So Stephen Hawking doesn’t understand women, apparently. It’s a neat little PR hook, spun out ahead of the celebrations and mental machinations to be held in his honour to mark his 70th birthday, and the kind of thing press officers at the New Scientist must fantasise about in a desperate bid to make science speak for us all, even the most bone-headed.
His claim is a tragedy in two respects. First, it implies we cannot empathise with a man who finds the secrets of the universe as intellectually challenging as I find a 12 piece jigsaw puzzle, unless he is ruled by matters of the flesh. And second, it perpetuates the myth that women are so very different, so very other, that even the brainiest man on the planet cannot begin to fathom us.
It’s the second point which irritates me. Stephen Hawking, master of intergalactic and space-time thinking is being played into the sweaty palms of the people who kindly brought us the astronomical fallacy that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Are we saying that women are as alien to men as, well, aliens? Look! Space and planets and women! And bloody Stephen Hawking agrees! It MUST be true! Give me a break.
I don’t know the man, so I can’t speak for Hawking’s feminist credentials – he could be a Friedan-reading, pro-choice placard-waving sister – but my sense is that he falls foul of the same pitfall beholden by a worrying number of clever and influential men, the iron-cast belief that thought rules where action fails. Hawking admits that he spends most of the day thinking about women (Really? Doesn’t he have better things to do?) but despite these daily intellectual gymnastics, women remain “a complete mystery”. Given that we occupy more than half the world’s population, and he’s married two of them, he must go quite some way to deliberately avoid hearing what women actually have to say.
Let’s stop patronising each other, shall we? Let’s allow Hawking to live out the rest of his already impressive life doing what he does best – being a voice for cosmology, not for gender studies – and let the rest of us focus on practical changes in equality, rooted in the real world where we have real conversations and experiences with one another.
I would have hoped that the more we learn about life beyond our own tiny galactic experience, led in no small part by people like Hawking, the more we would realise we have in common with each other, here on Earth. So it’s a sad state of affairs when it appears we have achieved quite the opposite, and that star gazing has become an acceptable excuse for the failure to bring our minds back down to terra firma and answer questions about how we, as humans, can relate to one another – regardless of our gender.