No sacred cows

Why is it only privately educated women who get to lecture people about ‘oppression’?

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Scarcely a week passes without a privately educated young woman with a successful career in journalism publishing a book about how ‘oppressed’ women are. Names that spring to mind are Laurie Penny (Brighton College), Zoe Williams (Godolphin and Latymer), Laura Bates (King’s College), Afua Hirsch (Wimbledon High School) and Grace Blakeley (Lord Wandsworth College).

Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that in order to qualify as an ‘intersectional feminist’ and present yourself as a victim of ‘systemic inequality’ you need to be a member of the ruling class. One of the distinguishing characteristics of ‘social justice’ activists is that they tend to be rich, high-achieving young women who have been to elite universities, which is why they’re such ripe targets for satire. In my mind’s eye, I can picture an alternative ending to Spartacus in which each of these women leaps up from her yoga mat and proclaims, ‘I am Titania McGrath.’

A case in point is Caroline Criado  Perez, who in addition to going to Oundle is the daughter of a former CEO of Safeway. She shot to fame in 2012 when she launched a campaign to get a broader cross-section of people interviewed on current affairs programmes. ‘If public policy is going to be so responsive to the media, let’s make the media truly representative of the public,’ she argued — which meant fewer men, obviously, not fewer women who’d been to public school. After that, she focused on bank notes, arguing that Winston Churchill shouldn’t be featured on the new £5 note because he is ‘just another white man’.Thanks to her campaign, Jane Austen appears on the new £10 note.

She has now published a book called Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed For Men, the thesis of which is that nearly everything in the world that’s been designed for use by both men and women, from mobile phones to public roads, is specifically tailored for men. This is partly because women weren’t adequately represented in the data relied upon by the designers, but also due to the usual suspects: stereotyping, sexual discrimination, the patriarchy, etc.

Some of Criado Perez’s examples are quite persuasive: Fitbits, for instance, underestimate the number of steps women do during housework — while others are a bit of a stretch. She complains that there aren’t enough statues of women, but that doesn’t feel like an example of ‘data bias’ or even ‘unconscious bias’. Rather, it just reflects the fact that there aren’t many female historical figures — which is surely a shortcoming of previous eras rather than the present day?

This muddle crops up again and again. Criado Perez constantly berates the custodians of our cultural ‘canon’, such as the examiners who decide which composers to include on the A-level music syllabus, for downplaying the contributions of women. But that criticism makes sense only if women have been as influential as men in fields like classical music. Given that they haven’t, it isn’t biased of the examiners to leave out most of the 6,000 entries in the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. The same point applies to her jeremiads against the ‘white middle- and upper-class men’ who rule the roost in academia for not including more female scientists or philosophers on university courses — and, indeed, the governor of the Bank of England for his ‘sexist’ bank notes. For her punches to land, Criado Perez has to pretend that women were less marginalised in the past than they really were, which is an odd line for a feminist to take.

But Criado Perez has another, deeper blind spot. As you’d expect, she fully subscribes to feminist orthodoxy on the subject of gender differences, which is that they’re socially constructed and have no basis in biology, and is merciless in her attacks on the male gatekeepers of the technology industry for not employing more female computer programmers. Such gender imbalances cannot be explained by biological differences in typical male and female brains, she argues, because there aren’t any.

Yet if that’s true, Criado Perez cannot criticise medical researchers for failing to include more women when developing drugs for mental disorders, which she does, at some length. After all, if there are no neurobiological differences between men and women, it makes no difference which gender you test a new psychiatric drug on.

Reading this book, you sense that Criado Perez, like the other Titania McGraths, is searching for things to be angry about. Which is odd, given what charmed lives they have all led.

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