The BBC’s Reporting of New Pi Record Perpetuates Gender Stereotypes

Instead of highlighting a woman’s achievement, they’re asking us to be amazed that the achievement involved a woman.

Source: Google, via the BBC — as used on the article in question.

Today, the BBC has reported on Emma Haruka Iwao, a ‘Google employee from Japan,’ setting a new record by calculating the value of Pi to 31 trillion digits.

It may not be especially important to know Pi to that many digits, but calculating Pi to such accuracy sets interesting challenges for mathematicians and programmers and shows off their capabilities and the capabilities of the computing systems they make use of. So, it’s reasonable that this should be considered news.

But just look at the headline the BBC used on their News website home page:

From: BBC News website home page
“Woman smashes pi world record”

I understand that the BBC wishes to be seen as an organisation that values 
diversity, supports equality and highlights women’s achievements. And I understand that whoever wrote that headline probably thinks they’re doing a service for ‘womankind’ by highlighting how this new record was achieved by a woman.

But I think they’ve got it totally wrong. I think they’re doing a considerable disservice to the cause of equality and the campaign to challenge stereotypes and overcome prejudice.

What that headline is essentially doing is blatantly promoting the expectation that we all ought to be utterly amazed that a woman — yes, a woman, believe it or not! — could possibly be capable of achieving such a feat. It’s seeking to patronise us all by highlighting the supposedly incredible news that a woman might have something to offer in the field of mathematics and computing — as if assuming we’re never heard of Bletchley Park.

I should note that the writer of the BBC article, Zoe Kleinman, may not be to blame at all. She did not indulge in perpetuating stereotypes in her actual article. Her article was simply titled: “Emma Haruka Iwao smashes pi world record with Google help.” It did not make any particular note of the gender of the new record holder. It did not express or imply any incredulity or even surprise at the new record holder being a woman and it didn’t include any interviews with anyone who did wish to express such sentiments.

I don’t know who was responsible for the headline on the BBC News home page — or whether they would now want to admit to having that responsibility.

But come on BBC! This ridiculously patronising approach really isn’t helping the cause of equality at all.

Headlines like that don’t challenge gender stereotypes. They perpetuate them.