Mother of Invention by Katrine Marçal

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Armed with formidable research, which exposes repetitive examples throughout history where society’s attitude to gender roles has shaped or altered the economy, Katrine Marçal has provided fascinating evidence to support her book’s title.

Karl Benz’s wife Bertha was the first to demonstrate the potential of her husband’s horseless-carriage. This was the first step in the automotive industry which, over the decades, has led to the development of the driverless car.

Manual computing was always done by men until the end of the nineteenth century, when women replaced them but were paid half the wages.

Although naturally skilled at caring for the home, children and the aged, woman’s position has always been denigrated and regarded as inferior to man’s.

In the Second World War, a brilliant team of women worked on code breaking at Bletchley Park but, after the war, highly paid men replaced them. Less experienced than the women, this meant Britain lapsed in its superiority and allowed Silicon Valley to rise as the pre-eminent base for the fast-evolving technology.

Few things shape our thinking more deeply than our ideas about gender.

The wheel, around for 5,000 years, last century was used cleverly by a Swedish woman, Alina Wifalk, disabled by polio. She devised the first rollator we now call a ‘willie walker’.

Later, supermarket trolleys with wheels were invented, and, in the late 1980’s, the wheeled suitcase. Men initially rejected both as a slur on their masculine strength. Today, both are ubiquitous.

A hundred years ago, the first electric car was made but men regarded it as unmanly – too quiet, safe and comfortable. By 2050, many countries aim to replace petrol and diesel vehicles with electric ones.

The finer fingers of seamstresses made the suits of the first American astronauts. They had the skills to sew 21 layers of the 4,000 pieces.  There was a stage when ‘girl years’ was a means of calculation of costs for a project, which meant those years were cheaper because the girls were on half pay!  Since antiquity and until the end of the nineteenth century, a secretary was a male of a high status, but by the 1920’s, there was a gender change. Women dominated secretarial work and were really lowly paid.

Women are often involved in small business and start-ups, but the finance enabling expansion or development is rarely supported by venture capitalists.  There surely is something wrong with a system that shuts women out? It means a wealth of innovation is untapped.  Instead, it is influencers like Kylie Jenner, the youngest ever billionaire, who has made her fortune in lipstick!

Idols of consumption have appeared online.  However, it is fashion, food and triviality at the root of their success.

Long has men’s work been regarded as high and intellectual, while women’s is base and material….

With the AI era advancing, many are fearful. Katrine reminds us that machines/robots cannot excel at every task. They lack emotional intelligence, caring, building trust, being flexible in response to varying situations.

Additional reassurance comes with the reminder that female dominated professions like teaching, nursing and social work have a bright future. Machines cannot replace them.

As checkouts, manned mostly by women, disappear, they will more easily transition into the caring roles.  Perhaps truck drivers, usually male, might have difficulty becoming orderlies?

Marçal maintains that it is men’s fear of women’s power that led to the death of over a million ‘witches’. They were blamed for a multitude of adversities and disasters, even weather. Frightening and devastating weather events are classified as the work of ‘Mother Nature.’

Resistance to action on climate change is adhered to by some men revolting against feminine power! They believe that if fossil fuels go, so does white masculinity…

Katrine Marçal’s book is impressive in many respects, range, solidly based argument, and engaging writing style. A charge of a feminist slant might be laid, but it can be dispelled by historical fact and absence of anecdote. She does stray from her major theme of gender influenced economy in the section on AI and robots; it is perhaps too lengthy.

Undeniably, her book features Economics as both thought-provoking and entertaining, and raises its allure as a field of study, particularly for young girls.

Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored

[2021]

by Katrine Marçal.

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 00084 3078 8

$32.99; 308pp

 

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