One of my roles in life is professor of new writing at the University of Manchester. Last week I was given an honorary doctorate, along with Dame Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, previously principal of the engineering faculty at Imperial College London, after a distinguished career with Rolls‑Royce. We were discussing why more women don’t go into engineering or applied science. The vice-chancellor of Manchester University, Dame Nancy Rothwell, is a physiologist, a director of AstraZeneca, and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology. Both women agreed there is an “image gap”. Women don’t see themselves as practical scientists – even when they enjoy science and maths. And there are still so few role models out there.
Manchester is a university strong in the sciences – we have 25 Nobel prize winners. And Manchester has always been a theory-into-practice kind of a place – that’s why the Industrial Revolution started here. So if anywhere in the UK can encourage women into traditionally male-dominated professions, skills and research, then it is Manchester.
So imagine my outrage when I turned up in the city this week, and fronting the Malmaison, the hotel where I usually stay, is the hoarding in the picture. “Mal at Work” says the text. Women at work seems to mean wearing a strapless dress and full makeup while staring longingly at a drill that presumably doubles as a vibrator. I am not sure what the model intends to do with the spanner in another picture – undo something? A zip or a bolt?
Plenty of women on business stay at the Mal. To get to their hotel room at the end of a long day they must take in, or blank out, the message that women at work are really soft-porn babes.
And let’s say you are a student studying engineering, or a PhD candidate doing research into the stress-load of materials. You’ve been out with your classmates – mostly, if not all, men – and you walk past the hoarding. Do you feel that engineering or construction offers a future where you will be treated equally? Will you look good in your hard hat? How much makeup should you wear on site? And anyway, aren’t you just a pointy-headed version of Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball?
Suppose you are a girl who wants to go into the manual trades? Electrician, plumber, site foreman, whatever. Does the image of a skinny model in a strapless frock, pouting with a spanner, do anything for your self-confidence and ambition? How pretty do you have to be to work on a building site?
When you put on your overalls in the morning is the first question you need to ask: “Does my bum look big in this?”
Everyday Sexism is running a campaign right now to educate the media, advertisers, schools and employers, in the problems around women and girls being bombarded with negative and conflicting mixed messages about sexuality and gender roles.
There is a photo of a man in a hard hat round the corner at the Mal. He’s all muscle and sweat. He’s a hunk, sure, but the visual message he offers is not confusing to men. He’s about power and prowess, muscle and machismo. The hard-hat babes send out a message that aligns with male fantasy not female reality. And that’s a problem.
Feminism is supposed to have triumphed. Women are supposed to be equal: yet the pay gap is widening; reported incidents of rape and domestic violence are rising; women are not getting to the top of their professions; anorexia and self-harm are increasing. When we talk about sexual abuse, largely we are talking about men abusing women and girls. This week it was reported that prostitution added more than £5bn to the economy in 2013. What kind of a world is this?
I conducted a quick straw poll outside the hotel yesterday. Some taxi drivers, parked opposite, liked the hoarding. A few people said they didn’t notice it because the images are “normal”. Some thought it was a joke.
Maybe it is a joke. The joke is that as Britain falls down the equality ladder behind Rwanda and Nicaragua, and Victoria Beckham is named entrepreneur of the year for dressing us all in size zero – some great clothes, but the same skinny models, the same skinny message – the nearest most women will get to being on the board is a strapless dress and a hard hat outside Malmaison.
By Edos News