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“Oh it’s alright, you’re a girl”, he said with a laugh.
These were the words of a fellow graduate student I shared an office with during my Ph.D. I had asked for his help with a mathematical problem, and even though I had proven myself better at maths than him on more occasions than one, he patronizingly comforted me as he sat down to tease out that mathematical algorithm. I was taken aback, and although usually, I would let such remarks go, on that occasion I was feeling less generous. I asked him what he meant. “Girls aren’t good with numbers, and you’re a girl,” he said with a smile. Besides the infantilizing use of the term “girl”, this was an indication of how bias is deeply ingrained within us all.
Even though he insisted that it was only a joke, I wondered if he believed this on some level. How did his general perception that girls are not good at numbers come about? And, how do this casual throw-away and supposedly jokey remark contribute to a wider societal bias? As I run sexism workshops in schools today, so many boys – and girls – as young as seven years old tell me that boys are better at maths and that girls are not good at football. These implicit gender biases are reinforced from a very young age. When someone remarks that my spirited two-year-old is “loud for a girl” or that “she sure is bossy” they are assigning some specific behaviors to a girl, and they carry this bias that girls are supposed to be quiet. Consider if a boy was doing the same thing, would he be excused as being “just a child” or that “boys are just excitable and active” or that “he sure is a little leader.”
Women are very emotional.
Men are more assertive.
Women are more caring.
All serial killers are men.
Men make better leaders.
Women are not good drivers.
How many of these do you believe? These are all generalized gendered statements that form part of our everyday vocabulary.
Remember the contentious comments made by Tim Hunt about working with women in the lab which sparked a fierce response across social media? In a speech delivered at a lunch for female journalists and scientists, entitled Creative Science – Only a Game, he made the unfortunate comment: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Since then the media furor around these comments has reignited the debate about unconscious bias towards women and gendered stereotypes that stop women going into certain careers and hinders their progression to a leadership position.
A google image search ‘thinks’ that more than 90% of professors are white men. Yes, there is a huge gender disparity with only about 25% of women on a professorial level, but this is not only statistically inaccurate, but it also demonstrates the inherent bias in the algorithm itself. A study has shown that an AI algorithm learned to associate women with images of a kitchen, learning from and reviewing more than 100,000 images from around the internet. As it carried out its learning, it was noticed that its biased assumptions became even stronger than that shown by the dataset, so in the end, the results were not merely replicating the inherent bias in the images that had been presented to it, but also amplifying it.
Do you remember watching that video that went viral on social media about the South Korean expert being interviewed on live television when his children wander in, and an Asian woman frantically tries to remove them? An anonymous survey in Facebook forums – anonymous because people are reluctant to openly admit and confront their implicit biases – revealed that over 70% of people, most of whom are liberal, and consider themselves open-minded and non-prejudiced, immediately assumed that she was a nanny. This threw up a lot of questions about the racial biases inherent in our society about women of certain ethnic origins being seen to be in subservient roles. Also, studies have shown that women are seen to be in in caring and nurturing roles more than men.
Women also suffer from the “double-bind” bias. Women are often socially and culturally expected to be nurturing and likeable, which in turn restricts their consideration for a leadership position, while, on the other hand, if they are assertive and forthright, they are deemed to be unlikable, and too bossy to be good leaders. A no-win situation really.
Women can also internalize the misogyny and cultural conditioning and have been shown to be biased against other women. Are these unconscious biases hardwired into our brains as an evolutionary response, or do they emerge from assimilating information that we see around us? Often termed the “queen bee syndrome“, coined in 1973 describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. This phenomenon has been documented by several studies where women are seen to be bullied more by their female counterparts and line managers. I have personal experience of this. Tests have shown that even avowed feminists think of men as more competent than women.
The are also different kinds of unconscious bias that affects women while applying and entering the workplace and being supported and encouraged to stay and progress in the workplace.
December 17, 2018 at 10:48AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs