An interview with Jennifer Gidley

Jennifer Gidley is a former President of the World Futures Studies Federation (2009-2017), a UNESCO and UN partner and global peak body for futures studies scholarship, she led a network of hundreds of world leading futures scholars and researchers from around the globe.

An adjunct Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS in Sydney, futurist, author, psychologist and educator, Jennifer is a prolific author of dozens of academic papers, serves on several academic boards, and most recently authored Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Springer, 2016) & The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2017).

I spoke to her about her perspective on Female Futures.

One of the issues we discuss a lot at The Female Futures Bureau is why more female futurists don’t have a higher profile. And Jennifer agrees that it’s not because they aren’t around:

“I actually believe there are a large number of female futurists globally, and probably always have been. I would suggest that there are as many women involved in futures studies and foresight work as there are men. So why is there a general perception that there are not many women in futures work, compared with men? The first, and most significant, reason for this lack of visibility is historical. Here are two examples from history of key women marginalised in the futures discourse.”

“In 1923 British publishers Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co commissioned a futures-oriented book series: To-day and To-morrow. They published over 100 books offering a mostly progressive future view of science, technology, and/or society in the next century or so. The authors were well-known scientists, philosophers, poets, novelists, sociologists, and theologians. Only two or three were written by women, one of which was Hypatia or Women and Knowledge (1925) written by Dora Russell. However, because Dora was married to philosopher Bertrand Russell, she was named ‘Mrs Bertrand Russell’ on the cover. While the practice of a woman taking her husband’s name was convention rather than law in the UK, in the USA women could not legally retain their ‘maiden name’ after marriage until 1972. Many young women today may not be aware of these limiting historical facts".

“It was also 1972 when Alvin Toffler edited a collection of essays called The Futurists. His twenty-two futurists included only one woman: Margaret Mead, even though Toffler admitted in his introduction that the wives of several of the authors had co-authored their works, including his own wife, Heidi. Alvin Toffler eventually conceded the significance of Heidi Toffler’s contributions to his published books and in his later works, she was officially credited as a co-author. Ironically, Dora Russell and Heidi Toffler are better known than many women of their eras, not least because of their famous husbands. And yet they were not able to be recognised as being significant contributors to the futures discourse in their own right”.

Has anything changed in the last 50 years?

“While there have been huge positive changes in the status of women over the last 100 years, particularly in so-called Western societies, there are still ‘historical deep tapes’ within the dominant global society. The fact that in most countries women still do not receive equal pay for equal work is testimony to the inequitable status of women".

"The second major reason women futurists are so invisible is that our historical deep tapes tell us women are not experts in science and technology. Given that futures studies is often (mistakenly) tied to science and technology, it is no surprise the popular view is that futures experts will mostly be men. These biases are frequently confirmed by the media, including social media. Again I will give two examples…

An article appeared in Vanity Fair this year that focused on the pros and cons of Artificial Intelligence (AI) including the dangers of runaway AI. It included an image of 15 experts on a continuum from “not so fast” Stephen Hawking to “hit the gas” Ray Kurzweil. The really disturbing thing is that, even worse than Toffler’s 22 futurists in 1972, none of the 15 ‘experts’ pictured was a woman. Why ARE WOMEN SCIENTISTS WORKING IN AI BEING SCREENED OUT? To argue there are no women working in, or vocal about, this topic would be wrong. There are plenty of women working in this area, but they don’t get the media coverage”.

“In a second, recent incident, a list of “top ten futurist speakers” was published in a blog post on LinkedIn. Every single one was a man. While several comments from both men and women disputed this post, the author defended her position. Strangely enough, both of these media examples involved women authors, who were clearly not aware of their own bias in the stories and images they put forward. To be clear, although there are plenty of women futurists out there doing remarkable work they are largely invisible in the media. Personally, I think it is very important that women futurists nurture and mentor younger women, encourage them to stand up and be counted, and to speak their views. Over the years, I have made every effort to raise the visibility of women’s voices, in particular by encouraging them to publish, by citing their work, and by including their voices in important global conversations”.

The team at FFB saw that LinkedIn post and distributed it around social media. It was actually a list put together by a speaker bureau promoting people who were on their books, so actually not only was it a list of all-male futurists it was also a list of all-male speakers about the future. And regular readers of this blog will know that that the desire to correct this kind of thing was the reason the Female Futures Bureau was born.

Jennifer is a world renowned futurist, so I had to ask her about her own experiences.

“As a futurist for over 25 years, and former President of the World Futures Studies Federation for eight of those years, I have experienced the ‘invisibility bias’ first-hand. In 2013, an email call went around the Australian futures networks for contributions to a history of Australian futurists. A question in the initial email was: “Were any women influential in shaping Australian futures work?” Ironically, the men behind the call were futurists I had worked closely with for many years, as had several other women, yet we were somehow ‘invisible’ in terms of our contributions”.

“As a pioneering Australian woman futurist myself I decided to take up the challenge. Starting with a timeline, I filled in my own details and those of other women futurists I knew, and then asked for help from women colleagues. I sent emails to over forty women with an initial draft and bibliography, asking them the following questions:

  1. Can you edit/correct/expand my notes on your own contribution?

  2. Can you add any names or information about other women in futures?

  3. Can you add your academic publications to the draft bibliography?

What we finished up with is a very rich and collaborative annotated timeline with contributions from approximately 40 women, either directly or indirectly. We called the unorthodoxly collaborative piece “Women Shaping Australian Futures” (2015). I encourage every futurist to read this piece and ask yourself, how can it be that all these major contributions by women futurists in Australia over 30 years was 'invisible' to two of Australia's leading male futurists even though they'd worked with many of these women. What 'disowned self' is operating here?"

Jennifer wants to challenge readers to think about why women are being screened out of futures studies and science and technology media stories. What vested interests are at work in keeping women out of the futures limelight, she asks:

"How much is lost of the richness of the futures and technology discourses as a result of this screening out? The futures we discuss and create will affect all humans - therefore we need to hear all voices"

But Jennifer is equally direct about the fact that some of her best friends are male futurists!

“What I especially want to convey is that it is very important that we recognise, and face up to, how subtle the deep tapes can be, and how unconsciously they can drive our actions, regardless of our gender. Once women futurists recognise these deep tapes, they can more actively participate in their own and other women’s visibility as futurist voices. Having said that, there are two men who stand out for me in the global futures arena as being champions of women futurists: Jim Dator and Ross Dawson. I thank them for the really concrete ways that they endeavour to promote women futurists”.

We agree at FFB, and we love Ross Dawson’s list of female futurists that he compiled and publicised through Wired.

And as for the female futurist you most look up to, Jennifer?

“The woman futurist that I most admire and look up to is Eleanora Barbieri Masini. Eleonora is much more than a futurist, though futures studies is the field where she has contributed the most. For me she is an inspiration, a mentor and a great friend. Eleonora, born in Guatemala and based in Rome, was educated as a lawyer and sociologist and is now an Emeritus Professor. Often referred to as the mother of futures studies, Eleonora had a long and foundational role in establishing the World Futures Studies Federation, as Secretary-General (1975-1981) and as President (1981-1990). She was the first Professor of Futures Studies in the world (1976) and has worked globally for decades articulating her philosophy of futures studies as well as applying it in some of the world’s most marginalised and challenging contexts. She sees futures studies as having both philosophical and ethical foundations. She made a significant contribution to what I call ‘cultural futures’ which is centrally about taking a multi-cultural lens to futures thinking. She was commissioned in the early 1990s by UNESCO to undertake research on cultural futures with people, especially women, from Africa, Asia and Latin America. For Eleonora: “The emphasis in this context is on 'living communities of cultures' as linked to future developments.”

Well we look up to Jennifer. And one of the very best purchases you could make this Christmas has got to be her excellent, and newest, book: The Future: A Very Short Introduction published by Oxford University Press. It will be of interest to futurists generally, but especially to women futurists. Did you know that of the entire Very Short Introduction Series (now over 530 books) only around 15% have been written by women, which surely does not reflect the percentage of women who are experts in the fields represented? Further, she deliberately included many women who have been, or are, active in the futures studies field, including lesser-known contributors.

Jennifer has another book out, which when I read it, struck me as a labour of love:

“My other recent book: Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Springer, 2016) will also be of interest to women (and men) futurists, because it offers a delicately theorised blueprint for how we can transform education so it is better suited for the 21stcentury than the current factory model of schooling that we now have. It offers a big picture context for education today, placing many of the latest theories from the sciences, philosophy, psychology and education into an evolution-of-consciousness framing, showing how consciousness is evolving and how we need to educate for this. As such Postformal Education places futures thinking into a meta-context as one of several higher-level qualities emerging in the world”.

Jennifer is an active, thoughtful, helpful and wise female futurist who was one of the first to support the Female Futures Bureau and share information, and circulate opinions through the community. We are so grateful for her taking the time to chat about all of these topics and to hear her opinions, but also learn from the examples she sets out above. She is a prolific and passionate futurist but has backed that up with lots of practical action that aims to help place women at the heart of futures studies.

Jennifer, we salute you!

Thank you.

To find out more about, or purchase, Jennifer’s books visit Amazon Author page.

Her articles and posts can be downloaded here

More about Jennifer and her work on LinkedIn Twitter ResearchGate or Vimeo