writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Why are even women biased against women?

BBC Online, January 29 2018

“Women are assumed to be incompetent unless proven otherwise, and men are assumed to be competent unless proven otherwise.” That’s the observation of someone who has the rare experience of having lived both as a man and as a woman: Professor Joan Roughgarden, formerly of Stanford University. Her experience as a transgender woman confirms what women have always suspected: they have to work twice as hard to prove that they’re good at what they do.

But what is perhaps even more depressing is that it’s not just men who have lower expectations of women; it’s women too. In an Analysis programme for Radio 4, I explore how this bias shows itself, where it comes from, and what we can do about it.

Catherine Nichols, a writer based in Boston, has first-hand experience. After she finished writing her novel, she sent out the first few chapters, plus a synopsis, to 50 literary agents, overwhelmingly female. She had just two positive replies from agents asking to see more of the manuscript.

This puzzled her, as writer friends had told her how good her novel was. So she conceived what she calls a “nutty plan”: she sent out exactly the same material to 50 more agents, but this time under a male name. The result? She had 17 positive replies. In other words, the mainly female agents seemed to think she was eight-and-a-half times better at writing under a man’s name than a woman’s. What’s more, she received loads of constructive criticism on how to improve the novel, help she never got when she was writing under a woman’s name. “It was shocking how fast it become obvious there was a big difference,” she told me.

It’s not as if there were commercial reasons for the disparity. Of the top ten literary fiction titles published last year, nine had female authors. But maybe Nichols’ experience is just anecdotal. Is there any scientific evidence for women being biased against women?

The answer is yes. Several experiments have shown it. One, by Yale researchers, sent job applications and CVs for a lab manager post to male and female science professors. The applications were identical, except that half were given a man’s name and the other half, a woman’s. And guess what? The professors – both male and female – said that the man’s application was better, that they were more likely to hire him and more likely to mentor him. And they offered him a substantially higher salary.

So where does this bias come from? It comes from far back in our evolution, when we were learning to identify friends and foe. Our unconscious brain has hugely more processing power than our conscious brain, and it’s always devising shortcuts, known as heuristics. These heuristics, part of our reptilian brain, are born of experience. So if, as a child, we burn ourselves on a hot dish from the oven, we quickly learn to associate ‘oven’ with ‘hot’ and ‘pain’.

Equally, if our society is filled disproportionately with men in top positions, we are going to associate ‘male’ with ‘leader’, ‘success’ and ‘competence’ and ‘female’ with ‘home’, ‘children’ and ‘family’. This overrides any natural bias women might have towards their own kind.

There’s a test for unconscious bias, known as the Implicit Association Test. To my dismay, it suggested that even I – a staunch feminist who’s always had a career – may be slightly biased against working women. Male and female words, and words representing work and family, flash up on your screen. The test then measures how quickly you manage to associate each category and how many mistakes you make.

Professor Mazarin Banaji of Harvard is one of the test’s creators. It told her that she may be biased too. “It was the single most important and transformative day of my life, when I came face to face with my own bias, with the fact that my mind and my hands were unable to associate female with leadership as well as male with leadership. When I come face to face with the fact that I cannot associate dark-skinned people with good as quickly as I can associate light-skinned people’s faces with good things, that’s very different from just awareness. That’s like somebody putting a little dagger into me and turning it and asking me to sit up and take notice.”

The Gender Career Test that we both took is a measure of how powerful our heuristics are, says Banaji. “It says that a thumbprint of the culture has been left on our brain.” And on this test, 80 per cent of women and 75 per cent of men show some bias.

So what can we do about it? Well, the first step is to be aware of it. However liberal and socially conscious you are, the chances are your unconscious brain is fizzing with the stereotypes you outwardly disdain. Undergoing unconscious bias training is a start, but it’s not enough. As Professor Banaji asks, “If I were to give you a lecture on fat and sugar and how our body converts that into energy, at the end of the three-hour training programme, will you have lost any weight?”

The important thing is to keep being aware of any possible bias. When you’re interviewing job applicants, try to correct for any unconscious bias that may be telling you the timbre of a woman’s voice lacks authority. Make sure you aren’t more forgiving of a man’s shortcomings than of a woman’s. Compare them both rigorously with the job specification and don’t rely on your instinct or hunch.

It requires a bit of work. But surely it’s worth it? Sexism is as vile as racism, and shouldn’t have a place in modern society. So next time you assume that a woman isn’t competent until she proves otherwise, slap yourself on the wrist, realise that it’s your reptilian brain talking and make a conscious decision to act like a 21st-century person, not a caveman – or woman.

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