Published August 16th, 2017
by Steven Clark

Conscious of my usual output, what gender I identify as and what genitals I possess, you may think I’m about to do a scathing write up of things like the 50/50 campaign, part of the recent collective call for more balanced gender representation in government, media and business. While I’ll admit it’s difficult to write in agreement of these kinds of movements without sounding like you’re smug about how progressive you are or are thirsting for attractive woke feminists, I have no objections to the idea as a whole. You see I’m very boring, which means I’ve occasionally discussed this with female friends and colleagues, and most have agreed – it might not fundamentally fix the many issues surrounding female representation but it is a positive and perhaps necessary step in the right direction.

To help address and discuss my points, it seemed only fair that 50% of this article be written by regular female contributor, Emily Glen, who I keep on hand to remind me of my various limitations (only some of which are gender related).

In the past, I’ve not been particularly on board with pushes for more female representation as it can often feel like they miss or distract from the root of a problem entirely. For example, there are undoubtedly people out there who would argue more female billionaires would be a good thing – and maybe they’re right, it could inspire some more women into entrepreneurship – but suggestions like these are often used to bypass questions with larger societal significance like “Why are there billionaires?” or “How do we deal with income inequality?” Attempts at representation born from this brand of thinking can feel like a cartoon version of equality, an empty gesture that feels like something resembling change without any significant or tangible progress.

Despite the likes of 80’s Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, strong female protagonists in film and media have been championed as an all new important development in female representation. The new Ghostbusters film was cynically marketed as a new kind of feminist cause; a rallying cry to vote against misogyny with your cash. After a bunch of big dumb idiots online said gross and stupid shit about the film on social media and Youtube (like they always do) and journalists began writing hot takes about it for various publications, Sony saw an opportunity to cash in on a controversy that barely existed and didn’t matter. Thanks mostly to this, the “all female reboot” trope has become an idea easy to ridicule. All that said, I think we may be underestimating the difference that this could make to young children. While the lady Ghostbusters weren’t exactly what you’d call role models, seeing women in that costume may have given some girls a greater sense at a younger age that women aren’t limited by their gender to more traditional roles. It may affect boys too – I have no doubt in my mind that when I was much younger I said some variation of “Girls can’t be Biker Mice/Ninja Turtles/Mario Brothers/etc” to some poor female classmate on the playground. But enough about my teens.

TEDxGlasgow admirably managed a 50/50 gender split for speakers at this years event, even if they went about it in quite a weird way. Instead of just selecting from their submitted pool of candidates they dedicated some time campaigning to encourage more women to send in ideas for talks, hoping to redress the stated 70/30 imbalance of their original bank of received applications. This would have been admirable if the goal was simply to encourage women who may otherwise be lacking the confidence to share their ideas – and I’m sure that was part of it – but it came across as though selecting nine talks for each gender was too difficult with such a disparity. It put the onus on women to apply more, rather than thank those who did already, who – at the outset of this push by TEDxGlasgow – would be forgiven for worrying that their applications were apparently not of a high enough standard. If gender equality has to be predicated on an additional equal split of applications for a given job role or opportunity, then it’s never going to happen.

What feminism really is

It’s worth mentioning that it’s not uncommon to hear stories of women having a much harder time during application processes than men. Situations where a female applicant is given a long interview with difficult questions compared to an informal chat about sports for a male applicant, both of whom are hired for the same type of position, are more common than we like to think. This is one of my few nagging doubts: instituting a 50/50 gender split of hires still doesn’t necessarily guarantee a fair application process for every candidate, whatever gender they identify as.

Which brings me to my larger point: meritocracy. The main argument given by both men and women against a 50/50 gender split anywhere is the notion that unqualified or underqualified women will make their way into job roles and opportunities beyond their experience or capabilities thanks solely to their gender. This, once again, has us missing the broader problem with how we recruit. The truth is, whatever your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or special needs, demonstrating the skills required to get a given job, opportunity or political position very rarely guarantees competency or proficiency when you’re finally put in that role. We somehow have this notion as a society that people earn their positions or influence entirely through merit even while surrounded by clear and prominent examples of blatant nepotism and incompetence. In a world where people can already fail upwards so spectacularly, what harm comes from a deliberate 50/50 split when hiring?

Potential future Habanero interview

I think most would agree that it’s depressing that this sort of policy is even necessary. Maybe inherent in the sexual revolution of the 60s and all that insufferable girl power shit in the 90s was the hope that in the far off space year of 2017, equality would be something that just happens automatically. If pushing for a 50/50 gender split now means that one day it might be, then it’s definitely worth a shot.

My good friend and reluctant feminist ally Steven has made some wonderful and woke points, but as usual I don’t agree with all of them.

One major caveat before I get into this one – I come from a far off time known as the 1980s, and my movie references might not match up. This was the decade when Working Girl taught us girls that to succeed in business you need masculinity-aping shoulder pads (or to be Sigourney Weaver) and on TV Dallas showed us that to smash the oil industry glass ceiling you needed not only a lithe-but-manly silhouette but you had to be a massive bitch.

We’ve had a cerebral cultural hammering about the way women in prominent, powerful or professional positions should look, act and think for a long time, and the message has been crystal clear – appearances matter more than anything else. Even “girl power shit” taught us that girls can do anything, but only if we’re young, white women in a certain age, weight and income bracket. If the constant societal insistence that appearance is the only thing that matters is true, then could the appearance of complete gender equality be a catalyst for that equality to become reality? And if representation still really, really matters could it genuinely justify enforced 50/50 gender splits in some situations?

Women heels
Bow chika wow wow

It can be argued that the weird narrative fantasy of the career woman that accompanied their real-life infiltration of the workforce served to inflate expectations of women in professional settings. The women we saw demonstrated that to succeed you couldn’t just be competent, you had to excel. I can’t tell you how enraged I get when I see yet another panel or conference with a selection of middling to mediocre ad men, and a token woman whose bio mentions her nobel prize, and a photo of her juggling 8 plates, breastfeeding and solving that pesky Middle East thing simultaneously.

That success we grew up to desire – the “HAVING IT ALL” myth that’s been part of this narrative – has been defined by money, seniority and power. This leads to us looking at really strange metrics to measure equality and equivalence in the workforce, and giving a skewed view of what’s actually valuable to equality for women who work. There’s no point in us patting ourselves on the back because the number of female CEOs in the fortune 500 is up 50% to a whopping 32 this year – especially because that’s still 6% and there are probably more CEOs who own tigers than own vaginas. None of us are going to be CEOs, and that statistic will never be meaningful or impactful to anyone we know. Some examples of more important issues are that low paid workers are far more likely to be women, the gender wage gap as a whole is increasing, and while we’re at work getting our shitty wages, half of us will be sexually harassed.

For the record, I agree completely with Steven on one major point. The way TEDx Glasgow went about fulfilling their gender split was ill-advised, and the comms surrounding it was completely baffling. Their badgering fixation on pulling in more female applicants at a time when they had enough volunteer speakers to fill their bill twice over just implied that they supported the adage that any man can tell a good story, but a woman has to tell a great one. Never forget ladies, we just aren’t good enough – add that reminder to the 60-70 others we get in a day.

Any suspicion that the crop of female volunteers was particularly weak was ground into dust when the final talks were chosen. This year’s TEDx bill had the the story of a qualified mechanical engineer (who now runs a national refugee organisation), her harrowing escape from a warzone, and experience of life with a young family as a refugee right next to the story “guys, it’s okay to be weak sometimes” by that dude who shouted at fatties for a while on The Biggest Loser.

TedxGlasgow women talks
These stories are equally interesting and important, guys

I legitimately want to see the stories from women that weren’t accepted. Hell, I’m tempted to put on a conference myself to see if the female volunteers can top a lecture on “creating a culture built on values” from a man who oversaw the culling of over 5,000 jobs in Aberdeenshire while working for the Wood Group. I don’t have enough space in the strict Habanero blog tzar’s word limit to talk about the values of that particular organisation so let’s just say it’s a bit like getting a lecture on ethical business practices from that agency in Glasgow that keeps phoenixing itself.

I’m not arguing for a second that women should be rewarded for being women, just as men shouldn’t be rewarded for being not women. If we enforce 50/50 representation, we might at least see equal levels of mediocrity across all levels. And I’m all for that. Because it breaks down the overall facade that our labour market in its current state does anything good for anyone.

I sound like a broken, whiny record at this point, but until we don’t have to work 5 times as hard just to be seen as equals I’m going to keep at it.

Also, this will be my last post for a while. I’ve decided to temporarily retire so my NI contributions can take the same knock they would have if I’d had a baby and I, too, can enjoy a smaller pension when I retire at 96.


Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

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by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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