Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

‘My daughter shouldn’t have to study science’, says Cristina Odone

November 7, 2015 @ 6:01 am

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Cristina Odone

6:00AM GMT 07 Nov 2015

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When our son Johnny was accepted to read English at Oxford, we were delighted. Who cared if he would never earn a six-figure salary – or risked working at McDonald’s to feed his sonnet-writing habit?

We welcomed his interest as a blessing – how many boys, especially at a state sixth-form college, would prefer to spend Saturday night in with Philip Sidney than out with their mates?

His teachers were supportive, too. At no point did anyone suggest steering Johnny towards “STEM” (science, technology, economics, maths) subjects. His choice of English was not seen as a cop-out – quite the contrary – or a betrayal of his sex.

And yet, two years on, when our daughter Izzy demanded to know why she should waste her time studying three sciences to GCSE given that she did not wish to pursue a career in maths or science, the reaction was different.

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One friend even went so far as to tell me that it wasn’t enough that Izzy fulfil her requirement for GCSEs, it was her duty to master the “tough” subjects that have for so long been the preference and the preserve of men. How could I be so negligent? And didn’t I know that a science degree landed graduates the best-paid jobs?

My friend was not the only one to disapprove. Family members, colleagues and her teachers queried my daughter’s stated preference for “artsy” subjects and my endorsement of it.

Izzy may be only 12 years old, but her appetite for literature and history was seen by some as representing the sad culmination of 2,000 years of girls’ mis-education.

She was proof that old stereotypes still held, and that girls had not escaped the pink ghetto of “soft” subjects. By rejecting isosceles triangles and Bunsen burners, she was betraying the suffragettes and Marie Curie.

Izzy, 12, has an appetite for literature and history  Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Clearly, I should never have encouraged Izzy’s instincts by reading to her when she was a baby or, later, co-writing stories with her. I should have done what all my friends did with daughters reluctant to crunch numbers: hire a maths tutor – even though the best (£60 an hour) had a waiting list of six months .

But salary is only the beginning, as Dr Victoria Bateman, the Cambridge economics historian, explained to me: if Izzy went into a male-dominated subject such as economics, she “would be able to make a real difference. Economics needs women as much as women need economics.”

Fair enough. But what about fulfilment? J K Rowling, say, strikes me as a lot happier and more successful than Alan Turing, the tortured mathematics genius who took his own life.

Dr Amanda Foreman – recently on our screens with her excellent series Ascent of Woman – is on side. She defends studying the humanities at university because “the essential ties that bind humans together are the stories we tell each other about ourselves”.

Numbers may count for us in the here and now, but they lack the magic of storytelling. And in any case, surely the most important achievement of women’s emancipation was to enable girls to choose their own way?

But I have made little headway with my reasoning. To impress many of my own sex, it seems, I have to raise my daughter to become an economist, a start-up entrepreneur or a scientist.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor of The Economist; Martha Lane Fox, the visionary behind lastminute.com; Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer: these are the only fitting role models for girls today. They command great salaries, know how to read a balance sheet, publish papers in The New England Journal of Medicine – they flourish in a man’s world.

It is perhaps this that my feminist friends find most inspiring: they celebrate women who storm the fortresses of the Royal Society or Google as subversives, turning a male-dominated world on its head. The rest, who settle for traditionally female subjects, are letting the side down.

It’s true that literature, an arena in which – even in less emancipated times – women have flourished, has also become a female comfort zone. The stats bear this out: seven in 10 English A-levels taken last year were sat by girls. In 2011, physics (the fourth most popular subject among boys) languished at 19th place among girls; at A-level, only 28 per cent of girls took mathematics; and the consequences were visible: women make up only 12.8  per cent of the STEM workforce.

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