Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sexism at Imperial College

Not here, surely? Sexism is everywhere: in the media, in politics, in the arts, but at universities? The centres of liberal thought and tolerance? Where everyone is open-minded and friendly and – above all – extremely egalitarian? If there were ever a place where sexism shouldn’t exist, it is here. And yet it persists like an ugly, cunning mouse peskily dodging the hungry cat of equality.

In lectures, (in most of them, in fact) I listen to the irritating chorus of male voices in the rows behind me discussing the sexual attractiveness of the women in the audience. Life for these boys (they can hardly be called men) is black and white: the girls are divided neatly into fuckable and unfuckable, hot and ugly, those who are “fit” and those who are “wastegash”. And all of this within earshot of the very same women they are “classifying”.

To point out a particularly attractive person to a friend is normal; to classify a whole cohort of humans by their looks – dismissing the majority with the awful term “wastegash” – is slightly worse than unpleasant. Perhaps these boys should be reminded that fourteen Oxford students were suspended for identical behaviour two years ago.

In a slightly less provocative example earlier this year, a mathematics professor instructed his male students to get girlfriends. His hope was that their newfound loves could write up their coursework for them, while the boys got on with the serious business of mathematical study. For most of the boys in the lecture this was understood to be banter; but for the girls it set up an unnecessary divide, ostracising them from the overwhelming male majority: science is for men, typing is for women.

But these are just stupid boys being boorish with friends and an old professor out of touch with modern social norms, sexism is to be expected; surely we can find more rounded views from the mature, creative students who write for the student newspaper? But no. Felix, too, has a healthy dose of misogyny in its pages.

You will, perhaps, remember the satirical character “Gurl with Opinions”. To the writer of these dreadful and unfunny articles, girls’ opinions involve how they look, animal welfare, and... nothing else. Combining the usual straw-feminist non-arguments (“this guy held a door open for me and I was like, I can open doors, you know!”) and typical women-should-care-only-about-looks sexual stereotyping (“depressed girls just give up on themselves and let their hair go all frizzy and start wearing baggy jeans”) these columns served no purpose but self-gratifying sexism. Hahaha, imagine girls having opinions. Hahaha, their opinions are all so trivial and unimportant. Hahaha...

On top of this, the usually amusing Hangman regularly leaves the realm of humour to enter the wonderful world of misogyny. This year, the infamous section of the paper described successful businesswoman Deborah Meaden as “a grumpy bitch” and told her “you sacrifice your entire life… to the detriment of your children’s happiness, any respect from the male species, and any form of femininity (like you had that anyway).”

Discussing female Imperial students, it divided them into those who are “actually pretty fit” and those who could be described as “some dumpy short bitch who wouldn’t even get a second look if she went to UCL.” On top of this, three weeks ago Hangman said of female readers, “God knows, it’s hard thinking down to your level”, and last week said that misogyny was “not a viewpoint [but] a default”. Hopefully I don’t need to explain what is so very sexist about these comments. If I were female, these examples alone would be enough to put me off working for the newspaper.

Admittedly, Hangman is a section that explicitly aims to be offensive, and I wouldn’t begrudge Felix the right to print “humorous” sexist comments if there are people willing to write them. But the fact that there are students who write these articles – and who presumably find them funny – suggests that feminism still has a lot of work to do: if some of the most intelligent, open-minded people in the country find sexism and misogyny amusing, what hope is there for everyone else?

All of this takes place against the background of what – for the students at least – defines Imperial: the gender ratio. Imperial College, the country’s top science and technology university, constantly admits twice as many male applicants as female ones. Although this is certainly not a conscious bias by admissions tutors, to an outsider it implicitly suggests that, in the world of Imperial, men are considered better at science and engineering than women. This is clearly something likely to make a potential female applicant decide against applying to the university.

All this (you would think) should be fertile ground for a student society like Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WSET) to challenge perceptions and make a difference. Although I have great respect for their excellent breast cancer fund-raising activities, in the area of female empowerment they appear to have done more to entrench stereotypes than to challenge them.

You may recall a particularly alluring advert for their club night called “Girls Girls Girls” described as “Imperial’s best looking Metric night”. It was set to feature “jugglers, belly dancers, and lots of sexy scientists!” and attempted to lure people along with the promise that “Our sexy ladies will be taking down your bets throughout the night”. Undoubtedly, the night was just intended to be light-hearted fun (what better way to attract Imperial students than with the promise of girls, girls, girls?), but when the closest thing our university has to a feminist society seems to encourage the lazy perception of women as tools for sexual gratification, something is clearly wrong.

Obviously, this is not just a problem at Imperial. At least we have not reached the level of The Beaver (the student newspaper of the LSE) whose editor faced calls to stand down after printing jokes about rape. Moreover, by the standards of the outside world – where sexism pervades every part of life from The Sun to the billboards on Cromwell Road – Imperial is positively progressive.

But we really need to aim higher. As students we should be leading the fight against sexism, not helping to perpetuate discrimination. If you care – and I hope you do – then read a book, write an article, go on a protest, maybe even start the Imperial Feminist Society. And, most importantly, get angry. Sexism: it’s everywhere and it’s worth getting really fucking annoyed about.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece! Current Imperial student here - interested in having a chat about some of the issues you raise here? Get in touch at