Sunday, May 16, 2010

Just a brain dump, really

I read an excerpt from a book that ashinynewcoin linked to in The Age (that was convoluted, wasn't it?) about the entrenched sexism that nobody sees. Among other things, it described the experiences of two transgender scientists. Both found that their work was taken more seriously during the part of their life when they were men.

It makes excellent points, but I found myself automatically questioning the conclusions because it uses only 2 examples. It really isn't possible to conclude anything from these two people - it may just happen that their work actually was better during the part of their lives lived male (as a coincidence - I'm not suggesting correlation). I stand by that analysis, but for many other reasons, I'm pretty confident that the conclusions are still actually correct, even if they can't be drawn from these two anecdotes alone.

However, what this really led me to consider is how this whole thing has played out in my life. In my current career, I started out working in a company where I never reached a very high position. I was a manager, but I wasn't a regional manager or anything. As a result, I was never really taken very seriously by suppliers or customers. When I left the company, I started my own business, and I was determined to behave like the owner, CEO, Person Of Importance. It didn't work. I figured this was because my business was tiny and it didn't matter to anyone. That was probably true.

Then I was joined by two (male) partners, both of whom had been more senior than me in the company I had worked for. Almost immediately, they became the people everybody talked to. They were the People of Importance. This was for a number of reasons - they were better at it than me, they had a larger reputation in our industry and so on. The situation was as much my doing as theirs.

In any given situation, how can anyone say whether I am taken less seriously because of merit or because I am female? There have been alternative explanations all the way along, and it may well be that they are the right ones in every case, but then that's the whole point about unseen sexism - nobody thinks they are committing it, and not many people think they are suffering as a result of it.

The only way to combat this is to show people the results of studies showing innate bias against women. To make it clear that just because you don't think you're doing it, it doesn't mean you aren't. And just because you are doing it, it doesn't make you a bad person. You're doing it because it's deeply ingrained in our society, not because you believe in sexism. The trick is to take the shame out of it and to make it a point of empowerment. Make a million Facebook quizzes that highlight this ingrained sexism so that we can learn to fight it in ourselves. Treat it as an optical illusion that we can train our brains not to see, rather than a personality defect.

See how that woman's inferior? It's just a trick of society that makes us see her that way, but if you look carefully enough, you can see the truth of it, and if you practice often enough, you find it hard to see how you ever saw the illusion in the first place.



    Try on a little IAT action. Then get REALLY worried ;)

  2. Thanks for the link Carla - I'm not sure what it's telling me though - apparently I strongly associate men with career/women with family, and also strongly prefer gay people to straight people. I can see that I'm soaking in the former, but I really didn't think I had a preference for gay/straight either consciously or sub-consciously.

    Still, this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to go viral - to get people thinking about what these sorts of things might be telling us.

  3. You're doing it because it's deeply ingrained in our society, not because you believe in sexism.

    This is the nutshell - that we just don't realise how much crap we've absorbed during our socialisation in our lives, and unless we deliberately choose to test it and analyse what we find, we'll NEVER notice all that crap.