Why can’t we just ‘add women and stir’? (Part 1 of 2)

Well, this is it. The first time I’m actually putting my degree to use in my cartooning career.


Ha. But seriously. This is a two-part post about some ideas taught to me by one of my favourite lecturers ever, Dr Meryl Kenny.

I don’t think I missed a single one of her lectures because she was so great and also I had the biggest crush on the guy I sat next to in class.


Anyway, here goes:

Some parts of society find the idea of gender equality quite appealing.


And a very common way to imagine gender equality is to picture roughly equal numbers of men and women in *all the things*.

NB: I‘m not saying that’s what gender equality actually is, it’s just a popular perception of gender equality.

BUT, nowadays (and in much of history as we know it), there seem to be a lot of things that get in the way of gender equality.


And because of the perception of equality I mentioned just now (equal numbers of men and women in all the things), it’s common to think of ‘unequal representation’ as one of the main things that ‘gets in the way’ of gender equality.


Which means a popular response to this type of inequality is to make policies to ‘add women’ to all the things where they are underrepresented. E.g. if there are 4 women and 10 men in a thing, then just to add 6 more women. Boom. Equal.


According to a lot of gender studies experts, these policies ARE important and they do make a difference in clearing the path for gender equality.


BUT - simply adding women, as a policy by itself - isn’t a permanent solution.

In fact, it has been suggested that anything that ONLY addresses changing the unequal experiences of women (for example, increasing their pay), without looking at what is causing those experiences in the first place - isn’t going to be enough. Doing that is like cutting down the branches of the inequality tree without trying to cut down the trunk.


To put it differently: so long as we rely on a policy (branch-sawing) to correct a problem (bad branch) without looking at where the problem is coming from (trunk), there is a good chance that the problem will come back (branch will grow back) as soon as the policy (sawing) stops.


So, in creating equality, we need to consider the often-invisible systems (tree trunk) that make the experiences of inequality (branches) possible.


An example of a ‘tree trunk’ system that enables inequality: companies offering maternity leave but not paternity leave. This places more childcare responsibilities/expectations on working mothers and less expectations on working fathers from the beginning of parenthood. (In fact, when last did you even hear the term ‘working father?’).

This system can lead to experiences of inequality in later years, for example, when having taken time off to raise kids lowers chances of promotion. A ‘symptom’ policy would be to favour women for promotion, while a ‘tree trunk’ policy would be to look at why women are less likely to be promoted in the first place.

Sweden has some good tree-trunk policies that they call ‘sustainable gender policies’.


One famous example is their ‘gender sustainable snow clearing policy.’


Basically, the Swedes noticed that when it snowed a lot, main roads (used by car drivers, who are statistically more men) were ploughed before pavements, which are (statistically) used more by women.

Even though the snow-clearing-priority policy was in no way explicitly related to gender, it was having the unequal effect of men having better and safer mobility and access to work in bad weather.

After realising this, the ploughing policy was adjusted to have a more gender-equal impact (pavements now cleared first in certain snow conditions).


Well, more or less - they definitely had the right idea! Except the actual success of the policy has been debated, the Internet is unclear. So I asked my sister (who lives in Sweden) for some insider info:


Anyway - regardless of the results, Sweden has a good attitude in terms of considering equality in a way that goes deeper than just ‘fixing numbers’.

But now maybe you are wondering: “why do we keep creating new systems that keeping causing this same old type of gender inequality in the first place?”

What are the ideas/philosophies at play when we make the systems?

In tree terms: what are the roots responsible for growing this trunk?


And that’s what next week’s Scribble is looking at.

Until then - stay lovely



  • Meryl Kenny, my cool lecturer from way back (PS any explaining that I’ve done badly is 100% a reflection on me, anything that is good/useful/makes sense is a reflection on her)

  • these useful videos and articles about Sweden’s snow clearing policy

  • My sister Carla, for being a voice of wisdom in these dark ages