- Mary Ann Sieghart
- BBC Radio 4, Series “Analysis”
Women are sexists too: even outspoken feminists are unconsciously biased against women. Where do these discriminatory attitudes come from and what can we do about it?
“Women are supposed to be incompetent, unless proven otherwise, and men are supposed to be competent, unless proven otherwise.”
That’s the observation of someone who has lived as a man and a woman: American evolutionary biologist and ecologist Joan Roughgarden.
Roughgarden, a transgender woman, says she has proven with her experience what many women have experienced: that they have to work twice as hard to show that they are good at what they do.
But is it true that until women they expect less from other women than from men?
Catherine Nichols, a Boston-based writer, has firsthand experience of this.
On one occasion, when he finished writing his novel, he sent the first chapters, as well as a synopsis, to 50 literary agents, mostly women. He only received two positive responses and asked to see more of the manuscript.
This puzzled her, as her writing friends had told her how good her novel was. So she devised what she calls a “crazy plan” – she sent exactly the same material to 50 more officers, but this time with a man’s name.
The result? He had 17 positive responses.
In other words, the mainly female officers seemed to think that she was 8,5 times better writing with the name “George” than yours.
In addition, he received many constructive criticisms on how to improve the novel, help that he never received when writing with a woman’s name.
“It was shocking how quickly it became clear that there was a big difference,” he told me.
But perhaps Nichols’ experience is just anecdotal.
Is there any scientific evidence …
… that women are biased against women?
The answer is Yes. Several experiments have shown this.
During one, Yale University researchers sent job applications and resumes for a laboratory manager position to science professors. The applications were identical, except that half had a man’s name and half a woman’s.
Teachers, both male and female, said that the man’s application was better, that he was more likely to be hired and had them as mentors.
And they offered him a substantially higher salary.
Where does this bias come from?
It comes from way back in our evolution, from when we were learning to distinguish between friends and enemies.
Our unconscious brain has much more processing power than our conscious brain, and it is always coming up with shortcuts, which is known as a heuristic.
These heuristics, part of our reptilian brain, are born out of experience.
So, if in childhood we get burned by a dish fresh from the oven, we quickly learn to associate “oven” with “heat” and “pain”.
Similarly, if the highest positions in our society are disproportionately held by men, we will associate “man” with “leader”, “success” and “competition”, and “woman” with “home”, “children” and “family. “.
This nullifies the possibility that the prejudice that women may have towards those of the same gender is natural.
There is a test of unconscious bias, known as the implicit association test or IAT, for its acronym in English.
To my dismay, she suggested that even I, a staunch feminist who has always had a career, may be slightly biased against working women.
Male and female words, and words representing work and family, appear on the screen. Then the test measures how quickly you manage to associate each category and how many mistakes you make.
Professor Mazarin Banaji of Harvard University was one of the creators of the test … and through that test she discovered that she herself could also be biased.
“It was the most important and transformative day of my life, when I came face to face with my own prejudice, with the fact that my mind and my hands were incapable of associating women with leadership as much as men with leadership. “
The race-gender IAT that we both did is a measure of how powerful our heuristics are, says Banaji.
“He says there is a cultural fingerprint left in our brain.” And in this test, 80% of women and 75% of men show some bias.
What can we do about it?
Well the first step is to be aware of it.
No matter how liberal and socially conscious you are, chances are your unconscious brain is full of stereotypes that you seemingly disdain.
So undergoing unconscious bias training is a start, but it is not enough.
As Professor Banaji asks: “If I gave you a lecture on fat and sugar and how our bodies convert that into energy, at the end of the three-hour training program, would you have lost any weight?”
The important thing is to be aware of any possible bias.
When you interview job applicants, try to correct any unconscious biases that may be saying that the timbre of a woman’s voice lacks authority.
Make sure you don’t forgive a man’s shortcomings more than a woman’s.
Compare them rigorously to the job specification and don’t trust your gut or hunch.
It takes a bit of work, but it sure is worth it.
Sexism is as vile as racism and should not have a place in modern society.
The next time you find yourself assuming that a woman is not competent until she proves otherwise, understand that it is your reptilian brain that speaks and makes the conscious decision to act like a 21st century person, not a caveman.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.