Last Friday, a group of volunteers gathered in the Royal Society in London to edit female scientists into the history books—or at least, into Wikipedia. Their goal was to start fixing the online encyclopaedia’s comparatively thin information about women in science and technology.
I attended the “edit-a-thon”, reporting for Nature. Before I turned up, I wondered about the rationale behind holding a specific event to edit Wikipedia, which can be done at any time and place. I also wondered how much the editors could accomplish in just 3.5 hours. Both concerns were addressed on the day, and in the piece. Take a look. Also, there was an Ada Lovelace/Wikipedia cake.
Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. It could change your life.
This simple writing exercise may not seem like anything ground-breaking, but its effects speak for themselves. In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used it to close the gap between male and female performance. In the university’s physics course, men typically do better than women but Miyake’s study shows that this has nothing to do with innate ability. With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.
The world of business is brutal and competitive. To succeed, people often need to take high risks with big payoffs. Risk-taking attitudes are often conflated with masculinity. The language used to describe such behaviour is riddled with phrases like “testosterone-charged” and “cowboys”. Women are seen as being more risk averse, a belief epitomised by a spate of articles asking if the financial crisis might have unfolded differently had women been in charge.
Many studies have indeed found that women tend to be more averse to risks and losses than men – they prefer options with higher certainty, and they prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains. But according to Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele, this apparent gender difference isn’t the basis for sexual stereotypes, it’s the result of them.
For something intangible, a glance can be a powerful thing. It can carry the weight of culture and history, it can cause psychological harm, and it can act as a muzzle. Consider the relatively simple act of a man staring at a woman’s body. This is such a common part of modern society that most of us rarely stop to think of its consequences, much less investigate it with a scientific lens.
Tamar Saguy is different. Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.
Saguy’s study is one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities”. It targets women more often than men. It’s apparent in magazine covers showing a woman in a sexually enticing pose, in inappropriate comments about a colleague’s appearance, and in unsolicited looks at body parts. These looks were what Saguy focused on.