Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Are you gender-biased? Chances are, you are.


The past week has been full of stories about gender bias. There's been the on-going argument at the BBC about the gender pay-gap, and The Guardian had a piece about whether monsters must always be male (you can read it here) and how few female characters in children's books even speak, let alone are the main character. There was also an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 about women being biased against women. If you didn't hear it, you can listen to it or download it here (and I genuinely recommend listening to it).

You are probably gender biased, even if you don't think you are.

Much of our bias is thought to stem from the brain taking 'short-cuts'. The example given in an analysis of the radio piece (the analysis can be found here) cites burning yourself on a hot pan leading to your brain making a quick association between 'oven', 'hot' and 'pain'.

Likewise, if a person sees disproportionately more men than women in positions of power and leadership, and disproportionately more women in more lowly-ranked jobs, their brains quickly associate men with power and responsibility and women with less powerful, lower value roles.

So, what can we do to try and avoid this bias?

Well, it's important to know it's there and to try and consciously correct for what your subconscious is doing. Are you judging an application for a job without knowing the gender of the applicant? If so, great. If not, are you giving equal weight to equal experience? How often do you describe an assertive woman as 'bossy' when you wouldn't use the phrase for a man? Language is important and can be very gender-biased. Which gender springs to mind (unbidden) at the words strong, accomplished, engineer or lawyer? And which gender if the words are caring, weak, nurse or cleaner?

I can clearly remember reading a book which described 'the lawyer's husband' coming in to a room, before the lawyer had been described. My immediate thought was not that the lawyer could be female but that the lawyer was male and therefore must be gay. I've no issue with the lawyer being gay, incidentally, but what shook me was my complete surprise that the lawyer turned out to be a woman. And I would count myself a feminist. In the BBC Radio 4 programme, the example is given where a father and son are involved in a car accident. When they are taken to hospital, the surgeon says, "I can't operate on this boy because he's my son." Many people find this one hard to work out, because they don't immediately think that the surgeon is the boy's mother. This is the case even when the test subjects have mothers who are surgeons!

I have two step-granddaughters and they are both getting to the point of starting to read. Thinking about the issues in the piece in The Guardian, I thought back to the books I read and the children's TV I watched when I was a child. Almost universally, the male roles were heroic, featuring leadership and activity, or bravery, while the female roles were either non-existent, just a side-kick or the one who needed saving. "Let's play princes and princesses!" No, let's not, because all the princess does is sit around waiting for the prince to rescue her. She is almost never the architect of her own fortune (or misfortune). We tell our children they can be anything they want, but feed their subconscious a different story in the books, TV and films they watch, and in the role models in life that they encounter.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. There are books and TV shows and films out there which have a much better gender bias but sometimes it seems hard to find them. I try very hard when I'm writing to avoid gender stereotypes as much as I can, but fully accept that I am far from perfect. And until there is gender equality in the work-place, our experiences would still be influencing our subconscious, even if everything we read or watched was balanced.

We are all probably biased, however enlightened we think we are and however much we try not to be. What's key is to break the cycle, whether it's gender bias, or any other kind of bias. And the first step is to be aware of your own bias. Another suggestion from the radio programme is to create a screen saver for your computer with positive role models that break away from the gender stereotypes.

If you're interested in finding out whether you're biased or not, do a quick online search for 'test for bias' and see how you get on.

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