Curt Rice has written for The Guardian about getting girls into science without cliches and eliminating gender bias in business. He leads Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research and is a professor at the University of Tromso. He shares his perspective here on gender, parenting and education.
AF: Norway is seen as one of the leading countries in the world with regard to gender equality. What makes it so and is it as progressive as its image suggests?
CR: That’s actually a very insightful question and I think it’s right that Norway does have that reputation, and I think there are some good reasons for it but there are a few problems here also.
Gender balance in society is widely accepted as a good value, an appropriate way to organise ourselves, and that plays itself out in so many different ways. For example it’s very normal for both men and women to pick up their kids at daycare, you hear lots of couples who claim that they have a pretty good division of labour in the home but there is a connection between gender equality at home and gender equality at work. I think Norway is good in that it grows out of a long cultural history. Norway was a poor country for a very very long time and maybe that puts people on the same level. There is a tradition of gender balance here, there’s kind of a pardox in that in the workforce there’s a very high percentage of women.
Nonetheless, in any given job there’s pretty heavy gender imbalance and when it comes to university life, in higher education, I can’t say that our numbers are so great compared to other European countries. We’re good but there’s a lot of countries that are doing better. Our reputation is deserved and our gender equality is good but I think there’s still a long way to go.
AF: Norway is held up as almost the perfect system in terms of maternity/paternity leave, especially compared to the US where terms of leave are just crazy.
CR: Yes, our system here gives children an opportunity to spend their first year of life with their parents, which is very important.
AF: Do you see yourself as a feminist or feminist ally?
CR: I definitely see myself as a feminist and secondarily a feminist ally. I’m a feminist. When gender or sex are irrelevant, we should not be able to use gender or sex to be able to predict the career path somebody will follow, so I see feminism as work of levelling a playing field that has been tilted in favour of men for centuries. It’s a smart thing to do in terms of developing a society to make smart use of all the resources. I think of it from a men’s perspective and younger men want to construct a life for themselves that allows them to experience fatherhood and find balance in their lives and feminism can help men in all areas of their lives, including this.
AF: Do you think Europe as a whole is becoming less sexist or less progressive in its cultural attitudes to women? Are we moving forward or backward?
CR: Change is happening too slowly, and societies and economies, not to mention individuals, suffer because of that. For example, it’s been 20 years since European unis have been focused on this issue of getting women to the top. It’s been slow, slow, slow, and it would not be hard to speed it up. So it’s frustrating when you can see that change can happen in ways that would be good economically for society and we just don’t do it.
AF: Why do you think it’s taking so long?
CR: Firstly, many people seem committed to the idea that women don’t want the same kinds of careers that men want. And as a result, they think that the problem is with women, and that women need to ‘lean-in’ and fix their own situation. There’s the idea that women don’t want to work full time or as hard, and you can see that in many places. What that does is give license to organsations to just continue they way they are already going. You might ask yourself, ‘really? Is this really how we have to work? Do men want to work this much? Can we actually be making society better by working less, all of us?’
Especially in leadership positions people say ‘it just has to be like this’. Well I’m not convinced that this is how leadership HAS to be.
Why should that be the case? Girls outperform boys all through school and university, and yet we’re not making enough use of women in top level situations. We just accept that women will leave the workforce and that’s it, without looking seriously at how the workforce itself should have more balance.
AF: What role do you think social media has had in all of this, if any?
CR: Women who participate in discourse in social media, if they are advocates of feminism, will experience harassment. Women politicians who use Twitter report that they receive sexist comments every single day. Social media and anonymous comment fields in newspapers and on the web are really not helpful in allowing feminist voices to be heard. It’s far too simple to say social media platforms must be making things better. A lot of women choose not to be there because of the negative attention they receive. If you look at #WomenAgainstFeminism, it’s dominated by white men who are pissed off and if you try to engage (which I’ve done myself) you get beat up pretty bad.
But men don’t get called a ‘stupid bitch’.
I think that there are also many men encouraged by right wing commentators who believe that there a finite set of opportunities, who therefore believe that if women get more then men get less. So men who object to feminism are most often men who are afraid of losing their privilege. That’s scary for some people, especially if you’ve lost a job. And then there’s the whole weird thing going on about dynamics in couples, women who earn more than men, for example.
AF: Your interest is in gender balance in research and you have a book coming out about career paths and gender.
The question you’ve probably been asked a thousand times before, but I’ll go there again, how do we (if it is right that we should) get more girls into science careers without patronising them?
CR: It starts really early. So we treat boys and girls differently from the second they’re born, probably before that. We encourage certain behaviours in boys, recklessness, failure, frustration and we don’t encourage these in girls. But then girls get told that science is not a field for them, and they get told – by implication – that they’re not as good at math, and so we have to start very early. We can do interventions at university, meaning we look at the various scientific fields we see that women tend to choose biology over physics, for example. Some people say they choose them becomes they like to engage with living creatures sand aminals and a significant majority of people studying medicine are women.
How can we teach engineering, physics and chemistry to people who are interested in solving human problems? Half of the intelligence of humanity is controlled by women, so we’ve got to get them involved, and make them know they are necessary in these fields.
Sometimes universities will do things like try to add a human-interest aspect even to engineering classes, so instead of ‘Bridge Building 101′ you have a class called ‘how to get people from one side of the river to the other’. When those kinds of experiments have been done they do seem to have been effective in affecting the gender make up of the class. They often have an effect on the way the classes are taught too, so instructors can think about what they’re doing and make assignments in ways that seem more alive. That’s just one example of a kind of intervention.
AF: So I guess from an early age parents can be involved in helping kids avoid or critically look at the ways that children are conditioned based on their sex?
This is a big, commercial problem. And so this is going to require a lot of work but it is very very important in the first levels of school to think of how to do science with girls in a way that includes and inspires them.
Check out more of Curt’s work at curt-rice.com!