[SCMP Column] Honour Female Geniuses

April 29, 2017


Susan Goldberg, Editor-in-chief of the National Geographic magazine, stumped on an “unsettling” uniformity in their latest edition, devoted to exploring what makes a genius: most of the world’s acknowledged geniuses are “white men of European origin”.

She referred to a recent edition of the magazine “Science”, which revealed in a survey that “girls, by the age of six, are less likely to say that other girls are “really really smart””, and even more shockingly “also at six, girls start to avoid activities said to be for children that are “really, really smart”.”

We all know Mozart, and many would put him in their gallery of geniuses in history. But who among us has heard of Maria Anna Mozart, Wolfgang’s elder sister and a brilliant harpsichordist? It is possible that Maria Anna’s genius was prodigious. But it was never discovered because their father Leopold forced her to stop playing when she reached the marriageable age of 18.

Leap forward two and a half centuries, and women’s prospects for vocational fulfillment have improved in many parts of the world – but nowhere near as much as we would like to think, and not to a point where they are popping up in that National Geographic gallery of geniuses. Before I watched the powerful film “Hidden Figures” a couple of months ago, I had never heard of the genius of mathematicians Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in making the US’s Apollo space missions possible. By contrast, Alan Turing was a household name long before release of “The Imitation Game”, and I knew about mathematician John Nash long before he was made famous by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”.

Apart from the simple truth that genius is almost impossible to anticipate or define, the reality is that the genius of women, or of people living in the wrong place at the wrong time will mostly be unacknowledged, rejected or even cynically misappropriated. As Claudia Kalb noted in National Geographic, with no hint of cynicism: “People born into poverty or oppression don’t get a shot at working toward anything except staying alive.”

Darrin McMahon, history professor at Dartmouth College in the US, was more emotional: “What an incredible tragedy that thousands of geniuses have withered and died.”

Of course, you don’t need to go on a genius hunt to discover that women – or people born in poor and troubled places – get a bad rap and there are plenty of chauvinists and traditionalists around still today who would no doubt condone that, with a dismissive “Who ever said the world was fair?” The rebuttal is of course that our economies and our businesses pay a huge price for this unfairness.
Even today, a full century after the Suffragette movement, women still on average earn 20 per cent less than a man with the same skills and experience. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research calculated last year that if working women were paid the same as comparable men, then women’s average earnings would have been US$482bn higher in 2014 – about US$6,551 per woman per year. That would halve the poverty rate among US women from 8 per cent to 4 per cent, and would halve the number of women living in poverty in old age.

Women would also fare better if they were not so forcefully barred from so many professions. The International Society for Women Airline Pilots revealed last week that the world’s airlines employ just 450 female airline captains – compared with 14,400 men. The UK airline easyJet admitted that its female employees on average earn 65 per cent less than their male employees.

Apparently, gender pay gaps such as these have been narrowing for most of the past 30 years – though the latest World Economic Forum annual Global Gender Gap study calculated that at present rates of change, it would take 170 years for women’s incomes to rise to men’s levels.

The discriminations that keep women out of the workforce, or suppress their capacity to contribute to their full potential, inflict an even higher cost. McKinsey last year shockingly calculated that if women’s participation in the workforce rose worldwide to the participation rate for men – up from the present 50 per cent to 77 per cent – an awesome US$28 trillion would be added to global GDP. China alone would add US$2.5 trillion to its GDP, and the US would add US$3.1 trillion.

In Berlin this week, Ivanka Trump joined the G20 Women’s Summit being led by Germany’s Angela Merkel to lend US Government support to the G20’s Female Development Fund initiative. She was welcomed with jeers and boos. To reinforce her claim to commitment on this issue, she penned – in the Financial Times, no less, with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim – a passionate and carefully argued call to action.

The piece was impeccably researched and written. It chided governments for failing to invest in resources that would “unleash women’s full potential”. She referenced women’s low labour participation rate, and the World Economic Forum’s gender gap data. She complained about “legislation impeding women’s economic opportunities, restricting them from professions, preventing them from travelling and constraining their ability to inherit or own land.”

The article made an excellent case. I only wish I could believe she had truly written it. I have no problem with Ivanka being a trophy champion for the cause, but I bristle when she makes claims to knowledge and conviction that are clearly not hers. Behind the by-lines of Ivanka and the World Bank President was undoubtedly a brilliant woman (I am presuming it was a woman) who truly knew the arguments and marshaled them persuasively. If only we had seen that woman’s by-line in the FT.

Perhaps I am wingeing naively about the plight of those thousands of ghost speech writers worldwide who sit anonymously behind so many of our top officials and leading business figures, crafting speeches that make those leaders look wise, but for some reason Ivanka’s claim to expertise stuck in my craw. The case for narrowing the gender gap is critically important worldwide, so let those unsung women geniuses who truly make the case get the credit that is their due. The case is not made stronger by fronting a trophy women’s champion. 
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