Recently Louise Mensch wrote in some fury about being attacked with the words 'check your privilege'. As she puts it, at 14 'I bust my ass....I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone...I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.' Believing in yourself is vital if you are to get on, whatever generation you are and however much you may be privileged or not. But having people ahead of you who have demonstrated the possibility of your dream is important too. Too often, still, I read in the newspapers of the first woman to do this or that. Last week it was a case of the first woman to serve on the FIFA executive , in this case a woman from Burundi. I am depressed to think such events still need celebrating (and in some countries much more so than in the UK, where we are indeed relatively privileged by comparison on many fronts). But they do, and the upcoming First Women Awards are one route to such a celebration. I, along with 55 other women in a total of 10 categories, am on the shortlist,with the winners announced on June 12th.
Should there be women-only prizes? This is a question I was posed during my interview for the awards which is, as its name implies, a competition from which men are disbarred. It was also a question put to me by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs (so my off-the-cuff reply can be found at the programme's website ), after I'd previously won a significant women-only prize in the form of the European Laureate for the L'Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science awards in 2009 . Underlying the question is the implication that perhaps women need such prizes because they aren't up to competing with men for prizes more generally. However that is a position I reject: women-only prizes are important for a completely different reason, as I'll argue below.
I am a professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, the first woman to become a professor there in any of the Physical Sciences - hence my 'qualification' for one of the First Woman Awards. I believe all the women on the shortlist have become notable firsts in one or other of a diverse range of sectors, making up a formidable list overall. I would hazard a guess they will also all have won significant awards of one type or another in open competition with men. Prizes for women-only should not be seen as consolation prizes for sweet little things who can't otherwise win anything. Nor is it that there is a different way of doing things, a female way, for which we are being rewarded. As a scientist there are good ways and bad ways of doing science, but there isn't a 'female' way of doing it, only science done by women. So, the reason for women-only prizes is not because they are a dumbed down version of a 'proper' prize; on the contrary they serve a completely different purpose, that of celebration and increasing the visibility of successful women to those moving up through the career pipeline.
The young women making their way through school and university now, with dreams of progressing in their chosen field, maybe aiming right for the very top, need to know that their aspirations are achievable, that their dreams are not mere fantasies and that routes to the top exist. If their chosen field happens to be one still traditionally linked with men (fields like engineering, construction and my own field of physics for instance), if all they ever hear about are stories of men in the boardroom, running their own companies or discovering life-saving treatments, maybe they will feel that 'busting their ass' won't be sufficient to achieve their dreams. In that case there is the real danger that they'll give up and follow more conventional but, for them, less satisfying careers, wasting their talent and potential. Having very visible prizes, with very visible role models thrust into prominence, is just one small way to try to counter the stereotypical images of some professions and jobs that dominate our media and to hearten those setting out on their journeys.
It is daft to mark these prizes down as sexist and unnecessary. They are a chance to celebrate and render visible the too-often invisible. Furthermore, they give power and influence to winners so that they can use their new prominence to achieve further goals and dreams of their own. The L'Oreal scheme For Women in Science I mentioned above awards one Laureate each year to each of the 5 continents. Previous winners have spoken out with conviction about what the prize meant to them and their ability to influence those around them to achieve new goals. Let me choose just 3 of them: "This award can serve to inspire more women to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams of a career in science" (Nancy Kip, China 2004 Laureate). "This award was mixed with the sense that the patients played a prominent role, because leprosy is a disease that is still stigmatized. Patients perhaps got attention again because of this recognition of me as an individual" (Indira Nath, India 2002 Laureate). "This public recognition of scientific research is a special event, that has challenged me to be an advocate for young women wishing to pursue a scientific career" (Joanne Chory, USA, 2000 Laureate).
The First Women awards, within the UK, are another opportunity to celebrate women rising to the top in their own fields and reminding the world that gender should be no bar to fulfilling dreams and achieving success. It may require all the hard work summed up in Mensch's phrase above to get to that point but, until 'first women' cease to be a story, there is a continuing need for women to be brought to the fore to stand up and shout about what they do, for the sake of the generations behind them.
Athene Donald is shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.