Friday 20 July 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Expectations of women usually extend to snaring a man and producing children'

Dr Ciara Kelly Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I'm a slow thinker, so I've continued to mull over the issue of gender that I wrote about last week on the foot of the Kevin Myers article suggesting women are paid less than men because they don't really deserve it. And something Myers said subsequently in an interview on Sean O'Rourke stayed with me.

He sounded quite shook up and genuinely contrite about his piece the previous week. He denied any possibility he was misogynistic and when O'Rourke read back some of his own words to him, saying - "this sounds like you think women are inferior to men" - he denied that was what his writing implied. O'Rourke read a part where Myers asked: "How many mathematicians or chess grandmasters were women?" And Myers responded by saying, "well how many are there? There's one in the top 100."

How many little girls are ever introduced to the game of chess? Stock image
How many little girls are ever introduced to the game of chess? Stock image

That's what stayed with me. If one in 100 are women, and I don't think he's wrong, and if I don't accept the reason for that is that women are inherently stupid or worse at chess - indeed if our Leaving Cert is a measure of academic ability, girls are actually far more academically capable than boys - then what's the reason? There must be one. And I think it's this - expectations. The powerful bonds of other people's expectations are what drive almost all of us. It's the hold our parents have over us and our life decisions. The reason almost all of us homogeneously choose to finish education, get a job, marry, have children, buy a house. It's part of the reason that it's hard to come out as gay. It's one of the reasons women have to constantly defend themselves if they choose not to have children. Other people's expectations.

In an American study, the University of California found that one of the single biggest reasons people went to college was because their parents expected them to. The weight of other people's expectations weigh heavily on all of us and that's particularly true of women, who are often dependent on others and their continued approval.

If we bring it back to chess grandmasters - those who do succeed were likely introduced to chess very young, by others who were also very good at chess. A bright boy who joined such a circle might do well and could indeed end up a grandmaster. But how many little girls are ever introduced to chess at all?

Expectations of women usually extend to snaring a man and producing children. If they have a career, it's expected they will state very clearly that it is secondary in importance to their role as a mother. If they were to suggest otherwise, they are considered less commendable as a woman. I know only two things about Enid Blyton - one is she wrote loads of children's books, the other is that she was a bad mother. I know almost nothing about the parenting skills of any male writers apart from John Banville, who suggested no writers were good fathers as they were slaves to their art. But Blyton's reputation as a writer has always been undermined by her reputation as a mother.

The expectations around the social conformity of women are myriad. Women are perceived to be more successful if they're more attractive to men - hence the drive to be thinner, prettier, more vivacious. We strive to meet these expectations, often feeling crap about ourselves in their pursuit - as we fail to be thin, pretty or vivacious enough. The expectation that we will play chess is virtually non-existent. So even if we're highly intelligent, mathematical, logical types, it's entirely possible that no one will ever introduce us to a chess board.

I know that it has taken me 40-odd years to consider what I actually want in my life, rather than just doing what was expected of me. It isn't easy to buck the weight of people's expectations - especially when they're imposed on you by people you love. There are expectations around men's behaviours and life paths that they too conform to, often without thinking. The main difference is, they are things like they will be strong and independent, so perhaps it's no coincidence that their life paths differ from ours in that context.


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