The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality
I was waiting for my flight two days ago at San Francisco International Airport. Sitting directly across from me was a young, attractive woman. She wore heavy makeup. She had long, lacquered nails and a skimpy top that was riding up just enough to reveal a pretty gaudy belly piercing.
I had a shock of surprise when she stood up to board her flight and I saw the title of the book that she had been engrossed in all this time. It was Fundamentals of Angel Investing. This was deliciously ironic for me because my topic is bias.
I graduated with a science degree from UC Berkley in 1984. It was hard studying science at Berkley. It wasn’t just because of the content. I was the target of frequent undeniable in-my-face sexism. This was also a time of celebration and optimism for women.
We were the first generation in history where female college graduates outnumbered males. We were flooding into the marketplace in unprecedented numbers and fields where, before, we’d had little to no representation. We naively thought that our generation would be the one to make gender inequity a thing of the past.
But here we are. It’s 30 years later and the conversation remains much the same. Young female scientists tell me stories that are heartbreakingly similar to those early experiences. We still have a substantial pay gap and shockingly few women at the top.
Only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and 18% of Congress. Oddly, we are 51% of the population, yet occupy only 15% of lead roles in movies. My world, Silicon Valley, is one of the few places where you might encounter this scene at a major conference during the bathroom break.
As a woman, I find it disheartening, angering and boring to still be on this conversation. I imagine as a man it gets old having the finger always pointing back at you. The tolerance for this conversation is wearing thin. This is nowhere more evident than in the insult-laden, often vulgar and sometimes violent comment streams accompanying any online discussion of a gender-related issue.
These conversations leave out a powerful and invisible actor in our story. All of us, male and female, are unconsciously gender biased. These biases lead well-meaning men and women to do things that perpetuate the status quo without our ever knowing it.
Until us as a society can get our arms around this phenomenon, we are unwitting accomplices in the perpetuation of inequity and discrimination.
Let’s take a look at the brain processes that drive bias, how it shows up, and most importantly, some things that we can do about it. Most people think that they move through their day making their decisions with a conscious and rational process of deliberation. By this logic, it’s difficult to do something that’s out of keeping with your values without knowing that you’ve done so.
Actually, conscious decision making represents a tiny, tiny fraction of what goes on in your brain. You couldn’t possibly take in the oncoming barrage of information moment to moment, process it and formulate a response to it with this part of the brain alone. It needs help. What it calls on is a vast reservoir of unconsciously stored associations.
As you move through your day, outside of your awareness, your brain is always scanning for repeating patterns. When it finds them, it stores them as the way things are or ought to be. But the problem with this process, which actually works well most of the time, is that your brain is also not differentiating around the utility, fairness or accuracy of what the environment is serving up.
If it’s associated out there, it’s likely to become associated in here. It is these associations that we use to make meaning of the world and to formulate our response to it. We can measure unconscious associations quite easily with an elegant and simple instrument called the Implicit Association Test.
Quite simply, for gender, all it does is ask you to associate certain words with an image of a man or a woman. When those requested associations match your unconscious association, you’re going to be able to do these tasks more quickly and with fewer errors.
Most people in the population, male or female, regardless of political orientation, have an easier time associating words like “leader, strong, protective” toward men and “nurturing, emotional, fragile” toward women. Sixteen million people have taken the Implicit Association Test to date. The results are clear. If you grew up here in the United States, or for that matter most parts of the world, you likely have a significant degree of gender bias.
Where do those biases come from? Where are all of these associations hanging out? Just do a search on the internet for any profession. Add the modifier “male” or “female” in front of it and see what comes up. In this case, the search was on “female executive.” As strange as the second image is, the most troubling one for me personally at my age is the last one. The subheading is “aged female executive.”
It comes from the things we receive from social media. In this case, a recommendation of the top minds and big ideas that I should be following. There are 22 images and only two of them are female. It shows up in the notoriously lopsided gender ratios at professional conferences. Even the backgrounds tell a story. It also shows up in headlines.
In this case, Fortune Magazine felt it necessary to reassure us that Marissa Mayer is the “real deal,” because as a blonde, attractive young woman, we might assume she wasn’t. Media is not benign. It is this sort of imagery that our brains use unconsciously in our calculations of who belongs where and what competence looks like.
A Yale University study looked at bias in the hiring for the traditionally male role of police chief. In this study, purportedly gender-blind participants were asked to review two applications. When no names were attached, they overwhelmingly preferred the application that had more education. But when a male or female name was attached, they overwhelmingly preferred the application with a male name. This sort of result has been replicated in numerous other academic studies.
These unconscious biases don’t just cause discrimination. They also influence our life choices. A University of Washington study recently looked at the effect of classroom décor on the choice of academic discipline. Researchers decorated two classrooms.
One of them had traditionally nerdy male paraphernalia in it, like Star Trek posters, comic books and video games. The other one had neutral objects, like coffee cups, plants and art posters. What they found was that female college students who spent time in this traditionally nerdy classroom exhibited a markedly lower preference for computer science as a field than the females who spent time in the neutral room. For males, it made mo difference whatsoever.
When you really look, this kind of bias shows up everywhere. It’s in what we choose to share with whom and whose opinion we seek. It infects our assumptions about who should do domestic chores and who deserves the praise for doing so.
It shows up for that lone female on a technology team when her recommendations are disproportionately overlooked or second-guessed. But she can’t say anything about this. The phenomenon will likely remain invisible to her male colleagues. Why? Because to do so is potentially career limiting. It marks her out as “that woman.” You know, the one that plays the gender card.
It shows up everywhere. It shows up in our definitions of leadership and when vulnerability and sharing credit are seen as weak, and when taking up space and personal ambition are seen as strong. Gender equity is not a woman’s issue. We need women to fully participate in the conversations that shape the future of the world. But it’s not just women who benefit. Men benefit too, because when we associate masculinity with money, muscles, domination and aggression, we dishonor legions of good men who do not embody these characteristics.
No piece of legislation, mandatory sexual harassment training or quota will get rid of unconscious bias. These things are necessary, but when we focus only on overt sexism, we miss the point. Worse yet, we allow ourselves to point our finger at a hypothetical “bad guy” out there. When we allow ourselves to understand that we are biased too, we’re able to transform this conversation from one of blame and shame to one of committed action.
Believing in gender equity is not enough. We are the creators and the consumers of the environments that drive bias. What can we do about it? There is actually a fairly simple solution. That is to commit yourself to becoming a good observer of your environment. Make it a daily practice. If you need to, remind yourself.
In fact, you might even notice something today as a result of the last 10 minutes we’ve spent together. If you do, don’t judge it because we all do it. Don’t judge it. Engage with other people. Get curious. Use it to fuel an exploration. When you see bias or the environments that drive it, say something. Talk about it. Where you can, change it.
This is for the men in the audience. Women can’t and shouldn’t take this one on by ourselves. We need you to pick up the mantle alongside us. Let’s help each other. Let’s help each other change these limiting narratives of what it means to be a man or a woman. Because nobody here is to blame for this problem, but we are all, together, responsible for a solution. Thank you.