It's great that women's empowerment groups are flourishing. But the physical world is still built by men.
Today I was at the University of East London, where I participated in a lovely event called Visible Women, part of International Women's Week. Last week I was invited to attend, but was unable to, a similar event at Goldsmiths University, in association with Prospect Magazine. Two weeks ago I was asked to talk to a secondary school about whether Beyonce is a feminist (of course I accepted, pending the right date). I have also very much enjoyed participating at Mumsnet Blogfest, which was about how to be a woman with a voice.
Keep in mind that I am not particularly famous. Usually I am far less impressive-sounding, actually, than the other women I have shared platforms with. They must be inundated. But it's obvious that there are enough of these innovative events, platforms, and groups to go around.
Is this new? Not exactly: for a good hundred years, there has been a vibrant community of women's groups in every city in Britain and throughout the U.S. But there seems to be a great deal of savvy media working around them now. These gals know how to get press, and the press are up for it, so the general buzz about women's organisations has swelled. It feels like there are many more of them suddenly.
All do good work or intend to.
Still, I can't help but question the long-term benefits of support networks, empowerment drives and "raising awareness" (is this a bit softer and more general than the iconic consciousness-raising of yore?), taken in isolation from the specifics of gendered dynamics at school, university, home, work, and acquisition of skills and interests. What I mean is not that women's confidence and support-systems shouldn't be built and strengthened through community and cooperation and outspokenness. Absolutely they should.
But I can't shake the sense that other more concrete problems are not attracting the same buzz. General goals are all very well, but what about the severe shortage of women entering computer science departments? What about the lack of women going into maths and physics and engineering? Yes, groups need to be in place to lobby for better maternity and flextime policies so that women can continue their careers in these very fields after children if they want.
But there aren't enough women going into these fields out of university. And the professions dominated by men happen to be the ones that literally build the world. Literally and conceptually, through engineering and high-flying architecture jobs, men build skyscrapers and bridges, hospitals and airports. Only 13 per cent of American engineers are women, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And British organisations like WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) are barely heard of. They don't throw cool media-friendly panel events, certainly.
Since men dominate the top of most political and corporate ladders, they also decide where these things go and what they should look like and even who should get to use them. More pressingly, perhaps, men rule technology - as engineers and as entrepreneurs. They build our dating sites, our search engines, our social media pages, our servers, our governmental security programs.
My question is: what would the world look and feel like if women played a bigger role in its construction? What would a woman-conceived bridge, or set of bridges or canal system, or women-built skyscraper, or women-made dating algorithm look like?
Maybe the answer doesn't matter and even asking it is to get dragged into a world of polarisation and stereotype. But I think it's a question that should be asked and I can't help but notice how few young, cool, clever feminist entrepreneurs are addressing the very specific dearth of women builders. I'm not talking about work-life balance, the demands of motherhood or the apparently universal problem of female self-confidence. I'm talking about: where are the female electrical, civil and digital engineers? Why, when we know that women's cognitive abilities and even their tastes aren't THIS different, are they absent? Is it just male culture in these industries? If so, what does that mean, exactly? How can it be changed? Isn't this something that needs to involve men?
I want to know what a world with more women politicians and construction workers and engineers and tech entrepreneurs would look like but I'm worried that, for all the talk of support and empowerment, I'm going to be a long time waiting.