Visible Women

“Why we need to stop erasing women from history”

Posted by
Lisa Smosarski

In the year we celebrate the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote, Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski asks you to help finish the work the suffragettes started. 

I know you’ve only just started reading, but I want you to stop for a moment to play a game with me. Assuming you’re reading this somewhere public – on your commute or over lunch in a cafe – just take a moment to stop and look around. Give yourself a minute.

Now answer this question: how many women can you see?

Assuming you’re somewhere neutral (not a beauty salon nor a bookies), chances are you can see as many men as women. In the UK, we make up 51% of the population, and when you look around this won’t surprise you; we’re everywhere, thank goodness. This is ‘normal’. “Hoorah,” we say, sending a silent thank you through history to our sister suffragettes.

Now a new game if you’ll indulge me. I want you to see how many famous men you can name from history in one minute. Now do the same for women. Look at the results. I just played this game with my husband: he named 15 men (the majority were fascist dictators, incidentally) but just seven women in the same time span (the majority were tennis players, plus Judi Dench, who I’m fairly sure isn’t ready to be a historical woman yet). That’s half the number of the men he could name. Half. Despite the fact that throughout the past 100 years or so, the UK population has been slightly biased towards women. And he’s a well-read feminist. This, it turns out, is also ‘normal’.

“Hoorah,” we say again, somewhat sarcastically this time.

This isn’t an attempt to humiliate my husband, much as I do enjoy that. This is just how it goes. I’ve played this ‘game’ many times. The majority of people – men and women – can name more men than women. And who can blame us? It is still not compulsory to teach women’s history on the UK national curriculum. I certainly never learned about the contribution of Millicent Fawcett or Emmeline Pankhurst, wasn’t taught about Nancy Astor or Constance Markievicz, and couldn’t have told you a thing about Ada Lovelace. I did learn about that lovely Florence Nightingale, a wonderful, caring woman in a noble female profession. But activism, politics, science? All missing. Bar the glamorous and sensational lives of the royals, women in history remained a mystery.

In a survey commissioned for Women’s History Month in March 2016, just under half of the UK population – 40% – believed that women did not have as much of an impact on history as men. The reasons for this are complex. Gender equality is a relatively new idea and the suppression of women riddles our past – through deprivation, lack of education and status. The opportunity for us to stand out and make a stamp on history has been limited. If you want to discuss most aspects of politics or religion or war, women just don’t feature. You can’t rewrite history to make women equal when they were not. (Although we were obviously there somewhere. We must have done something. Knowing what that was would be better than nothing.)

So why make a fuss? Well, the truth is, if we don’t then equality will never be ours. It’s really that simple. It’s not just that there are fewer women, it’s that most of the time there are none mentioned at all. Zero. This invisibility of women from our past will lead to our continued invisibility in the future. Women existed in the past. Some were probably more influential than the text books give them credit for, others may have played a supporting role. But, as the tired old expression goes, “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”. Why don’t we know their stories?

Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was Britain’s first female doctor. 

The scary thing is, if we don’t see these women and learn about their accomplishments, nothing will change. Women are more successful when they can see female role models around them. When we see it, we believe it, conscious or otherwise.

A 2013 study, published in the Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, backs this up. Eighty-one female students and 68 male students were asked to give a speech arguing against higher tuition fees. In the background, pinned to a wall, the psychologists swapped between posters of Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton or sometimes took down the posters altogether to see if they affected the students’ performance.

The female students who gave their speech with Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel on the wall spoke for significantly longer than those without (an increase of 49% and 24% respectively). Their speeches were also rated as higher in quality by those watching – who incidentally, couldn’t see the posters – and the women also rated their own performances more positively. The men’s performances were not affected by the posters.

The study is heavy-handed, but it does demonstrate that female role models have a significant impact on our performance, even on an unconscious level. Just six of the FTSE 100 CEOs are women (the list features more men called David than women: I’m considering changing my name). Women have only 30% of all speaking roles in Hollywood films. Just 24% of global news stories are about women. And 2.7% of all statues in the UK are of historical, non-royal women. We don’t have the same unconscious signals as men. High-achieving women don’t show up as much. This has an impact on our confidence.

The lack of visible women in positions of power causes problems. Unconscious bias – the unspoken subjectivity we all have when making snap decisions – is influenced by what we see around us in day-to-day life. That brilliant riddle about the surgeon sums this up well. Don’t know it? Time for another game.

Set your stopwatch again and, in 60 seconds, answer this conundrum: a father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to hospital and just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!” Explain. This riddle baffled me for ages, I simply couldn’t explain it. You can imagine how disgusted I was with myself when I realised the answer was simple: the surgeon was his mother. I am the editor-in-chief of a feminist brand. I create content day-in, day-out on equality. Yet I still jumped to the conclusion that the surgeon would have been his dad.

Jess Phillips MP told me a similar story recently. She recounted a conversation with her young son who had seen a headline about an unnamed MP in a newspaper, then asked Phillips if she knew him.

“I do,” she answered. “I know her.”

She was shocked that her own son, who only knows one MP intimately – his own mother – still jumped to the conclusion that MP was shorthand for man.

Now, this is nothing to do with Phillips’ son and everything to do with our gendered society. These examples happen all day, every day, and affect all our futures and prospects.

It seems that the echo chamber we’ve been hearing so much about doesn’t just apply to social media, but to our entire lives. Think about it, we know we can be anything we want to be, but if we don’t see it, don’t hear it, then fundamentally we don’t believe it. Maybe don’t even consider it. Does it affect the jobs we apply for? Does it affect the people we choose to hire ourselves? Unless we start to positively discriminate, to counter our history and diversify our cast of role models, it’s impossible to envisage a future with true gender equality.

The reverberations of the echo chamber show no sign of ceasing. Far from it. Our digital world is driven by data, by algorithm and, increasingly, by artificial intelligence (AI). All AI learns from pre- data and draws its own, new conclusions from it. But when you consider that all historical content, all data, consciously or otherwise, favours men, you can see that we have a big, new visibility problem emerging. By drawing conclusions from pre-existing content, all existing bias and prejudice will be magnified. Of course, humans can counter this effect by teaching the system to deal with the data in a specific way. But the majority of people working on AI development are – you guessed it – men. It’s a head-spinning problem. There may not be as many women as men working in tech, but there definitely are some. And they need a voice. Fast.

Let’s give a warm welcome to positive discrimination… Still not sure this matters? Then consider this. If we leave new technology to learn from old data, you simply may never see those ads for senior-management jobs. They’ll be served up into the news feeds of your male colleagues because the data will show more men have clicked on them in the past. And you may never learn about those women who do break the mould, as their stories will get lost as algorithms push the most general, appeals-to-all content to the top.

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It’s that echo chamber again. Seek the information and you may find it. There are many of us trying to spread the word that women and feminism are worth hearing about. But if you expect that information to find you – or, even more importantly, a schoolgirl wondering what career options lie ahead of her – then without change we will all be painfully disappointed. Or, in a scarier twist, we won’t be disappointed, we’ll simply be none the wiser.

This isn’t just about the workplace. It isn’t just about women being erased from history. It’s not just about a lack of role models for younger women. This is about our voice and how equally we are heard and represented now, in 2018. Just 32% of our MPs in the UK are women, and 33% of the cabinet. These institutions are supposed to represent us, the women of this country, 51% of the population. What on earth is going on? If the upper echelons of our country are not equal, what hope is there for the rest of our society?

The detail is bleaker still:

Since women won the right to stand for parliament in 1918, 100 years ago in November, there have been 455 female MPs. That’s less than the number of male MPs who sit in the Commons today. In 100 YEARS!

Countries who have a more equal parliament are more likely to pass laws that benefit women. In Ecuador, a country that ranks eighth globally for parliamentary equality with 41.6% women in parliament, women have been more likely than men to introduce bills relating to education, health and the environment.

Back in the UK, in the past two years in the House of Commons, bills that protect women – such as one preventing and combating violence against women – have been vehemently opposed by some male MPs, while other men have campaigned for bills that could harm women, such as providing anonymity to men accused of rape.

Now, I’m not being naive, I know not all women vote for women’s issues, and not all men vote against… that would be ridiculous. But research shows time and again that an equal conversation leads to a more equal result.

The UK ranks 48th in global gender parliamentary equality. Rwanda is number one.

So what can we do? Many countries have introduced quotas to rapidly increase equality in parliament. Even Afghanistan, voted the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, has introduced a 50% quota. In the UK, meritocracy has been deemed the most respectable route. (That’s a meritocracy severely compromised by various privileges and old-school power structures, but if I get into that you’ll miss your bus stop.)

If we want the true equality our feminist foremothers fought for when securing us the vote 100 years ago, we have to change our parliament. There is already support for introducing quotas so that 45% of MPs are women.

I was always quite anti-quota. I used to believe in meritocracy. I didn’t personally want to be ‘helped’. Hell, I once had a row on a golf course because the man I was with tried to give me a handicap. And I can’t even play golf. But now I understand how the system is biased against women in so many different ways, and with that in mind I can’t help think that the point becomes moot. Women are still significantly underrepresented in our democratic institutions and, as a consequence, left out of the conversation. A conversation that affects our health, education, finances and futures. And that’s a conversation I want to be part of.

So, I won’t be left out. I’m not going to be. And neither are you. Not if we join together to do something about it. We can see how dangerous it is to be invisible. We can see the impact on our own lives as well as that of future women. In our current turbulent political climate, it is more important than ever to fight.

We are seeing women fight back against sexism in so many different ways: we know we can make a change. Together we can change the profile of women, past and present. We can learn about brilliant women, inspire ourselves and the women around us. By embracing the spirit of the suffragettes, we put our future back in our own hands. It’s simply not an option to sit back and take no action.

With this in mind Stylist is launching its Visible Women initiative: our commitment to raise the profile of women, past and present. A century after women secured the vote, it seems only right we finish this conversation, for ourselves, for future generations and out of respect for the women who fought before us. I urge you to do your bit. Make one more person realise that women are not truly represented.

Knowing there is even a problem is enough to start making a difference. If you can get just one more person to know that women aren’t visible enough – past or present – then you are doing your bit to spread the word.

Let’s come together, as the suffragettes did for us 100 years before, and let the world know: we will not disappear. We will not be forgotten. We will not be erased from history. 

This year we want you to join us in our Visible Women initiative. Help us raise the profile of women, past and present, and build a world where women are truly equal. This year, Stylist pledges to:

• Celebrate women in history, profiling brilliant women who have changed our world.

• Feature the work of amazing contemporary women that we should all know more about.

• Work with schools to raise the profile of women in history and modern-day role models.

• Team up with MPs and working groups to raise the profile – and number – of women in parliament.

How can you can join us on this mission?

• Sign up to our Women’s Daily Dispatch – a round-up of the biggest news stories affecting women around the world – to learn about the issues facing women and the women inspiring change in 2018.

• Share your moments of success and brilliance on social media using the hashtag #visiblewomen. It’s not a #humblebrag, it’s proof of your contribution to the world.

• Share the stories of women you respect and admire too using #visiblewomen. We’ll feature six women who share a brilliant moment this year in our Work/Life feature and one will become a Stylist cover star this December.

• Later this year we will ask you to take our Work Visibility Pledge to fight inequality in the workplace.

Images: Getty / Pixeleyes