Monday, 28 January 2013

Women in public

This is a blog about linguistics and language, but I do occasionally stray into academia (which is where I do linguistics). This is one such post, so feel free to skip it if you're here for the linguistics.

I harbour not-so-secret ambitions to be the Marcus Du Sautoy of linguistics. His topic, mathematics, like much of the sort of linguistics I do, is complicated and abstract and not easily explainable, but he nevertheless manages to explain it and make it really fascinating. I want to do the same. This will mean becoming a media personality. And it seems that unless I make sure to keep my youthful good looks (ahem), I risk facing a stream of abuse from the largely anonymous online commenters (the link is just to an article, SFW apart from a few naughty swears).

This story is about Mary Beard, in part, whose programmes I actually haven't seen, despite being quite interested in her topic (Romans). I must rectify that soon. Anyway, she is just a normal-looking woman who doesn't keep her hair neatly done and has non-perfect teeth. She gets a lot of abuse for this, and is making a stand. Other people have joined her (that's what the link is to) and they are also getting abuse. According to the linked story, women are afraid to contribute to the twitter hashtag which is collecting stories about this because they fear they will receive the same abuse.

So far so unsurprising, if still quite shocking. Internet commenters are twats, we all know that, and sexism is rife in our society still. Sensible, civilised people don't always realise that, because sensible, civilised people hang out with other sensible, civilised people. I certainly don't often experience the sort of things recorded by Everyday Sexism, but others evidently do, a lot.

But this article (it's the Telegraph, so don't click if you object to giving them clicks) is by a woman who claims to like Mary Beard. She wrote all of the following in quick succession (sarcastic interstitial comments mine):
Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. Think of Livia and Julia back in the time of Augustus. 
So because the Romans were sexist we should expect the same two millennia later.
A woman who sticks her head above the parapet [...] is asking for brickbats and (some) bouquets.
 And women who wear short skirts are asking for sexual harassment.
If she doesn't have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergraduates.
 Little bit patronising.
... why read the Tweets about you, when you are of a sensitive disposition?
 Yes, avoid using the internet because other people might want to abuse you.
... as I agreed to appear on telly, [...] I was volunteering [...] that viewers would pass comment on how I looked and what I said.
 And that's fine, apparently. Obviously men are subjected to the exact same scrutiny.
... that's what being in the public eye, as opposed to the public ear, is all about. If you don't want attacks on your appearance, turn to radio.
Mary Beard
Silly me. I thought being in the public eye was about (in Beard's case) educating us about the Romans in a medium that allows for more visual information to be imparted than does radio.

There is a serious lack of female experts on telly, compared to men. A science programme in which most of the presenters are women (as in fact one Horizon was, not long ago) is cause for remark. A programme which consists almost entirely of male presenters (as many of them are: see The Sky at Night, for instance) is not remarkable. How many of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been presented by women? (Answer: four, since 1994, and none before that.)

Janina Ramirez
Some programmes make an effort to combat this, and Dara O Briain's Science Club had several female experts (although none of the regular presenters were women). Alice Roberts and Liz Bonnin get decent airtime, as does Janina Ramirez, and Julia Bradbury presents factual programmes on her own (look! no male co-host!). But still there is a noticeable difference in the numbers which we need to do more to change.

How the hell are we supposed to encourage more women to be public figures, and in turn inspire young women to be scientists/historians/linguists if articles like this are judged to be acceptable?
Liz Bonnin
Alice Roberts


  1. Excellent article. Christina Odone (I just knew it was her before I checked) is a bigoted Catholic, so she thinks men have the right to abuse women within 'traditional' parameters. The real reason for such abuse is, of course, anonymity. It privileges the vilest people over the good guys.

  2. I discovered after I wrote this that she is a Catholic and a bigoted one at that. Even so, it's just baffling that anyone could think that way.