tells girls to be ‘nice’ (which does not include talking loud, being decisive, and telling a guy to go to hell for bothering them) and boys that ‘boys will be boys’ when they’re doing something wrong. You know, like telling a talk-show host behind the scenes that when you’re rich, you can grab them all by the pussy.

Society also tells girls how boys are better at science and maths and that they shouldn’t, in essence, burden their pretty head with such stuff. Girls with an interest in the STEM field have to fight an uphill battle from early on, many tire at some point, give in, and go into other jobs. Teachers will not recognize their interest or ability, but still prefer the boys. Boys will make fun of them, girls will make fun of them. Relatives might tell them that it’s not what a girl does, that they should develop a more appropriate interest. So some give in during school. Some give in during college, when things become even worse in male-dominated classes where they are ridiculed or simply ignored. Some give in once they’re out of college and looking for work, only to find themselves cast aside for men who might not have better marks, but are in possession of a penis and a Y chromosome. The boys club does protect its members well - just as similar clubs in field like the law or high-level business positions. Few go into the fields, usually stranded in a low-level position, ignored by their superiors who’d rather promote a guy - because we all know all women will drop out and found a family sooner or later. Or for some similarly stupid reason - few of those superiors will admit that they do it, because they believe that a man is better suited, even if evidence at hand suggests something else.

So, yes, there’s fewer women in the STEM field and as long as the perception of a female scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician doesn’t change, that won’t change much, either. There are quite some women who do not strive for a family (including those who get themselves sterilized at 20 these days - I wish I would have gotten that chance myself). There are as many intelligent women as there are intelligent men. Women have been computers in the past (NASA even had their female computers check the results of the first electronic computers for possible mistakes), they can do numbers. A woman wrote the first programming language of the world - for a machine which didn’t even exist (check Ada Lovelace).

Sunday, September 25

Entitlement is bad

There have been several articles out recently about topics like men complaining about women’s expectations, how to speak to a woman wearing headphones and so on. They all have one thing in common however: they deal with the entitlement many men feel they have a right to. Let’s put it down using three examples: men complaining they don’t find an attractive girlfriend, men telling women to smile, and men speaking to women who don’t want to be spoken to.

Let’s start with the headphone example, which I already covered in this blog post. How to speak to a woman wearing headphones in public? Not at all. Certainly not the way the guy who posted that advice tells you to. Honestly, what he suggests is extremely close to harassment and might get you a kick in the nuts, if you try it with the wrong woman. Wearing headphones is the universal code for ‘I have no interest in communication with anyone.’
And let’s take a look at men telling women to smile in public. There is no reason why you should do that, unless you’re a) a photographer and the woman is modelling for you or paying you for taking her pictures or you’re b) her boss and she’s working in a service job where you should always smile at the customers. A woman has as much of a right to glower, frown, or just not show any emotions in public as a man does. Even if she has down this ‘completely free of feelings’ face my chancellor Angela Merkel has perfected, she has the right to show it in public.
And now about the complaint that you can’t find an attractive girlfriend. What makes you think you, the average or below average man, has a right to an attractive girlfriend and every woman should want to go out with you? Hollywood, that’s what. In Hollywood movies, the average-guy hero gets the good-looking female lead in the end (at least horribly often).

All of these examples have one thing in common: they speak of entitlement. Men feel entitled to demand a woman’s attention when they want it, hence they’d harass a woman wearing headphones until she takes them off and enters the conversation. Men feel entitled to see a woman smile (because she looks better or because it signifies everything is well), so they tell her to smile and expect her to do so. Men feel entitled to the attractive girlfriend the movies promise them and get very nasty when they realize it’s not going to happen.

It’s not the women who don’t give you what you’re owed - it’s you thinking you are owed something which you are not.

Wednesday, August 31

About men's complaints

When I read about this blog post teaching guys how to speak to a woman wearing headphones, my first reaction was pretty much the same as that of most people commenting on it: Just don’t. Women normally wear headphones because they’re not in any mood to talk to other people, no matter the gender. Then I thought about some other complaints men often make about women and stuff like pickup-artistry. And that led to this post.

First of all, the headphones. Women usually wear headphones in public or read books in public transport to avoid speaking to other people. Yes, being able to finish that great novel you started last night or getting to hear your favourite songs is a nice bonus, but not the main reason. So if you happen to see a woman wearing headphones (or reading), just leave her be. Don’t try to get her attention or to get her to speak to you (unless, that is, she’s in danger). Women are not for your amusement or self-esteem. They are fellow human being and have the right to their privacy.

Which brings us to pickup-artistry as a such. A pickup-artist is nothing more or less than a con-artist is. You think he’s not? Let’s see. A con-artist uses psychological techniques to coerce people into doing something (usually giving him/her money). A pickup-artist uses psychological techniques to coerce female people into doing something (usually having sex with him). I imagine you can also use specific techniques to coerce male people into that, but most pickup-artists target women. Pickup-artistry isn’t about winning the heart of a woman. It’s about getting her into bed once or twice. Most pickup-artists actually brag about the fact that they don’t sleep with the same women twice or about how many women they’ve already slept with. If you tried to use the same techniques to win a woman’s heart, it wouldn’t work. The techniques in question are supposed to lower a woman’s self-esteem and put psychological pressure on her to make her do something. That works for a night in the sheets, but will sooner or later destroy a relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about never having a one-night stand. There’s women around who like those as much as men do, so if you meet one of those and you agree on a night together, everything is perfectly alright. If you make it clear to a woman you only want sex with her and nothing more and she freely agrees to it, there’s nothing wrong about having sex and moving on.

Women don’t want a ‘nice guy’ as a boyfriend is another complaint you hear often. ‘I’m always nice to women and they talk to me, then they go to bed with an asshole who doesn’t treat them well.’ Question: Did you make it clear to the woman in question you were interested in being more than a friend? Because, you see, those assholes do. They make it painfully clear from the beginning that they want a sexual relationship. Sometimes, that’s even all they want.
Women make a clear distinction between a ‘friend’ and a ‘boyfriend’ for good reason. We cherish friends much more than sexual partners. A friend is a long-term companion, someone we confide in, someone we keep close. A boyfriend might turn into a life partner, but these days chances for it aren’t always good. And since making a friend a boyfriend and then a friend again usually doesn’t work, we rarely allow a friendship to turn into another kind of relationship. So if you want a relationship other than a friendship, don’t make the mistake to think ‘if I befriend her, she’ll sooner or later be my girlfriend.’ It’s not going to work. Ask a woman you like out on a date and make it clear it’s a ‘date’ date, not just a ‘friends’ date. You can still be nice to her, but make it clear you’re not interested in being a friend, but in being a boyfriend.

Women only want men who are tall, good-looking, and rich is another one. Yes, just like men, we have certain ideals for our perfect partner. Men might be looking for the size of the breast or the right build, women look for men with a great ass, a certain height and other, more personal things. But the idea that our partner should be tall, good-looking, and rich doesn’t mean we’ll never date or even marry someone else. My mum wanted a tall blond and ended up with a short brunet. They’ve been married for 52 years beginning of this month and they’re still in love.
Movies, novels, and other media influence the idea of the perfect partner. Women still often are ‘coached’ on looking for a man who can provide for a family, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘rich,’ but at any rate ‘well-off’ or ‘with a well-paying job.’ And a lot of men wouldn’t accept a wife who will continue to work once the kids are there and have them stay at home to care for the children and the household. So you’re not tall, not good-looking in that ‘Hollywood’ kind of way, and not rich? There’s millions like you while the amount of ‘ideal’ men is limited. You can still find a woman, but make sure not to pretend to be something you’re not - that never works out long-term. Like women, you will have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princess (well, women go looking for the prince, normally). Just keep in mind the princess might not be the way you want her to look, either.

A lot of the complaints seem to come from a very wrong idea about women which men have: that women are somehow there for their entertainment or self-esteem. If you are a man, keep in mind that a woman is a human being as well. She has the right to her own opinion, to her own ideas, to her privacy. She doesn’t have to like you, she doesn’t have to admire you, she doesn’t have to stop what she’s doing to pay attention to you. And treating a woman like a human being because you believe she is will enormously heighten your chances.

Thursday, August 25

Women beside the ordinary

Writing about an unusual woman myself (see this post about Jane), I am always looking for characters in books, movies, or TV series who are not adhering to the standard. It’s not always easy to find them, since there are a lot less ‘acceptable’ roles for a woman than there are for a man. Recently, I stumbled over three different articles which gave me quite some stuff to think about.

They are:

I’m not going to rehash everything which is in those articles, instead I will pick out points I found important for my own understanding of creating a female character.

Let’s start with the villainesses. I’ve always had a soft spot for villains and villainesses, because they’re usually more complicated and broken characters than the hero. Today, they need a reason for their deeds, which means they need a story which explains why they want to ruin the hero, rule the world, or destroy the kingdom.
Yet, I rarely thought about how much difference there was in the looks of the villainesses, compared to the heroines of the cartoons (and mostly Disney’s fairy-tale movies). All heroines are basically from the same mould: they are young, pretty, have a very delicate build (the big head and large eyes make them look young and cute, like a puppy or kitten). Their faces are dominated by big eyes which seem to ask ‘why me?’ the whole time. Apart from few examples (Mulan, Merida, Elsa + Anna), they rely on the prince to come to their aide. Yes, they have different overall looks in terms of hair colour (even though blond is very dominant, but that’s also true for the tales they’re based on) and sometimes skin colour/ethnicity (Mulan, Jasmin, Pocahontas, Tara), but overall they’re pretty much all the same, give and take a little here or there, depending on the time when they were created (from 1937 to 2014). There is at least one picture which does a dress swap on the princesses and it takes a while to realize that, even though the dresses are their signature clothing.
Compare them to the villainesses, from the evil stepmother in “Snow White” (before and after her change) to Gothel in “Tangled.” Those women are far more diverse in looks than their ‘good’ counterparts. Snow White’s evil stepmother is an attractive woman, but also an obviously adult one. Compared to the princess (who is merely 14), she is far more developed. She looks good, but in a cold, commanding way. She’s obviously a woman who knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it. She even sacrifices her beauty, which is her driving force before, to kill her stepdaughter. Or take Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” She is definitely a lot of a woman, bold with her makeup, and comfortable in her body. Ursula was modelled on Devine, but that doesn’t mean she’s less of a woman herself. She’s allowed to be overweight and wear very obvious makeup, because she’s the villainess. Or Cruella DeVille from “101 Dalmatians,” who is the polar opposite of Ursula when it comes to body mass. Her bold, two-coloured haircut, her cigarette, her dangerous driving, all those say ‘I do what I want and take what I need for it.’ Or take a look at Maleficient’s extravagant headgear in “Sleeping Beauty.” She totally rocks those horns. Yzma from “The Emperor’s New Groove” has the most extravagant eyelashes.
The princesses usually don’t wear visible makeup and, apart from Elsa, they’re all adolescent. But that’s not the only difference. The main difference it their outlook at the world. They usually rely on others and they usually act for others. Belle goes to the Beast to save her father. Arielle is (at least in the original tale) ready to sacrifice her own life instead of killing her prince. Rapunzel would stay with Gothel, even after knowing how much the world has to offer, if she’s allowed to save Flynn (and, yes, he saves her in the end by cutting her hair, rendering her useless to Gothel). Both Aurora and her prince are essentially only pawns in the fight between the good and the evil godmothers. Even Mulan, who is a rather active princess, only becomes a man so her old father doesn’t have to serve in the war. And, yes, the will to care for others and sacrifice your own life, health, or happiness is a positive trait on the whole. But wouldn’t it also be nice to teach young girls that they’re allowed to have their own agenda? That they’re allowed to act for themselves instead of wishing on a star?
Even outside the fairy tales, the same pattern works for Disney. With Kim Possible there is actually a rather strong and fearless heroine. She’s no helpless princess, that is for sure, but she’s always on the run, saving others. Shego on the other hand often talks back to her nominal employer Drakken, takes time off when she feels like it, and proves she is a far more effective evil ruler than he could ever be. Even her background is fitting. Together with her four brothers, she gained her specific powers through a multi-coloured meteorite. While her brother still form ‘Team Go,’ a more or less efficient superhero team, Shego left them, because she was sick of their counterproductive actions and quarrelling. Instead, she sold her powers (apart from being an excellent fighter, she also can create rather destructive green fire) to the highest bidder and ended up in the employ of Kim’s arch-nemesis. One could argue that Shego actually is Kim’s real arch-nemesis.
Demona from the “Gargoyles” TV series at least kept the remainders of the clan together and relatively safe after their leader was turned to stone, even though she was the reason why that happened in the first place. Her original motif for hooking up with the Vikings was to drive the humans from the castle, because they didn’t respect the gargoyles enough for her taste.
One thing all villainesses in Disney’s movies or cartoons have in common is that they have their own agenda. They act because of something they want, be it the throne, a contract, a lot of puppies for a new coat, or just a bit of peace from their employer’s constant moaning about how a teenager ruins his plans (and their pay-check). They don’t sit around and wait for their wish to come through. They go ahead and do their best to make it come true.
And, yes, they are villainesses, so their goals usually aren’t very nice, neither are the means they use. But a heroine isn’t allowed her own agenda, even though a hero might be. Women (inside and outside of cartoons) are supposed to be caring and selfless - or they are villainesses who don’t survive until the end of the story. They are supposed to be neat, pretty, and unassuming, not bold or egoistical. A male character with ‘undesirable’ traits can come to his senses during the story and become a better person. There’s lots of examples for that. A woman with such traits will be branded ‘evil’ and sooner or later destroyed.
Everything beside the norm of being soft, caring, beautiful, meek (read: ‘feminine’) is branded as evil. Even a strong character like Kim or Mulan or Merida must do their deeds because they care for others. They are not allowed to have a really egoistical moment.

So much for the villainesses. Now on to some more specific characters.
With the release of “Suicide Squad,” Harley Quinn has taken the spotlight again. For all of you who are not into comics, a quick description of her basic story-arc (which has been done over and over again): Harley once was a psychologist who was supposed to cure the Joker from his madness (a losing fight from the beginning, but well…). She fell for her patient and turned into a villainess, naming herself Harley Quinn (which is not only a shortening of her original name, but, of course, also a pun on ‘Harlequin’). Harley was in an abusive relationship with the Joker for a long time before she broke away from him and found support in two other villainesses of the DC universe: Poison Ivy and Catwoman. Yes, Harley is dangerous and can be murderous. She probably has a similar body count to her former “Puddin’” (the Joker) and should be treated with caution. She is not exactly a role-model for girls … or is she? She has been abused and she realized it and fought to get away from that. She has worked on it and broken off with the abuser. Her relationship with the Joker surely is no great example, but her way out of it is. So from a certain point of view, she actually is a role model, despite her murderous side.

Black Widow from the Marvel Universe is not a villainess as a such, but she has roots in that area, since she was originally trained as a spy and assassin by the KGB. She is highly dangerous and should not be underestimated (as Tony Stark and his driver do in “Iron Man 2” and Loki does in “The Avengers”). Yet her training and her decision to work with SHIELD instead of the KGB also make her a more nuanced character. She’s not a plain hero, she has a lot of red in her ledger from her past, a lot of blood on her hands. She is capable of underhanded tactics and ready to use them. She is a survivor. She uses the stereotypes against those believing in them.
She has some aspects in common with Jane, my main character. Both have chosen to be sterile, in order to do their job (but Jane had a true choice and can have the process reversed, if so she desires), both are trained to kill, both are trained to use all of their abilities. For both, the end justifies the means.

What have I taken away from those three articles? That we need to change the way women are portrayed. That we need to bring in women with their own agenda who are not characterized as evil. That we need to have women who defy expectations or turn them against their enemies. That we need women who find strength when they need it, who break free from their past. That a little bit of a villainess may be a good thing to be. Not necessary in that throne-snatching, voice-stealing, and puppy-killing way, but in the acting, deciding, and challenging way.
A male hero can follow the principle that you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Why shouldn’t a woman crack a few, too? A male hero can start of as egoistical and not very heroic. Why can’t a woman be like that?

I like to see Jane as a female version of characters like James Bond or those Noir detectives who go beyond the law to serve justice. She’s not a ‘white hat’ character and she shouldn’t be. She’s a trained killer and a ruthless agent. She’s capable of presenting the innocent, helpless girl, but she only does it when it’s necessary. The Niece (meek and soft-spoken) only works with The Uncle, she doesn’t make sense on her own, not for anyone who has ever met Jane before. She is too strong and too much aware of her own strengths and weaknesses to back down.