How Gender Bias Continues To Distort Our Perception of Women
And in particular, what we’re capable of
Women’s sports just aren’t as entertaining as men’s.
Or at least that’s what’s commonly said to justify a pay and media coverage gap between the two. And it’s physical differences and prejudices about women’s athletic inferiority that are often used to sustain the sexist assertion that women’s sports are boring or slow.
Yet we never hear anything similar being uttered about, say, the performance of boxers from different weight classes, do we?
Still, is that even true?
Do people find women’s sports less entertaining to watch than men’s? And is the perceived quality of female players' performance really much lower?
A recent experiment tested these hypotheses by showing two separate groups of participants — a total of over 600, made up of 55% men and 45% women — highlights from men’s and women’s professional football videos and then asked them to rate the players' performance. (For my American readers: I’m referring to soccer here.)
In the control group, participants watched and evaluated regular videos.
But for the experimental group, the gender of the players was blurred, making it impossible to distinguish between men and women.
And, well, you can probably guess what the results were.
Gender bias is still alive and well, and not only in sport
The control group in the study ranked men’s performance significantly higher.
However, under the experimental condition, where participants did not know if they were watching men or women playing, ratings for female and male athletes… did not differ. The results held even after controlling for demographics, whether they preferred men’s or women’s football and how often they watched it.
The researchers also explored the willingness to pay for the matches. And consistent with the first set of results, when the players’ gender is visible, participants were significantly less likely to pay to watch a woman’s match. But when gender isn’t visible, the effect disappears.
The study’s findings demonstrate there’s indeed a bias that influences fans’ perceptions of women’s football — and possibly other women’s sports, too. And it challenges the notion that men’s sports are inherently more attractive than women’s.
But sports is hardly the only industry where gender bias distorts the perception of women and their skills.
Over two decades ago, Claudia Goldin, an economist recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the gender pay gap, published a similar study on the impact of gender bias in recruitment for orchestras. And it found that ‘blind’ auditions — auditions with a screen that conceals the candidate’s gender from the jury — increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected in the final round by a whopping 30%.
‘Blind’ auditions have actually been the standard in symphony orchestras for some time now to make sure gender biases don’t impact jury evaluations. But even this approach isn’t perfect, as sometimes the telltale sounds of a woman’s shoes can allegedly influence some jury members.
And, for obvious reasons, it can’t be replicated in recruitment for other roles. Or in the workplace, in general.
Still, ever-growing empirical evidence shows that women face stereotypes regarding their abilities in practically every single field, from science, technology, business, entertainment and academia to government, which consequently can lead to discrimination.
Female startup founders receive, on average, 6.2x less funding than those led by men. Female researchers receive substantially less funding in grant awards than men — an average of about $342,000 compared to men’s $659,000 — and that holds even in situations when women request the same amount as men.
In the corporate world, women are frequently less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts. And no, that can’t be explained by women just ‘not asking for more’, as women do, in fact, negotiate for promotions and better compensations as often as men, and sometimes even more often.
Would women’s potential in all of those fields still be underestimated as it is today if they were evaluated entirely free of gender bias and solely based on the quality of their performance? I really don’t think so.
But unfortunately, gender bias doesn’t just hold us back in the professional world.
Nine out of 10 people hold some sort of bias against women
Another recent study looked into the extent of gender bias, but in the world of youth chess players. To this end, the researchers surveyed parents and mentors of 654 American children who play chess and asked them to evaluate their potential.
Unsurprisingly, parents and mentors thought that female youth players’ highest potential chess ratings were, on average, lower than male players. This bias was even higher among those who believed that success in chess requires ‘brilliance.’ And that’s because brilliance, similar to strength, rationality, vigour and quite a few other traits, continue to be associated more with men than women.
Still, neither parents nor mentors believed girls were more likely to drop out of chess because of an unsupportive environment despite clearly holding views that make the environment they’re in… unsupportive.
Today, we might know that one’s gender has little or no bearing on who we are as people and that it doesn’t influence our personality, intellect or capabilities. But we still too often cling to a worldview that says girls aren’t brilliant enough to play chess or fast enough to play football or creative enough to play music.
Even when we try not to let the stereotyping we grew up with cloud our judgement, we continue to see the world through a prism of gender. And yes, that applies to most of us.
According to a recent global UN report, the Gender Social Norms Index, nine out of 10 people hold some sort of bias against women. It also revealed that half of the people believe men make better political leaders, and 40% believe they are better business executives. (Surprise, surprise.) And while in some countries there have been improvements, in others, attitudes appear only to have worsened in the last decade.
But gender bias doesn’t only influence how we evaluate women’s potential or skills. It also affects how we assess behavioural and emotional reactions — or lack thereof.
Your gender dictates whether you’ll be perceived as bossy or decisive. As passive aggressive or assertive. As hysterical or passionate. As selfish or ambitious. As a bitch or leader. An ice queen or a cool guy. A slut or a stud. And the list goes on and on.
Sometimes, these adjectives or terms get thrown at us all at once. On the first day of my first office job, I was criticised for being too cold. But during my last performance review in the same place, I was scolded for being overly emotional. And no, my behaviour didn’t change during my few years there.
As a woman, I’m overly emotional practically by default. But, also, if I don’t constantly smile and giggle like a person who was hit in the head with a shovel and then stuffed with tranquilisers, I’m too reserved.
The way society continues to view women is painfully narrow.
And that impacts almost every part of our lives.
Fight against bias is part of a bigger fight against inequality
I often see people dismiss the issue of gender bias and stereotyping because there are ‘bigger fish to fry.’ But the value systems we uphold and all the preconceived notions that come with them are intertwined with those ‘bigger fish.’
Gender bias doesn’t just result in less interest in women’s sports versus men’s or little girls feeling discouraged about playing chess because even their mentors or parents think they have a lower potential than boys.
It results in women’s limited participation in society, including in positions of power, which many still believe we’re not suited for. And poorer economic and social outcomes as a result of the pay inequality. And even negative implications for our mental health.
There’s also no guarantee that if we hope it will go away on its own one day, it will. Or it won’t get any worse in the future if we leave it unchallenged.
This is something Scottish philosopher William MacAskill talks about in his recent book, What We Owe the Future. We’re still in a period when the values that guide our civilisation are malleable. But over the next few centuries, they could get ‘locked in’ — leading to what MacAskill calls ‘value lock-in.’ If that happens, the changes we make to today’s beliefs — and those we don’t — could have indefinitely long-lasting impacts.
In particular, considering that the technologies we built today mirror our society, with all the good, bad and ugly included.
Take artificial intelligence, for instance.
In recent years, much has been said about its inherent biases, including gender bias, which aren’t all that surprising since the data it’s trained on is biased, too.
That’s why when you ask Midjourney, the popular AI image generator, for an image of a CEO, it will almost always generate a middle-aged white man. Even when you play around with it a bit and try a prompt like ‘CEO of tampon company,’ it will still give you… a middle-aged white man. (And generate a ‘tampon’ the size of a shoe box because, well, apparently, AI also doesn’t seem to know much about female anatomy. Go figure.)
Gender bias is also entrenched in the algorithms of the social media platforms we use. For instance, they classify images of women working out or using medical tests as ‘sexually suggestive’ and hence ‘inappropriate’, but not the very same pictures of men. This can lead to women’s accounts online being shadowbanned. Or even removed.
But what happens when this biased technology is entrusted with more decision-making? When it’s used in recruitment, school admission systems, health care, city governance or any other process where bias against women could have quite damaging repercussions?
And what if we reach a point where we can’t even change the way it has been programmed?
Sometimes I like to imagine a world where gender is always blurred out, just like it was in the videos of that recent experiment with female and male football players. And where every audition is ‘blind’ because we don’t see humans through the lens of gender anymore.
Of course, it’s not exactly helpful to pretend you don’t see it in today’s society, considering that it impacts so many things in our lives.
Still, how would this world look like? Would removing that layer of biases and prejudices finally help us see the humanity reflected in one another? Would it make us better humans?
I’d like to think so.
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