Subconscious bias and everyday sexism

We (European Space Agency supported by tax money of European citizens) landed a probe on a comet on 12 Nov 2014. This is big deal. The best we’ve been able to do until this point was smash a probe into a comet. The scientific measurements made in just a few hours of landing were monumental and will continue to refine what we understand not only about comets but about how our Solar System formed.

The mission scientist, who was very excited by this was on TV a lot being interviewed about it. He was enthusiastic, entertaining, unconventional and could have been a great inspiration for millions of kids. I say ‘could have’ because he let himself (and all of us scientists who try to promote STEM) down. He wore a shirt which was covered in cartoon images of a woman in sexy poses. This erupted all over Twitter and the general media in what became called #ShirtStorm.

Many people have already commented on this incident (particularly good articles are Women in Astronomy and Bad Astronomy), the backlash (which was mild) and the counter-backlash (which was offensive and hateful towards the backlashing women). He did apologise but the fact that he didn’t even think there was an issue with wearing that shirt shows that gender inequality is ingrained even in decent people.

Subconscious bias

Right throughout society there is an attitude that women are inferior to men. That they can only do things which are considered “caring” or requiring emotions, or that only men can make hard decisions and be strong. Women who are passionate are considered ‘emotional’ or worse, ‘hormonal’. Whereas men who are passionate are considered ‘strong’ and ‘leaders’. Women are treated differently to men, for no good reason.

This is everywhere. It is like a blight running right through the core of society.

Some people call it “unconscious bias” but I call it “subconscious bias”. The difference between subconscious and unconscious is subtle but important. This isn’t something that happens while you sleep; it happens continuously in the background, while you are fully awake and aware. Calling it “unconscious” also makes me think people see it as something they cannot change. “Subconscious” is something you can be proactive about fixing, like a nervous tick or hand gestures. It is something that everyone is capable of becoming aware of, and doing something about.

As long as people (men and women) see this as something that has been nurtured, subconsciously throughout society, we can actively fix it. Believing that this blight is something that only affects other people is almost as damaging as actively believing that women are inferior to men.

It’s not a big thing

In 2012 there was an initiative, funded by the European Commission, to promote studying STEM subjects to school-age girls called Science: it’s a girl thing. The idea in principal was good as many studies have shown that certainly in UK there is a decline in girls studying STEM subjects higher up school. In UK, the Institute of Physics found  the number of girls studying A-level physics drops to 20% to roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at GCSE. It is unclear what causes this, but it is certainly not because of the myth that men are more suited to mathematical subjects. Having spoken and run workshops in schools, I have seen the damaging effect teachers (both male and female) can have on the perception of different subjects. My wife was told she was not clever enough to be an astrophysicist by a teacher at A-level (she had to attend the boy’s school to even study physics!).

What the “Science: It’s a girl thing” got totally wrong was their promotional video. The video shamelessly played on stereotypes: all the science was about making make up in a fake lab; the girls in the video strut and pose like on a catwalk; the predominant colour of the background is pink; the girls never handle any of the scientific equipment, the only man in the video does; in the slogan, the “i” in “science” is a lipstick.

Fortunately the people running the project took the video down after a very short period of time, because of the backlash.

The really worrying thing, is that this project was proposed by people who saw that gender inequality is a problem and because of their own perceptions of what women should like, i.e. subconscious bias, made that hideous video. Many people reacted the same way to #shirtstorm as to this: “It’s not a big deal”. Actually, it is a big deal.

By saying “it’s not a big deal” means you are guilty of subconscious bias. Women are told what to do and how to behave in every media outlet covering every age group: All advertising for girls toys centres on pink, make up, and housework based activites; teens and twenty year olds are thrown adverts on how to make themselves more attractive; household product advertising is almost exclusively aimed at women.

There was a very interesting study called Sex, Schemas and Success by Virginia Valian showing how men percieve women subconsciously in the workplace. It gives quantitative evidence of ways which women constantly encounter invisible barriers.

And by the way, saying “it’s not a big deal” to someone you have offended by reinforcing gender stereotypes is bullying. Please stop it.

Campaigns for gender equality

These are a few equality campaigns that I whole-heartedly support.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”

- Margaret Atwood, Novelist - from A Woman’s Worst Nightmare by Mary Dickenson


Some stats about how the world favours men over women.

We all need to accept that in 21st century this is not acceptable.

Infographic by the New York Film Academy

New York Film Academy takes a look at gender inequality in film
Courtesy of: New York Film Academy