Tag Archives: gender

I want my jetpack: Why STEM’s woman problem affects everyone

27 Sep

So, I’ve talked about the dearth of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) fields. And I’ve talked about wanting to encourage little girls who think science is cool, and show them that they, too, can grow up to be scientists. But I haven’t talked so much about why this matters.

Obviously it matters to me. As a woman in science, I have a personal stake in the issue. But maybe you’re not in STEM yourself, or you’re a man, or both, and maybe these things make it harder to see why you should care about this issue.

Well, I have some suggestions on that topic.

Have you ever thought something along the lines of “it’s the year 2014, where’s my jetpack?” It doesn’t have to be a jetpack you’re waiting for. Maybe you want a cool Marty McFly-style hoverboard, or a flying car, or one that drives itself. Or perhaps, rather than a neat new gadget, what you’d really like is a solution to an existing problem. A Babel fish, or abundant clean fuel, or safe drinking water for everyone on the planet. Or how about a cure for a certain disease? Cancer, or HIV, or Alzheimer’s, or even just the common cold. If that’s not ambitious enough for you, maybe you’d like some immortality?

The exact nature of the scientific or technological advance you’re waiting for isn’t the point. The point is that most people have some wishlist items that can only come into existence via the efforts of people in STEM. I’d like you to pick one – the thing you most want STEM to deliver for you – and think of that thing. It’ll need an inventor, obviously. Someone whose brain can turn this idea into a reality. Imagine that this person is already out there, somewhere in the world.

…Now imagine that she’s given up her pursuit of STEM, despite her interest in the field, because cultural forces pushed her away from it. Or maybe those forces meant that she never developed an interest in STEM in the first place. Either way, instead of becoming a scientist or engineer, she’s entered a field that seems more welcoming to people of her gender. A field where she won’t have a chance to invent the thing.

I guess you’ll just have to keep waiting.


(And yes, this idea that there is One Person who could invent the thing is a glib oversimplification of the way inventions happen, used above only for rhetorical effect. The fact remains that the more good STEM people there are in the world, the greater the chances that STEM will produce a decent version of [particular thing] within [specific number of years]. Maybe if we hadn’t spent so long excluding half the population, we’d already have some of the items on our technological wishlists.)


Why I do science outreach (a selection of reasons)

17 Sep

Over the summer, I took a couple of days off work and spent a long weekend helping out on a science outreach roadshow. I first got involved with this outreach group when I was at university, and their roadshow’s been a regular feature of my summer ever since – this was my 5th year. Why do I keep going back? Lots of reasons. The chance to hang out with a group of like-minded nerds (i.e. the other volunteers) is always good, and this year I spent some rather enjoyable time plotting potential future experiments with a fellow Materials Scientist. The experiments themselves are pretty enjoyable too, even from the perspective of a grown-up: a chance to play with fun science things like vacuum chambers, a chance to think about real-world uses of all sorts of scientific principles, sometimes even a chance to learn new stuff (did you know that there’s a security feature on banknotes which only shows up when you look at the note with an infrared camera? I didn’t!)

But the thing I enjoy most about the roadshow is the audience. The public events I helped out on this year were open to all ages, but most of the visitors were families with primary-school-aged children. Kids of this age, by and large, haven’t yet absorbed the idea that it’s “uncool” to enthusiastically like certain things. Science hasn’t acquired the stigma of nerdiness for them. These children are perfectly willing to engage, and when you show them an interesting new thing – like how they can build a bridge strong enough to walk across, or the way certain objects glow under UV light – they get genuinely excited. They declare it to be cool, and want to see more, and it’s so much fun knowing you showed them something they enjoyed.

I’d like to hope that these kids will always be willing express their genuine enjoyment for things, that they never feel as though their enthusiasm is something they need to hide. When it comes to enjoying science, I particularly find myself hoping this for the case with the girls in the audience, because I know – just look at the statistics – that they’re far less likely to end up pursuing science than their male counterparts. And it’s not for lack of ability (if it were, boys should be outperforming girls on science GCSEs: they’re not), nor some biologically-hardwired lack of inclination (if it were, there’d be a similar dearth of female scientists and engineers in other European countries: there’s not). It’s probably many things, because the world is complex, but one of the many things is a cultural perception that science is Not For Girls.[1]

It was refreshing, on the roadshow, to see girls who haven’t yet absorbed this message. A particular mention must go to the little girl who’d clearly dressed up specially for her visit – in an old adult’s white shirt that fell to her knees and looked like a child-sized labcoat, with a picture of the periodic table drawn by hand on the back. And bright pink shoes, because contrary to popular belief, you can enjoy stereotypical girl things and science at the same time. I hope that little girl remembers this fact as she grows up. I know there’ll be plenty of messages out there telling her (and all the other little girls like her) that science is not for her. But on the more positive side, I also know that a lot of efforts are being made to counter those messages. These efforts can be as big as a national event, or as small as individual people being visibly female and scientists at the same time. I fall into the latter category: I’m just one of many data points that says “actually, you can do this”, but I’m happy to be a data point. And that’s another very good reason to keep doing science outreach.



[1] The ubiquity of this perception was brought home to me in a meeting earlier today: three people in a room, all female scientists, discussing future options for a work project. Somehow we all ended up referring to the hypothetical researcher-doing-the-future-science as “he”, because that felt like the natural thing to do. Even as women in science, we still carry the idea that science is mainly something for men.

An update on “To my professional institution…”, in which said institution responds

23 Jun

My post this morning on National Women In Engineering Day (and in particular, my disappointment with the way IoM3, my professional body, had chosen to mark it) received a response from IoM3’s twitter account. In the interests of fairness and debate, I feel I should post this response here. It said:

“Hi, I’m sorry you feel disappointed by our event. We have held two WIE events before and part of the idea of this one was to engage with men more and have a better balance. Our event was organised by women including @SarahBoadIOM3. I hope you can attend.”

I do appreciate feeling like I’m listened to, and the fact that the organisers’ perspective was offered. However, I’m still not entirely satisfied by this. Striving for balance may be a good thing, but this event isn’t happening in a vacuum, and the majority of engineering events are heavily male-dominated. This means that this attempt at “balance” is taking away one of the rare opportunities for female engineers to have a platform, in favour of the men who already have a multitude of such opportunities. In trying to be balanced, it’s failing to redress a current imbalance.

On the other hand, “this doesn’t happen in a vacuum” also applies to the fact that IoM3 has held previous WIE (which I assume stands for Women In Engineering) events before, and that these have presumably had more female-dominated panels. Knowing this does soften the negative impact of this particular event’s gender composition, in the same way that individual works of fiction failing the Bechdel test would be less of an issue if there were a multitude of other works passing that test. The more often you see well-represented women (or any other group, for that matter), the less harmful it is on occasions where this representation is lacking. In the same vein, it’s good to know that women organised this event. And engaging with men is definitely a valuable goal – if you want to dismantle the cultural barriers to women entering engineering roles, then addressing the mindsets of the men who’ll be working alongside (and sometimes hiring) these women is definitely important.

The question that remains is whether the men on the panel were chosen simply to give a sympathetic male perspective, or whether they’re there because of the idea that some members of the engineering profession need male presenters before they’re willing to listen. If it’s the latter, I’m still just as disappointed as I was this morning – but for a whole new reason.

To my professional institution: this is not the celebration I’m looking for

23 Jun

Did you know that today is National Women In Engineering Day? This fact may not be particularly relevant to you personally, depending on your gender and field of work. It does, however, matter a fair deal to me. I’m a woman working for a large technology company, one where approximately three-quarters of the workforce (including myself) are either engineers or scientists. Of those, the vast majority are men. In my current team of around ten people, I’m the only female employee.[1] This is not particularly surprising: in fact, if you look at the statistics on women in engineering, you’ll learn that one out of ten is actually a slight overrepresentation. The UK engineering workforce as a whole is only 7% female, around one woman in every fourteen engineers. If we expand our definition to look at women in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs, we still only get 13% women, just over one in eight.

These numbers are shockingly low. In fact, the UK is the worst country in Europe for representation of women in engineering.[2] This may be in large part related to subject choices: fewer girls take STEM subjects at A-Level; fewer pursue STEM options into further or higher education. And no, the difference can’t be explained by boys having “more innate talent” for these fields – at GCSE level, girls’ performance is comparable to boys’ in all STEM subjects (and this isn’t just a selection-bias effect of comparing a small number of exceptionally-good-at-STEM girls to a larger number of less-exceptional boys, either: maths GCSE is compulsory as part of the core curriculum, and there’s no longer any gender gap when it comes to science GCSEs, so we’re comparing similar numbers of boys and girls here). So why do so few women end up in STEM careers? As is so often the case, the reasons are complex, but culture and stereotypes definitely play a large part. The perception that Engineering Is Not For Women exists, and this perception needs to be challenged.[3]

So I’m glad we have a National Women In Engineering Day, described by its originators as “a day dedicated to raising the profile and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering”. Because, despite the gender disparity, women are making valuable contributions right now, and this needs to be acknowledged. Too often in history, women’s contributions to STEM have been glossed over,[4] and this only furthers the misconception that STEM fields are men-only. If we want to invite more women in, then showing them what they can do is a good place to start. I also applaud the day’s stated aim “to spread the word that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men”, even if potential hiring biases mean this might not be entirely true. What can I say, I’m an idealist.

Therefore, I was pleased when I learned that IoM3, the professional institution to which I belong, has decided to mark this day with a celebration of its own.[5] And then I looked at the details of the event. And… oh dear. I feel as though the point has been missed a little.

They’ve entitled it “Engineering Success” and promised to give “the employee / employer perspective of the success of women in engineering”. The “employee perspective” is given by a woman who’s very accomplished in her technical field: so far, so good when it comes to celebrating women’s contributions and showing what they can do. So now let’s turn to the “employer perspective”. Since we’re meant to be showing that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men, I’d expect to see a female employer here, showing that women can make it to the top of the management heap in engineering companies, and having her success in a less-technical but still engineering-related realm celebrated. But no, the employer perspective comes from a man. Okay, his group of companies employs a very respectable 46% of women, so I can sort of see the reasoning behind picking him, although I also note that no word is given on how this 46% splits between the various job families. I’d like to see more detail in these stats: if HR, PR, administrative functions and the like are female-dominated with the technical jobs still being overwhelmingly-male, I’m not going to be impressed. And either way I’ll still be disappointed that they couldn’t fit in a female employer as well. But never mind, let’s turn to the chair. On a day dedicated to celebrating the success of women, I’m sure they’ve found a highly distinguished female engineer to chair this event. Oh wait, my mistake. It’s chaired by Mark Miodownik. And I mean no disrespect to Professor Miodownik here: I’m sure he’s very good at chairing events. I just question whether his gender makes him the right choice to chair this one.

When half your hosts, half your speakers (arguably the more powerful half) and your chair are all male, what you’ve got is a rather lacklustre celebration of women’s successes. And when it comes to showing women and girls the opportunities that exist for them, you may be accidentally sending the wrong message. Because this arrangement of chairman and speakers seems to be saying, “Ladies, it’s fine for you to enter engineering. Look, here’s someone else who’s done it! But you need to know your place. The spots at the top are still only for men.”



[1] Unless one of my colleagues really isn’t telling us something.

[2] If my father is reading this, he may be pleased to know that Cyprus, his country of origin, comes out of the comparison fairly well – topping the European league tables with nearly 30% of its engineers being female. In other words, somewhere between one in four and one in three. It’s still not exactly gender parity, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve got here.

[3] And not by making engineering pink, either.

[4] For one randomly-chosen example, compare the number of people who’ve heard of Watson and Crick to those who’ve heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was vital to discovering the structure of DNA.

[5] In case that page gets taken down after the event in question, an internet archive version of it is available here. This is relevant, because I’m about to start discussing the page’s contents.

A quick update on the Brother 3 Reading Situation, or what happens when you talk about books

19 Jun

Way back* in my second-ever post here, I talked about Brother 3’s reading habits. Specifically, his history of reading books traditionally pigeonholed as “girly”, the fact that he was doing this less as time went on, and my worry that the aforementioned pigeonholing was starting to push him away from certain stories. Stories he might enjoy, and stories that might help him develop the always-important skill of seeing the world from the perspective of people who aren’t similar to him, but stories packaged in a way that screamed “not for you”. Because when publishers see a female author and a female protagonist, they so often assume that the story is only for female people. And they present it accordingly, even though in reality, all stories should be for everyone.

My attempted solution at the time was to buy him a Kindle, removing the girly-cover obstacle. This didn’t have much of an effect: he never reads the thing. What did have an effect was hanging out with him in the California sunshine and chatting. He asked about my Kindle, and his Kindle, and whether I thought he should read the books on his Kindle, and which of them I’d read myself, and what else the authors had written, and what happened in those books… and then, apparently, he went home and took a book off the bookshelf in my old bedroom, one that he’d liked my potted summary of, and now he’s reading that book. And this is its cover.

Take a look at that cover for a moment. It’s got all the features of a Designated-Female book. Headless girl? Tick. Pastel colours? Tick. Loopy, feminine font? Yup, tick again. This is not the sort of book cover that’s designed to be enticing to boys, and I’m so proud of my brother for being willing to read it anyway.

I’m also a little ashamed of myself. I thought that giving him the Kindle would encourage him to read more of these books. Typical geek misconception, I suppose, believing that technology will solve everything. But it took me a whole year to sit down with him and have a proper conversation about the books on that Kindle. And almost as soon as we’d had that conversation, he picked up one of my old books and started to read it. So let this post be a reminder of what should have been obvious: when it comes to reading diversely, access is not the whole story. You also need to talk about the books.


* “Way back” in the time-elapsed-since-then sense, not in the number-of-intervening-posts sense. I’m not the most regular of bloggers.

Giving the gift of worlds

16 Jun

After my last blog post, I got talking with my mother about the gendering of books and the pressures on boys to avoid “girl things”. See, I have a little brother. Well, actually I have multiple little brothers, so we’ll call this one Brother 3. Brother 3’s in his first year of secondary school at the moment – 11 years old. He used to proudly read books branded as girly, because he enjoyed them. He proudly did all sorts of stereotypically-feminine things, like being the only boy in his school’s dance club, and I was glad to see him choosing his interests on the basis of what made him happy, rather than on the basis of what society told him boys should be interested in.

He doesn’t read so much any more. Some of this may be down to having other distractions (computers, game consoles, a phone), but some of it may be down to the fact that as he gets older, he’s feeling more pressure to conform to expectations of what boys “should” be like. Mum claims that he’s now “worried that he’ll be laughed at for reading certain books”, something which wouldn’t have bothered him a few years ago. Essentially this is yet another example of how gendered books are bad for everyone: they pigeonhole girls while shutting boys out.

So, what would happen if other people couldn’t see the covers? Obviously this wouldn’t fix all the problems with the gendered-books phenomenon: part of the issue is that people really are unwilling to buy books that are marketed as Not For Them. But I suspect another part is simply unwillingness to be seen with a book marked as not for your group: there can be pretty serious social consequences to non-conformity, and a decent read isn’t necessarily worth these consequences.

This, I think, is one of the great things about the rise of ebooks in recent years. Using an e-reader removes others’ ability to see and judge what you’re reading. It might give you the freedom to read something that you’d otherwise avoid out of social unacceptability. Of course, this doesn’t just apply if you’re a boy who wants to read female-authored books: it also improves freedom of reading for LGBT folk who aren’t yet out of the closet, or kids in certain religious environments who want to learn about evolution, or those in anti-religious environments who want to learn about religion, or anyone who’s ever been made to feel ashamed for their interests or identity.

And freedom of reading doesn’t just give you a better choice of entertainment media. It opens up worlds. Non-fiction opens up the world we live in, teaching us more about our surroundings. Fiction opens countless others. It lets you climb inside the head of somebody else and see the universe through their eyes for a while. If the character in question resembles you, it can make you feel less isolated. If they don’t, you gain understanding and empathy for people whose experiences of life are entirely different from your own.

I want my brother to have access to those worlds; as many of them as he possibly can. So, for his 12th birthday, I’m buying him a Kindle. I’m removing one of the social barriers to experiencing those worlds by making it harder for others to judge his books – and, ultimately, him – by their covers. But that’s not all I’m going to do. Before I give him the Kindle, I’m going to load it up with as many books as my present-buying budget will stretch to. I’m going to give the worlds to him.

Credit where credit is due: this idea is not my own. It comes from the brilliant Ana Mardoll, whose stealth-support approach to her niece’s coming out was to give said niece ebooks with incidental gay characters for Christmas. However, my reasons are slightly different from Ana’s. For one thing, Brother 3 hasn’t come out. Balance of probability says that he’s straight. He’s also male and white. It is not exactly hard to find fictional characters who share these attributes; they make up the vast majority of protagonists. So he doesn’t really need me to give him worlds that resemble his own: he’s got access to plenty of those already.

But you see the bit a couple of paragraphs up about characters that don’t resemble you, and how they can teach empathy? I think that’s a very important function of fiction. It’s part of the reason why boys should be reading books with female protagonists; why white people should be reading with protagonists of colour; why able-bodied people should be reading books with disabled protagonists; and so on. We should all be reading protagonists who differ from us in some of the many ways society treats as significant, but this particularly applies to people like Brother 3. He’s a straight white guy (to the best of my knowledge): the lowest difficulty setting there is. He’s also able-bodied, intelligent, and comes from a well-off family who love and support him. In other words, he’s hugely privileged in his life circumstances. And when life is set up to be that easy for you, a lot of the time, you don’t even notice.* Which can lead to you being kind of an ass – or something much worse – towards people whose lives aren’t set up so favourably, because you simply don’t understand the ways in which the world is different for them.

An excellent way to combat this phenomenon is to enter the worlds of the less privileged: read their stories and listen to their voices. But so many of the stories out there don’t let you do that. They focus on the straight white guys, endlessly propagating the myth that this uniquely privileged position is somehow the “normal” way to be, or at least the way that all heroes are. When was the last time you read a book with a non-white protagonist? A non-straight protagonist? Or, when did you last find such a protagonist in a story focused around something other than their skin colour/sexuality? Because so often, if a book does have a “minority” protagonist, it’s an Issue Book that’s almost entirely about the character’s minority status. And while having some Issue Books is a good thing, because the issues represented therein are real and affect real people, it’s massively problematic when these books become the only representation of minorities. When you find minority characters only in Issue Books, it makes it look as though simply being a hero isn’t available to Those People. Read enough books where all the complex, interesting people are straight white guys and you might just start to believe that real life works the same way.

So that’s what I want to counteract with my brother. I want to give him stories where the protagonists are dissimilar to him in some way. I want him to come to love and respect those protagonists. I know that he’s already started to do this: for example, he recently read and enjoyed the Hunger Games (which is, incidentally, an excellent example of a non-Issue Book with a minority protagonist: Katniss Everdeen is a great female character, but the story isn’t about her gender, it’s about a hero who just happens to be a woman). But I also know that one series isn’t enough, particularly in a world that’s so diverse. Yet it can be hard to find decent fiction with protagonists who don’t fit the standard privileged mould. And it does need to be decent, engaging fiction, or the whole point of the exercise fails: the reader gives up, possibly taking away the assumption that minority protagonists don’t have interesting stories.

So I’m going to end this post with a plea for recommendations. I’m looking for books that (a) have minority protagonists**, and (b) will appeal to a soon-to-be 12 year old boy who enjoys large helpings of action and/or comedy in his fiction. Whose worlds should I show him first?


* And yes, I am aware that this applies to me as well as to Brother 3.

** For the purposes of this statement, I’m counting “female” as a minority despite the fact that we make up roughly 50% of the world’s population. We’re still a numerical minority from a protagonist standpoint, and in the real world, sexism means that we’re often (mis)treated in ways similar to those experienced by numerical minorities.

In which I meet Maureen Johnson and talk about book gendering

9 Jun

My Wednesday evening consisted of an impromptu trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival, after YA Author and Tweeter Extraordinaire Maureen Johnson announced that she was giving away a spare panel ticket. The panel was on the question “Do you judge a book by its cover?”, thus neatly combining two things I adore: science and books!

For Maureen-followers, an obligatory description of Maureen Johnson being just as strange in real life as she is on the internet must follow. I met her in the queue for the event, and she instantly started grilling me on whether I wanted a drink or some cake, insisting that I looked “in need of cake” and as though I “might be about to die”. I reassured her that I was fine and not, to my knowledge, dying, so she went off to get a drink for herself while I tweeted about the bizarre experience, because obviously Twitter is the only sensible response to Maureen. Once she got back, I turned the weirdness tables on her by claiming that I’d have to kill her if I told her about my job, and warning her to watch out for poison in her newly-acquired drink. She unfazedly assured me that she was “very difficult to kill”, then we were herded into the panel and entered Serious Mode.

The panellists were pretty interesting: the creative director of a major publishing house, the CEO of Waterstone’s*, and a neuroscientist who studies decision making. I suspect Maureen was more interested in the publishing industry types, while I was there mainly for the science, but there was one point on which we were united. We wanted to hear them talk about how gender affects covers.

Maureen’s written before about the ways that books by women get pigeonholed, and I seriously suggest you give it a read. Her “coverflip” experiment, where people took popular books, switched the author’s gender, and redesigned the cover “appropriately”, is a good visual example of what she’s talking about. And she’s far from the only one raising such concerns: Jacqueline Wilson, for instance, has some excellent thoughts on the subject and why she doesn’t want her books to be covered in pink.**

Eventually, near the end of the panel, the moderator brought up Jacqueline Wilson’s comments, and asked the panel if they thought “gendering” of covers existed, and if so, how it affected our judgement of books. The neuroscientist, who had the microphone at the time, replied that she hadn’t done any research into that area and therefore couldn’t possibly say. Which is fine: I respect someone who admits when they can’t give an informed answer far more than I respect someone who ploughs ahead with a completely uninformed answer. But there were 2 publishing industry professionals on that panel who might’ve been able to answer the question, and somehow the moderator kind of… glossed over them. It was a rather disappointing resolution to the question we’d been anticipating for so long.

The panel concluded with us being shown 6 possible cover designs for a new book, and asked to vote on our favourite. The book in question was an Austen remix: described to us as Pride and Prejudice seen through the eyes of the servants. It was written by a woman – two women if we’re counting Jane Austen, although her name doesn’t appear on the cover. The cover that won the audience vote showed an old-fashioned handheld mirror, with the back of a woman’s head reflected in it. I thought it was an interesting design, capturing the book’s idea of familiar characters seen from a new angle. Then they revealed the cover the publishing house had actually chosen. And I should add a disclaimer at this point – the fact that the actual cover wasn’t the winner of the audience vote (although it did come a close second), and that it wasn’t to my taste, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad cover. These people are professionals and presumably know more about what makes a good cover than I, or most of the panel audience, do. But it did strike me that the cover they’d chosen was by far the pinkest of the six options. Which brings us right back to the unanswered question about gendering.

So when, during the roving-microphone audience Q-and-A portion of the panel, Maureen turned to me and said, “you should get the microphone and get our question back”, it was obvious what she was talking about. It took me a while to agree, because I am generally awkward and ineloquent in public speaking situations, but on the other hand, I did really want them to answer that question. So eventually I held my hand up, I got hold of the microphone… and then the moderator announced that we’d had enough questions and that the panel was over.

Were we going to let it stop there? Of course not! We’d been told the panellists would be at the “Talking Point” afterwards, where we could catch up and ask further questions. So we followed (after a brief delay in which another audience member waylaid us and told Maureen off for using her phone throughout the panel – because, of course, Maureen was livetweeting. Protip: if something bothers you that much, maybe you shouldn’t wait until afterwards to let the other person know it’s bothering you). Eventually I got in front of the publishing house’s creative director, whereupon the following conversation ensued. Please note that this is all paraphrased from my probably-poor memory.

Me: “You mentioned, in the panel, the problem of book covers that don’t reflect a book’s content. Going back to the question about gender that was asked, how often do you think a book cover reflects the author’s gender more than the book’s content, and what impact do you think that has on sales?”

Her: “What do you mean, covers reflecting the author’s gender? Give me an example.”

I find the “what do you mean?” rather strange, since one of the examples she’d used earlier in the panel involved a case where they initially designed a book cover “to have wide appeal”, and when the book didn’t sell as well as they expected, redesigned it “to target the female audience”. Clearly gendered covers are something she already knows about. But okay, if she wanted an example, I had one ready to give her – straight out of the works of my companion for the evening.

Me: “Well, for instance, all the headless girl covers on young adult books by female authors.”

Her: “But that makes it easier for people to identify with the main character, because we’re not showing any distinctive physical features.”

Okay, two points to make here. First of all: a headless body is not devoid of distinctive physical features. Your headless girl is still visibly thin, white, and apparently able-bodied. These things are not default states of being! A thin, white, able-bodied woman does not somehow become a blank canvas with which any woman can identify just because you’ve cropped out her face. So no, you are showing “distinctive physical features”, and claiming that you’re not just reinforces all sorts of problematic assumptions about what’s “normal” versus what’s “distinctive” in a person’s body. However, those problematic assumptions were not what I came to talk about. Nor did I come to talk about why headless girls are used on covers. I came to talk about the fact that they’re used disproportionately on covers of books written by women. So the second point to make is this: a defence of headless girls on covers is an answer to a completely different question from the one I was asking. Time to get back on track.

Me: “But a more abstract cover wouldn’t show distinctive physical features either. Look at John Green’s covers, for example – like, his first book has a cover with an extinguished candle. Why is it books by women that get the headless girl treatment? It seems like those books are being labelled, by their covers, as being girly books that only girls can read.”

Other audience member: “But those books are targeted at women because men don’t buy them!”

Really? You’re telling me that most men would hesitate to buy books with pink, headless-girled, clearly-intended-to-be-feminine covers? Well yes, that is part of the problem. Culture tells men that they’re somehow lesser if they have any association with female-coded things: suddenly worthy of bullying, ridicule, and the questioning of their sexuality. So a feminine cover clearly sends a “this is not for men” signal. If you market something as only intended for women, and the resulting product is predominantly bought by women, that does not prove your marketing strategy was the right one. That’s like me choosing to advertise something entirely in Scottish cities, then claiming there’s no point extending the advertising campaign to England because our retail stats show that only Scots are interested in the product.

Besides which, “men don’t buy them” isn’t even true.

Me: “Actually, the first headless-girl book I ever bought was recommended to me by a male friend. He told me ‘it’s a good book; ignore the terrible cover’, so I did.”

Despite all the deterrents, all the signs and pieces of cultural conditioning that tell men, “this book is not for you”, there are still men out there who are buying and reading books by female authors. Just think how many more such men there might be if the covers and culture weren’t doing so much to push them away.



* My favourite chain of bookshops. I have a loyalty card.

** I do find it strange that Jacqueline Wilson tends to get such “light and fluffy” covers while dealing with such weighty issues. When I was in school, I loved her books. My favourite had a storyline revolving around children acting as carers for a mentally ill parent, and included some pretty dark stuff. This was its cover.