The Future is female too

Today Tim Peake blasted off in to space amidst a growing furore about the media’s description of him as the first British Astronaut in Space. Political and funding issues aside – and not to take anything away from Tim - we know that the first British astronaut was Helen Sharman in 1991. The whole issue reminds me what a problem we seem to have, culturally, with women being properly acknowledged in the realm of space adventure, scientific progress, and well anything to do with the future.

Cast your mind back to October, during the seemingly never-ending celebrations of Back to the Future Day, on 21st October 2015, several newspapers and TV channels entertained us with reviews of what has changed in the last 30 years, and what might yet change our world between now and 2045.

During all of that editorial coverage, very rarely did one see or hear a woman interviewed on the subject.

That is shocking. Imagine that were the case on any other subject - food and drink, economics, science, politics, even media. If we were only treated to male views on any of those subjects, wouldn’t we think that was a little odd?

Yet no-one batted an eyelid when The Telegraph interviewed six futurists for their views on how the world might have changed by 2045 and only one of them was a woman. Perhaps they weren’t expecting women to have a view worth espousing…even by 2045?

‘There aren’t very many female futurists’, is usually the case for the defence. However, that is not true. In fact there have been two very recent compilation lists of recognized female futurists and both ran to 100 names or more. The CEO of the World Future Society is a woman, as is the CEO of the Association of Professional Futurists. The President of the World Futures Studies Federation is (you guessed it) also a woman. There is no shortage of female talent in the futures arena, but there is a blindspot when it comes to including female futurists in the media.

Futurism is a very broad discipline so one could be a futurist specializing in energy policy and forecasting; or be teaching others how to think about the future within academia or at business schools; or one could, spend one’s time working out how media and communications might impact the future development of commercial brands – and how technologies might be influencing and changing consumer behavior. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the ‘internet of things’ and the interplanetary internet are all hot topics right now, and people are intrigued about these technologies and the ways they will soon become embedded in our everyday life.

One thing that is common amongst all futurists is that we are interested in spotting changing behavior in society. We are continuously scanning the day to day environment, listening out for clues and signals that might point towards an ongoing trend - or a forthcoming change - in mainstream behaviour. Technology is one of many fields that can bring about change but economic change, social change, environmental change and political change are all equally influential on our futures. So we observe, study and model these changes.

If female futurists are excluded from the discussion about the future, we are limiting the variety of insights about how the future could pan out, narrowing our expectations and allowing many assumptions about how things will (or won’t) change to go unchallenged. The fact is, women bring another point of view, a different set of expectations and assumptions, to futures work. As do young people, or ethnic minorities, or anyone who happens not to be part of the status quo and the established way of doing things. And this kind of diversity can only enrich the discussion about how we could, or should, live our lives in the future.

It is one of the reasons that the film, Advantageous, seems such an anomaly. It is a depiction of the future seen through the eyes of women. Made by female director, Jennifer Phang, and featuring women as the central characters, it is as far as one could get from the teen-targeted petrol-headed Back to the Future. It deals with declining fertility, the economic hardship of being a single mother, always-on connectivity and the expectations of employers that women maintain their youth and beauty if they want to retain their careers. The movie was highly awarded at the Sundance film festival but can hardly be said to be mainstream. Given that half the population could be facing these sorts of issues in the future, there is every reason it should be.

A fellow futurist drew my attention to the fact that Cassandra, the ill-fated prophet empowered by Apollo, had a twin bother called Helenus. According to legend, Cassandra taught her power of prophecy to her brother. Like Cassandra, he was always right, but unlike her, others believed him. Regardless of whether any of us is believed or not, the very minimum female futurists should demand is to be seen and heard, because envisioning the future more equally will lead to a better future for all.

This article was also published Dec 15th 2015, on Medium