The Cambridge Festival of Ideas celebrates the impact of arts, humanities and social sciences on our daily lives and encourages lively discussion about many of today’s most challenging global issues. This year’s theme of ‘change’ sparked many contributors to talk about historic as well as recent stories about women, gender and diversity.
Stories shape the future
Heide Baumann’s talk ‘Changing the story? Women and leadership’ gave a compelling overview of explanations for women’s absence from leadership. Her research shows that empirical evidence usually exists for either side of the story; if you want evidence to show that gender diverse teams perform better, you will find it, but if you want evidence to show they don’t, you will to.
At the same time, the narratives we choose do more than report on the past; they often set the direction for the future. Rather than choose popular economic narratives that can easily be challenged, business leaders should choose to tell stories that direct a more equal future – and are based on ethical arguments that are much harder to contest.
Just not another man
Caroline Criado-Perez according to the festival wrap up attracted the largest audience this year. She went in conversation about her recently published book ‘Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men’. Caroline gave a very passionate account of the design of the Apple health kit, which initially did not include an option to track your periods but allowed to measure your molybdenum levels.
It isn’t heard to imagine the design team; not a single woman and the odd man who happens to track his molybdenum levels. The message here is clear; diversity of experiences in a team can massively influence the product design and in many cases, welcoming a woman in the team will outperform adding yet another man, almost independent of their other characteristics and capabilities.
Focus on her face
Magdalena Zawisza-Riley talked about ‘Changes in advertising’ with a focus on gender stereotypes and how they have changed over time. One of the types of portraying that is still very gendered is what she described as face-ism versus body-ism. Women more often are portrayed with focus on their body, while portraits of men more often only picture their face.
We associate facial, but not full-body, portraits with characteristics such as intelligence and ambition, and research has shown that both men and women are perceived as more intelligent and ambitious when only their face is portrayed. So the way we’ll portray women most of the time, going forward, is likely to influence how they’ll collectively be perceived in the future.
You have to see it to be it
Alison Ainley gave her account of ‘Women with ideas that changed the world’. She talked about Josephine Cochrane who invented the dishwasher, and Caresse Crosby who patented the modern bra. She highlighted some of the barriers that these female inventors had to overcome, as they were not allowed to file a patent in their own name, or open a bank account. The message she brought was that although these women didn’t have it easy, they did persist and, linking this to the present; while women have it a hell of a lot easier than Josephine and Caresse today, there are still considerable barriers along the way. To help young women overcome these, it’s vital that we do efforts to celebrate role models from past as well as present.
First featured in IQ Business Magazine in December 2019