Personally Speaking: Marianne Talbot

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The Independent Online
UNIVERSITY FINALS will soon be over, and any minute now we'll start the annual breast-beating about the lack of women getting first- class degrees. At first glance this is extraordinary. After all, in every examination other than finals, women do very well, better in fact than their male peers. And anyway who, other than those going into academe, needs a first?

But it's interesting that women do not get to the top. In schools only 47.6 per cent of secondary teachers are male, yet 65.2 per cent of deputy heads, and a whopping 75.1 per cent of heads, are men. What is going on?

Perhaps the system is still discriminatory? Perhaps colleagues (not all male) are right to say women are not intelligent enough, or won't take risks? I sympathise with the view that they under-achieve as they won't take risks. But only if we're careful about the risk we won't take.

Take a look around your school/ college/ organisation. Who finds the sticky buns for the homework club or the leaving do? Who brings in flowers and hangs pictures? Who forges the friendships and generally makes the workplace more human? Perhaps it is not so much the glass ceiling, but the quagmire of good citizenship, that holds women back?

It won't always be women who do these things. My college played host recently to 27 ten-year-olds from Stepney. It was great fun, and from inception to execution the work of two young men.

But it is nearly always women who oil the social wheels.

All this good citizenship involves thinking of things other than work, and thinking of people other than yourself. Perhaps if women gave up doing all this, they would get more first-class degrees, and there would be more female graduate students, headteachers, business moguls and prime ministers? Perhaps.

But would we really want to live in a world where no one recalled birthdays, there were no flowers in the staff room, and Christmas lunch was an Indian takeaway?

Perhaps we should be beating our breasts about why men don't engage with others as women do? Do they lack empathy, imagination, compassion? Are they unconcerned about what gives others pleasure or pain? And is it nature or nurture that ensures that those who get to the top are mainly men; those who do the empathy bit, mainly women? Can we change it? Should we try?

For women to give up doing this is for us as a society to risk relying on men to take up the slack. And are we sure they would? Women are used to doing these things, they enjoy doing these things. Girls are used to seeing women do these things and, aspiring to womanhood, they imitate. Most men do not do these things; they are too busy getting on with their work. So these things become invisible to boys, aspiring as they do to manhood. To think that if women gave it up men would take over is - let's say - optimistic. Perhaps this is why women keep on doing it, wilfully compromising their chances of getting to the top.

But if men failed to take on this role we'd all have lost something. (There are men who say that it's only women who want, or notice, these things, but, like most women, I think they'd soon notice if we stopped.) It'd be far better, and less frightening, if men were to start doing it without women giving it up. This would be the win-win situation. But why should they start doing it, so long as we are prepared to continue? After all, they have their work to think of; someone's got to get to the top.

There are those, of course, who think women cite this nurturing lark as an excuse for not being prepared to risk exposing themselves as failures. I think there is something in this; women notoriously lack self-esteem. But it is not the whole story. If men nurtured women as women nurture men, women might start to feel equal to such risks.

The real risk (for women), I believe, lies in giving up thinking of others. Who, after all, wants our society to become a much bleaker, less human place?

The writer lectures in philosophy at Brasenose College, Oxford

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