A case of unfair dismissal

January 8, 1999

Marie Denley is concerned that women have failed to make their mark on the past millennium

Here's sport indeed: a mini-quiz.

Question: what do the following six names have in common - William Caxton, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare?

Answer: they constituted the final shortlist for the Today programme's Person/Personality of the Millennium poll.

BBC Information assures us that the British public was responsible for the nominations. So perish the thought that these six dead, white Englishmen were unfairly shortlisted. Anyway, since Shakespeare romped away, all's well that ends well.

Or is it? In the last week there have been a few token objections to the poll's ideological and practical deficiencies. Listener pressure forced Today to invite Lisa Jardine, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, and historian Antonia Fraser to comment on the absence of women. They did so with a weary lack of surprise.

In the general press coverage, the absence of women finalists, like the absence of Celts, received scant mention. The implicit message to any ambitious young girl assembling her world-view is that women do not count above the second rank. There is a glass ceiling in party games not unlike the glass ceiling in employment.

Women in universities should be very worried (so should men, but only some will be) as they work to educate both sexes. The BBC's line that the poll was above board because the British public nominated six male finalists simply pretends there is no problem. If we object to the poll's implicit downgrading of women, we will probably be met with the chauvinist argument that women are not on the list because they have not earned a place. (Even running a faction-ridden, religiously troubled country for decades did not get Elizabeth I into the finals.) If we object to, or question, the ideological basis of the Today poll, we will also get that argument (beloved of sexual harassers) that it is all just a bit of lighthearted fun. We become comically earnest "wimmin" by questioning a democratic choice.

What the Today poll tells us is that we really have not got very far with the public's perception of women's status and achievements. This should cause concern. Young girls contemplating their future are receiving a clear signal that frankly, my dear, men don't give a damn. That message is being (literally) broadcast across Britain by the Today programme, a major, influential organ for social and political discussion.

There will doubtless be many more personality of the millennium clone competitions (yawn). This brings me to the competition ethos itself, from a gender perspective. It is a feminist truism that women co-operate, men compete. In both society and education, the male engendered competition ethos rules (if not OK).

So what should women in education do about it? Become ideological guerrilla fighters? Infiltrate, subvert, quietly get on with encouraging students of both sexes, while helping girls to aim high at both admissions and degree level? Well, yes, but it takes time - time that the male-oriented competitive structures and processes in higher education do not much honour or respect.

Far more important to zap out another piece for the research assessment exercise than to spend time interviewing and encouraging university entrants (of either sex). To me, the saddest lesson of the Today programme poll is that it may well take at least another millennium for women's achievements to be better valued and acknowledged in public contexts. By then, the competitive ethos, quite literally exploding itself, may have blasted us all off the planet anyway.

Marie Denley is lecturer in English - and admissions tutor - King's College, London.

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