The Blog

Votes for Puffins? How Women and Other Majorities Are Ignored

It's not the fact of replacing Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the fiver that so many women object to, it's the fact that replacing the only woman, apart from the Queen, with a man means there will be no other woman of achievement represented on our money.

Now that the campaigners The Womens Room are threatening to take the Bank of England to court over its decision to drop prison reformer Elizabeth Fry from the UK five pound note, thus leaving the Queen as the only woman on our notes and coinage, I am increasingly drawn to that little known cause 'votes for Puffins'.

Why? Well have you ever played that game 'more sheep than people'? It's very simple. How many countries in the world can you name with more sheep than people? Obviously most people start with New Zealand, Australia, and Wales, but did you know that Scotland, Iceland, Mongolia and the Falkland Islands also come into this woolly category?

I tend to get stuck and fall back on diversionary tactics : Denmark - more pigs than people - the Falklands - more penguins than people - and the real clincher - Iceland - more puffins than people.

For future use here are some figures I've collected from official websites:

UK: Included for purposes of elimination only. People 63 million. Sheep 36 million. (In case you're wondering, UK cattle total 10 million)

New Zealand: People 4.42 million. Sheep 31million.

Australia: People 23 million. Sheep 76 million

Wales: People 3 million. Sheep 8.9 million

Scotland: People 5.2 million. Sheep 6.8 million

Mongolia: People 2.8 million. Sheep 13 million.

Denmark: People 5.57 million. Pigs 18.9 million.

Falkland Islands: People 2,900. Sheep 504,000. Penguins 950,000 (Falklanders are also outnumbered by seagulls and probably any other species that can survive constant horizontal winds).

Iceland: People 322,000, Sheep 460,000. Puffins estimated 8-10 million.

My reaction to the Icelandic puffins was (and is) - wow. Who knew there were so many puffins? And this is described modestly by 'Iceland on the web' as merely 'one of the world's largest colonies of puffins'.

But then I thought, it's not just puffins. Who knew there were so many women? Why? Because recently I had to challenge someone who referred to diversity as affecting 'women and other minority groups' in the UK.

In fact women are not a minority. They are the majority of the population of the UK. And they are the majority population in many countries in the world (except alarmingly and increasingly those with selective abortions where daughters are aborted in favour of sons). The latest UK census figures for 2011 show that of the total of 63 million people, there are 31 million men and 32 million women.

And yet: "Hello ground control. I'm am an alien visiting your lovely planet and, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems when I view your UK news and current affairs and light entertainment 'comment' programmes that you have a majority species called 'men' and a minority species - apparently only one in four - called 'token woman'. Some of these programmes have laughter and some are serious, but they all have a minority of women or sometimes no women at all. Apparently they just won't come out of the puffin colony. Did you ask them to?"

TV Producer: " Er - well, so long as we've got one female puffin every now and then, we know we've got it covered."

When my mother was born during the First World War, women didn't have the vote in the UK. When I was born in the middle of the 20th Century, women had no right to get credit in their own name, married women couldn't be taxed separately from their husbands, and no woman had a right to equal pay. Much had to be legally changed to give women a fighting chance of ever being full individual citizens in the UK, Europe and the USA. But there is more work to do. And a lot of it is to do with the male mindset still being considered the only real norm, and facts about women, like puffins, being ignored.

It's not the fact of replacing Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the fiver that so many women object to, it's the fact that replacing the only woman, apart from the Queen, with a man means there will be no other woman of achievement represented on our money. The Queen has many achievements but she is there by virtue of heredity. She is not a female Nobel Prize winner, politician, campaigner or businesswoman.

In the 21st Century for the Bank of England to consider that this 'there are no suitable women of achievement' strategy is acceptable, or even a version of normal, is astonishing. It is not a trivial issue. All public bodies have to consider equality and diversity issues by law, so the Women's Room is arguing that the Bank has failed in its public legal duty.

Today I heard a Womens Room spokeswoman tell BBC Woman's Hour that they don't actually want to take the Bank to court if it can be avoided, they would prefer a change of policy i.e. some more women on our banknotes. I hope their campaign succeeds.

Sadly, the Bank of England is not culturally alone in its old-fashioned, male-dominated world view. As Joy Goh-Mah pointed out in her blog, recent studies of children's books show that male characters are still outnumbering females. And in children's TV programmes it's not much better as only a third of lead characters are girls.

So no wonder many of us think women's issues are a minority issue. We're brought up to think of women as a minority who wait for the men to lead. Here's some names for this: the sleeping beauty syndrome or the cinderella syndrome i.e. some day my prince will come; the tiara syndrome - waiting for the boss to crown you as successful and promote you; the smurfette syndrome - one token female in the boys' gang. I'm sure there are many more descriptions of this seemingly intractable and inbuilt cultural problem of treating women as a minority. Take your pick.

Can I also ask you to do two useful things? Next time you catch someone talking about diversity and saying it's an issue for 'women and other minority groups' - challenge them. This is lazy, inaccurate and sexist thinking. Please stop people from using this phrase. Get them to delete the word 'other'. Plus, please take some time to look at the womens room.

Votes for puffins - that's my new slogan. I'm sure we can make faster progress with that than banging on with trying to get women treated as real people.