I used to want to be like Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to be brilliant, like he is, and intuitive, and excited about science, but a lot nicer.  Shame, I thought then, I can’t be like him.

I also wanted to be like Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett, from the TV show Hawaii 5-0. Aside from the impressive title, he is ninja-like, tactical, lethal and an absolute boss. Shame, I thought then, I can’t be like him.

I looked up to these two characters because they are highly-skilled individuals.  I, too, want to be a highly-skilled individual. I cannot be like them, though, because they are fictional, with highly exaggerated qualities and quirks. Oh, and because they are men, and I am not a man.

This is how society is programmed to believe only men can do awesome and impressive things. The world is coded according to gender, and we find that the spheres of power and influence are often coded male.

Technology is coded male. What I mean by this is, when you think about the leaders and heavyweights in technology, often you will find that they are men. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk – all male, and all white (race is another dominant code, but we are talking about gender now). 

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A developer, a hacker, a geek – descriptors that bring to mind a stereotypical figure in a laidback uniform of jeans, t-shirts and trainers, and always, always male. They are often depicted as awkward, socially inept and yet brilliant. They don’t have to be sociable to be taken seriously. When women are unsociable, even the brilliant ones, they get criticised so much that no one takes them seriously. This is why there is a gender problem in tech.

Political power is coded male. What I mean by this is, when you think about national and world leaders, often you will find that they are men. The presidents of the most powerful nations on the planet are men of great influence. When women run for and become presidents, they wear suits and emulate men in gesture and mannerisms. They speak like men, because as Cambridge professor Mary Beard has discovered, since the antiquities only men’s words and men’s voices are considered worth listening to, only their commands worth following. Men are leaders, so female leaders must lead like a man. This is why there is a gender problem in politics.

Economic power is coded male. What I mean by this is, when you think about business scions and heads of commercial empires, often you will find that they are men.

Last year, only 32 women made the Fortune 500 CEOs list. It’s an increase from 21 in 2016, but it is still a dismal number. Only a paltry 6.4% of the biggest positions in the world’s top firms are filled by women.

On magazine covers and in movies, male heads of companies are featured as magnetic, masculine, savvy and suave. Female CEOs — if featured at all — are talked about as an extension of their family, as individuals who juggle multiple work and family responsibilities. Because of course, just because she does business does not mean she stops doing the housework. Men get to concentrate on the business. This is why there is a gender problem in business.

Athleticism is coded male. What I mean by this is, when you think about the most elite sports and the most impressive people in tests of strength, flexibility and kinetic brilliance often you will find that they are men.

Last year Andy Murray became a feminist icon when he corrected a journalist’s claim that his opponent was the first American to reach a grand slam semi-final since 2009. Male player, he qualified, because female players from the US had already been there and done that, time and time again.

Female players have pointed out this bias many times. But only when this claim was corrected by Murray, a top male tennis player, did their lament become heard. Only male players matter. This is why there is a gender problem in sports.

So where are the women? Which parts of life are coded female?

Caring professions are coded female. Mothers, teachers, nurses, caretakers. Which is great — they are amazing and doing vital work — but they are also chronically underpaid and overworked.

Manual, low-skilled jobs are coded female. Factory assembly lines are staffed by women. Behind the constantly whirring sewing machines in the warehouses that produce clothes for the world’s biggest fashion houses sit women, many women. They are paid the minimum wage. They stay in the same jobs for years, make enough to live on, but not much more.

Service jobs are coded female. Cleaners, servers, receptionists, hotel workers. They get low pay and in the course of their service are exposed to harassment and abuse from clients and members of the public.

A common thread that runs through this fabric of social life is the fact that men are often coded into activities and jobs that are more highly-regarded, highly-paid and with greater influence. In a hierarchical world based on male power and privilege, you find many more men than women at the top, and the reverse at the bottom.

We need to challenge this dominant programming of the world. We need to recode how things have been done and who gets to do them, so that men and women have the same opportunities and the same rights as we hurl through time into the future.

Already we are seeing evidence of recoding. For so long men have controlled the skies; now we have women piloting commercial, military and technical aircrafts. For so long men have sat in directors’ chairs; now we a few of those chairs occupied by women. For so long men have penned and sold influential books; now female-authored tomes stand side-by-side with those written by men.

If coding is a process that created the world we know, a world dominated by men, then recoding is a process in which we recognise, celebrate and elevate women who do the important — or the mundane things — that men also do.

It is not about wanting a piece of the pie, not just about wanting equality — recoding who gets to do what has the most important function of opening a path for others to follow, not because they are male or female, but because they have what it takes to do the job.


Khairunnisa Ibrahim is a lecturer who reads and writes about gender, geography, maps, pop culture and the representation of women in science, media and technology. 

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