“I get the whole first female president thing, and I would love to have a female president. Just not her.”
The words reverberated in my head. It was a Facebook comment from a male acquaintance. “Who then?” I wanted to ask, but there was something more bothering me and I couldn’t figure it out. Then, after a few days marinating in my head it became clear – gender-blindness. Just like many believe colorblindness is the cure for racism, this guy thinks he is gender-blind. It may seem like a fair approach, but it’s really not. Denying gender affects our thought processes masks the real issues of bias and inequality and any solutions, however well-intentioned, are rendered impotent.
Freakonomics author and podcast host Stephen Dubner recently aired an episode titled, “What are Gender Barriers Made of?” in which he explores factors blocking the way to greater gender equality. More specifically, some factors are not entirely under our control. He and guest Iris Bohnet discuss a Columbia Business School case study from the early 2000s. Students were given one of two professional profiles, one for Heidi and one for Howard. Male and female students concluded the two were equally qualified, but overwhelmingly believed Howard to be more likeable than Heidi. The twist? The only difference between the two profiles was the first name. Heidi Roizen is a real-life entrepreneur upon whose career the originating Harvard Business School study was written. Howard was a fictitious male counterpart.
Sheryl Sandberg quoted the same study in her infamous 2010 TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders,” in which she openly acknowledges gender biases, even admitting to her own blind spots. Sandberg advises women to continue to push for a seat at the table, though the path be difficult and unfair. That’s not the complete solution, though. Woman are damned if they do and damned if they don’t? No. Let’s take the blindfolds off.
Problem: An assertive man is bold and an assertive woman is a bitch.
Step 1: Lean in, as Sandberg says. You can’t be part of the conversation if you’re not at the table and that goes for both women AND men. Everybody needs to participate.
Step 2: Admit perceptions of men and women are inherently complicated by gender biases. According to Dubner’s piece, “…our unconscious stereotyping influences how we listen.” A certain amount of bias is unavoidable. Don’t try to ignore it.
Step 3: Change our expectations. Equality is not measuring women by men’s standards. Equality is changing the standards we apply and how we apply them. There’s a reason why comparing apples and oranges is problematic…problematic, but not impossible.
Say we need to compare fruit and before us sits a basket of apples. We might compare size, color and taste. So far so good. Next, throw in an orange. Does it make sense to compare the orange by the apple standards? Not when there’s new fruit to consider. We might measure nutritional density or the amount of juice extracted per pound. At the core, we’re still assessing fruit, but our approach to the evaluation of it has changed, deepened even. In other words, don’t take a bite of an apple expecting it to taste like an orange!
Let’s put the steps into action with the ultimate gender-biased situation – the President of the United States.
Step 1: Hilary Clinton is at the table. Talking about who might or might not be there is fruitless. Have a conversation about the people who are there NOW.
Step 2: The standards for President of the United States have been overwhelmingly based upon a history of white men. Don’t ignore it. Recognize the issues ingrained in such a long-standing, skewed representation. Admit that we’ve been judging fruit all this time based upon nothing but apples.
Step 3: Change expectations to account for the change in options. Increasing the number of women in leadership roles will not automatically create equality. We must also adjust our approach to measuring what it means to lead.
What, exactly, should we be doing then and what does this have to do with media?
Our technology-enriched environment has created a deluge of information. The past was characterized by few and small channels of communication primarily controlled by the wealthy. Education and technology have spread, enabling more access to more information, but access does not guarantee utilization. It is easier than ever to surround ourselves with a narrow set of viewpoints. To be well-informed, we must do more than follow our favorites.
Open-source information, Creative Commons and public library digital resources leave little excuse to remain lopsided. Engage with a variety of media in a variety of ways. Listen without watching, watch without listening, read transcripts and explore beyond comfort zones. We have the power to create our own information environments, but with power comes responsibility.
We have new options to compare and can combat inequality, of gender or otherwise, by adjusting our approach. Our basket of apples has been upturned; lychee, mango and wax grapes abound. Which will you try?
Meredith Butts is a library information specialist committed to furthering information and media literacy for all. Learn more at www.theinformationchase.com, LinkedIn, and now on Medium @Meredith_ChasingInfo.